Hello, and welcome! In this post, we’re going to get back to basics, and talk about the differences between the two types of electric shavers out there: foil shavers and rotary shavers.
If you don’t know anything about electric shavers and you’re trying to choose one over the other, the decision can be confusing. The better option isn’t always obvious, since each one shines in a different way.
So in this post, we’ll compare foil vs. rotary shavers, to help you figure out which one your face will like best. Ready? Let’s get to it:
What is a Foil Shaver?
A foil shaver is the more common of the two shavers. You can recognize foil shavers by their heads, which are usually fitted with two rows of convex metal guards dotted with small holes. These guards are the “foils”—hence the name!
The foils look like this—that sleek, silver metal bit at the top with all the super-small holes in it is the foil:
Under the foils, there are blades arranged in matching rows. The holes in the foil feed hair into the blades, which then cut it as they move from side to side!
In our opinion, foil shavers can be split into two main categories, and we think it’ll be useful to have an understanding of what makes each type different before we start comparing them to rotary shavers. Here they are:
Barbershop foil shavers. These foil shavers are usually compact and rectangle-shaped. They’re designed for the barbershop, where professionals use them to get a super-close shave along the neckline or to shave customers whose skin cannot tolerate a straight razor shave.
They’re not as ergonomic if you’re shaving yourself, but they do tend to provide an extremely close shave which is why a lot of men are die-hard fans of them. They’re also a little less versatile—they normally only have two sets of foils, with no additional trimmers cut longer hairs. Because of that, they shave evenly and uniformly, but they have to be used nearly every day or in conjunction with a trimmer.
Foil shavers for home-use. A lot of brands are really innovating with their foil shavers for home use. While barbershop models are designed for precision, home-use models are designed for gentleness and versatility. They don’t usually provide as close of a shave as barbershop foils, although there are a few prestige shavers from brands like Braun and Panasonic that stand out as exceptions to that rule.
Almost all foil shavers for home use have a few additional cutting elements besides the main two foils. Those elements can be a central trimmer to cut longer hairs or lifting components to help straighten out any hairs that grow in odd directions. This means that they’re easier to use even if you’ve skipped shaving for a few days. Additionally, they tend to be more flexible than barbershop shavers, which allows the user to be a little less careful with their pressure and technique.
There are a lot of foil shavers out there, and we’ve written a post discussing our favorites if you’d like to learn more.
How Do You Operate a Foil Shaver?
While we do have some very thorough tips on how you should use a foil shaver, here’s the quick and simple explanation:
To use a foil shaver, you need to bring the foils in contact with your face, and then move the shaver vertically against the direction of hair growth. With foil shavers, it’s important to always move them up and down, but never sideways, and to shave in short strokes to avoid irritating the skin.
If that sounds kind of restricting, that’s because it is! Rotary shavers can travel in any direction on your face—but that can actually be a negative some guys (and we’ll talk about that in a moment).
Foil Shaver Pros and Cons
Foil shavers have their benefits as well as their drawbacks. In our opinion, these are their main pros and cons.
Pros of a Foil
Provides a close shave. Foil shavers are most famous for providing a very close shave, at least by electric razor standards. If you’re set on shaving with an electric razor but you would like a very clean, close shave, a foil shaver is most likely to give you acceptable results. Models from barbershop brands, in particular, can even rival the closeness of a manual shave with a safety razor.
Surprisingly gentle. Despite the fact that they give a close shave and are designed for use against the direction of hair growth, foil shavers still manage to be very gentle on the skin (and that’s why they’re usually the go-to option for guys with sensitive skin, and well as older gentlemen). This is largely because the skin never actually comes in contact with the blades, thanks to the foils.
Moreover, shaving with a foil shaver, by design, has to be a slow and controlled process, so there’s a smaller risk of mindless accidents. Plus, since the blades move side to side, their action is pretty simple so there’s less room for tugging and irritation. For maximum gentleness, however, make sure to choose a home-use shaver with a flexible head.
Inner compartment picks up hair. Another nice benefit of foil shavers, especially compared to manual razors and beard trimmers, is that they almost always have a built-in compartment under the foils that collects the hair. Some models do a better job of capturing hair than others, but in general, they do provide a fairly easy cleanup.
Cons of a Foil
You’ll need to pay attention. Foil shavers can be gentle and forgiving, but you do have to pay attention while using them. You’ll have to watch the direction in which you move the razor, and avoid shaving in overly wide or sideways motions. It’s not quite as demanding a process as using a manual shaver, but it’s definitely more complex than using a rotary.
Less accommodating of oddly-growing hair. The direction in which your hair grows matters a lot when you use a foil shaver. This means that, as long as you’re shaving areas where all of your hair grows in the same direction, it’s pretty easy. However, for many men, and especially those with curly hair, things don’t always lie quite so neatly, and you may find a foil harder to use over areas where your hair seems to grow in every which way. Hard doesn’t mean impossible, though—we explain how to account for oddly growing hair in our guide to shaving with a foil shaver.
OK! Now let’s ping-pong back to the other entrant in our foil vs. rotary shaver discussion…
What is a Rotary Shaver?
A rotary shaver is an electric razor with circular blades covered by round protective guards. Rotary shavers are almost always designed primarily for home use, so they’re usually made out of plastic or metal.
Most rotary shavers have three blades circular mounted on a slightly flexible head, but we’ve also seen rotary shavers with more or fewer blades. The circular blades at the top of a rotary shaver look like this:
Those round things probably aren’t what you think of when you think of “blades,” but rest assured—there are blades underneath those rounded protective guards!
As the circular blades spin—or “rotate,” and that’s where name comes from—the hair gets fed through holes in the guards. The hair immediately comes in contact with the spinning blade, which then cuts it. The three blades spin independently of one another, and the hair gets into them no matter the angle in which it grows. This means that when you use a rotary shaver, the direction in which you move it doesn’t matter too much.
How Do You Operate a Rotary Shaver?
Using a rotary shaver is probably as simple as it gets. You turn on your shaver, and then bring it against your skin (after charging it and doing sufficient prep, of course). The shape of the head often fits against the face very intuitively, so there’s no need to guess at the correct angle for holding.
Then, to actually shave, you move the shaver over your skin in controlled, circular movements. You can go both clockwise and counterclockwise, to guarantee you don’t miss any hairs. There is no need to lift the shaver off your skin at any point.
You won’t need to apply much pressure as you shave, but if you do, that’s pretty much fine. The blades are almost always mounted on a flexible head, so if you apply too much pressure, they’ll just get pushed back. Pretty easy, really!
Rotary Shaver Pros and Cons
Rotary shavers are a pretty neat technology and there are a number of models we recommend, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. Here are their main pros and cons (at least in our view!).
Pros of a Rotary
Very easy to use. If we haven’t made it clear yet(!), rotary shavers are very easy to use. They’re a lot more intuitive, so most men can just pick them up and start shaving—something that isn’t necessarily true for foil shavers. The actual practice of shaving with them is close to foolproof and there’s minimal room for error.
With a foil, you’ll likely need to stand in front of a mirror, but many guys have success shaving with a rotary shaver without seeing what they’re doing! Plus, if you’re the kind of guy whose mind tends to wander when you shave, you may still find that you get an excellent shave with a rotary shaver even while you’re off in dream land.
Excellent for curly hair. Another huge benefit to rotary shavers is that they manage to cut hair easily no matter in which direction it grows. You don’t need to spend time analyzing your hair growth patterns or even think about it too much since the circular motion captures every hair.
Convenient for odd body parts. Most rotary shavers have a shape that contours nicely to the surface they shave. While foil shavers are designed very much with face shaving in mind, rotary shavers are often easier to use for other body parts like the head or chest. If you shave more than just your face, this might be a big bonus.
Inner compartment picks up hair. Just like a foil shaver, rotary shavers are also pretty easy to clean. They have a similar compartment that catches hair as you shave, to prevent a mess on your bathroom counter.
Almost always suitable for wet-shaving. Nowadays, most rotary shavers are suitable for both wet and dry shaving (although you should always check the box before using it as a wet shaver). This can be excellent if you have sensitive skin or if you like to shave in the shower. That said, there are many models of foil shavers that can support wet shaving, as well.
Cons of a Rotary
Can be a little irritating. Because of their “anything goes” design, rotary shavers can be a little irritating, especially at the entry-level range of the market. The way that the blades turn to cut on a rotary shaver requires less skill from the person shaving, but it’s not as efficient per cut when compared to a foil shaver. As a result, rotary blades are a fair bit more likely to pull on hair instead of cutting it cleanly, which correlates with higher instances of irritation.
As always, your mileage may vary. We think that this factor greatly depends on the actual shaver you choose, as well as your hair type. As is often the case with shavers, more prestigious rotary shavers manage to solve the issues that are common across the rest of the product category. Additionally, if your hair grows really wildly, the multi-directional shaving could actually be less irritating than a foil, even with more low-end shavers.
Don’t provide as close a shave. Rotary shavers don’t give as close or clean a shave as foil shavers. It’s hard to measure up to a tool that shaves gently against the grain! It’s a problem if you’re the kind of guy who likes a very clean shave, but if you don’t mind a very subtle shadow (a 1 o’clock shadow, if you will), a rotary shaver will be fine.
Foil vs. Rotary: Which Should You Choose?
We think that ultimately, choosing the right electric razor comes down to your personality and philosophy towards personal grooming. Here are the major deciding factors, in our opinion.
Choose a Foil Shaver If…
Bottom line, if you’re after an amazing shave and you don’t mind putting in a bit of effort to achieve it, we think you should choose a foil shaver. Yes, foil shavers take more effort and attention than rotary shavers, but the potential result is a shave so clean it could rival a traditional wet shave.
If you work in a setting where even a hint of hair on your chin is unacceptable, a foil shaver shave is much likelier to pass muster compared to a rotary one.
We also think you should consider a foil shaver if you have sensitive skin, because they tend to be gentler as a rule. Your mileage may vary, of course—and there are plenty of guys who try to use foil shavers, but it doesn’t work out for them—but of the two, they’re usually the better option if you need a gentle shaver.
Choose a Rotary Shaver If…
If you’d like your shaving routine to be quick and easy, go with a rotary shaver. It’s undeniable that shaving with a rotary shaver requires a lot less effort and brain power. A rotary shaver may also suit you better if your hair doesn’t grow in one clear direction but instead tends to grow wildly or in swirls.
You’ll have a pretty easy time finding a great rotary shaver if you have normal hair and hearty skin, but if your skin is sensitive or your hair is very coarse, you’ll want to shop around more carefully. Look for more high-end models as they tend to be more gentle on the skin and do a better job of cutting hair.
Finally, if you’re looking for a shaver that you can use all over, a rotary shaver might be the better choice. They’re awesome as head shavers for that bald look, and they’re also pretty easy to use on other body parts.
Choose Well, Shave Well!
We hope we’ve made the decision between a foil and a rotary an easier one. We talked a lot about the differences between these two types of electric razors, which we would summarize this way:
Foil shavers are best for guys who consider themselves more “Type A” and who like a clean, precise shave (and who may have sensitive skin), while rotary shavers are best for guys who like to keep things quick and easy, and don’t want to put too much thought or attention into their morning shave.
We hope that helps! We know plenty of guys who enjoy both types, so it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” situation. Find what works for you and go with it. Be good, have fun, and happy shaving!
Michael Morris is the head writer here at Rough and Tumble Gentleman. He's got a ducktail beard and loves Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He's married to the woman of his dreams and lives in Brooklyn, NY.