How to Use Pre-Shave Oil (and Some Selection Tips)
Welcome to Rough and Tumble Gentleman! This is our "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Pre-Shave Oils but Were Afraid to Ask" post. In the sections below, we'll introduce you to pre-shave oil, describe what it does—and doesn't do—and then we'll list some of our favorites. Towards the end, we'll discuss how to use pre-shave oil, and provide some pointers to keep in mind while you're applying it. If you're in a rush and just want to find out how to use the product, click the link in the Table of Contents box below to jump directly to that section.
Ready? Let's jump in.
What Is Pre-Shave Oil?
We'll start at the very beginning: pre-shave oil is a liquid that you apply to your face before a shave. It's used to prepare the skin for the trauma of shaving, and its job is to protect you from nicks and cuts (you may still get a few of those, but it's designed to provide an added measure of safety when you shave). It's slick, but not greasy, and it comes in a wide variety of wonderful scents. It's sometimes referred to as shave oil or shaving oil or sometimes priming oil (but most wet shavers refer to it as "pre-shave oil").
How Does Pre-Shave Oil Work?
Because it's an oil, and because it's slick, most shavers assume that pre-shave oil provides a lubricating coat to your skin, to make the passage of the razor over your skin and through your whiskers a little bit easier. But that's not quite accurate. While lubrication may be a side effect of pre-shave oil, it's not pre-shave oil's primary purpose. The primary purpose of pre-shave oil is to keep the skin moisturized and make it more supple.
That may seem counter-intuitive, but it's true. Skin that's well-moisturized is more supple, and skin that is supple is more resilient to cuts and nicks.
Think of it this way: dry skin is stiff and rigid, and it doesn't have much "give" to it. When you drag a razor over dry skin, it's less likely to submit to the razor, and instead, stubbornly stays in place. And, in a fight between skin vs. blade, the blade always wins, so dry skin = lots of nicks and cuts. Moisturized skin is much more elastic and it's got some give to it, so when you drag a razor over it, it can conform to the edge of the blade without tearing. The result is fewer cuts (and a much, much more pleasant shaving experience).
So pre-shave oil helps keep your skin moisturized. But here's another curveball: pre-shave oil isn't actually a moisturizer, and it doesn't actually moisturize the skin. It doesn't supply any water for skin, or introduce moisture to it in any way. Its primary purpose is to add a barrier on top of the skin, and keep moisture inside of it. The more moisture you can keep inside your skin, the more protected you'll be.
And, if you think about it, that all makes sense. You've showered, or put a hot towel to your face, and you're probably perspiring a little bit. Moisture is evaporating off your face, and it needs to be kept where it is, so that you can get a close shave without cutting yourself to ribbons. You rub a small amount of pre-shave oil into your skin to keep that moisture in your skin, and increase the chances that you'll have a pleasant, nick-free shave.
There you go! Now you have a basic understanding of the magic of pre-shave oil. It's designed to keep moisture inside your skin, so that your skin is more supple and less prone to cuts.
Important Shaving Oil Ingredients
Shave oil is typically made from three ingredients: one or more carrier oils, one or more essential oils, and one or more vitamin oils. Let's take a quick look at each component.
Carrier Oils are usually the oils of a seed or a nut from a plant, and popular examples used in pre-shave oils include grapeseed oil, olive oil, sweet almond oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, and castor oil. They have a nice, light feeling to the touch, and even though they're oils, they don't usually clog your pores. Most people are able to put them directly onto their skin without any adverse reactions (and that's not true of essential oils). They usually have a pretty mild scent—if you walked into your kitchen and took a whiff of your olive oil, it wouldn't smell like much—but that's fine, because...
Essential Oils are the second component of pre-shave oils, and they smell amazing. Carrier oils are the base of a shave oil—the part that provides the lubricating and insulating properties— but essential oils are what make the pre-shave product smell so darn good. The come in a long list of scents, including sandalwood, oakmoss, cedar, sage, eucalyptus, menthol, tea tree, lemon, lime, sweet orange, vanilla, rose, and many others. As we mentioned above, essential oils are actually an irritant to the skin in their pure form, so they're often diluted down quite a bit.
If you're new to pre-shave oils and you're looking for a classic scent to start with, you may want to give sandalwood a go. It's somehow both masculine and mellow at the same time, and it's not at all overpowering. If you're looking for something more fresh and invigorating, tea tree or menthol might be a good fit, and if you're looking for something a little sweeter or more familiar, lemon or lime or vanilla is always a nice touch. For a "deeper," more mysterious scent, check out sage or cedar. That's actually one of the best aspects of a pre-shave oil—there are plenty of deeply satisfying scents to choose from, and if you've collected a number of different shave oils over the years, you can organize your shave depending on what scent you want to experience. Lastly...
Vitamin Oils are often added to pre-shave oils as a way of fortifying the skin. The most common vitamins included in pre-shave oil are Vitamin A (to protect against premature skin damage, Vitamin C (to help with wrinkles and sagginess), and Vitamin E (to prevent harm caused by free radicals). Some pre-shave oils have vitamins added, whereas others do not; you'll have to make a decision whether or not that's an important part of the product to you.
Those three components—carrier oils, essentials oils, and vitamin oils—comprise most shave oils. There are some shave oils that add synthetic chemicals to the mix, but it's pretty easy to find shaving oils that only contain natural ingredients.
Fun fact before we move on: pre-shave oils can be a single ingredient. Some guys will simply take a carrier oil like olive oil or coconut oil and simply use that as a pre-shave oil. Obviously, if you're allergic to a carrier oil, you don't want to go smearing it on your face, but if you're not allergic, it's nice to know that you've got options.
Actually, before we move on, there's one point we'd like to repeat: if you've never used any skin care products before—and that can be pre-shave oil, or shaving creams, or aftershaves, or whatever—you may want to visit an allergic or a dermatologist or even your general practitioner and get an allergy patch test. Most people aren't allergic to all-natural ingredients, but there are plenty of folks who are, and it's always better to know these things. And, seeing as some carrier oils are taken from nuts—and some people are lethally allergic to nuts—you'd obviously want to avoid that in a pre-shave oil.
Shave Oil Brands We Like
A decade or so ago, there really weren't that many wet shaving products on the market. There were the mass-market products made by household names like Gillette, Barbasol, and Braun, but there were very few high-end, craft products related to shaving. That has changed dramatically, and there are some really incredible, well-made shaving companies that produce some fantastic products. For pre-shave oils, we like a lot of products from the following companies:
Truefitt & Hill
Taylor of Old Bond Street
Executive Shaving Company
Lather and Wood Pre-Shave Oil has an unscented version we like a lot, as does The Art of Shaving; the B.I.G. Company also makes a pre-shave oil (scented) that's worked us wonders. Shave Secret has a shaving oil we've heard good things about, but never tried.
There are a ton more out there, and we'd urge you to do some exploring for yourself. In our experience, though, the companies above are fantastic, and we recommend them.
How to Use Pre-Shave Oil: Steps
At last! Our steps on how to how to use pre-shave oil. We'll start at the beginning:
Take a Shower and Make Sure Your Face is Clean. And if you don't shower, make sure you give your face a good scrub. As we mentioned above, pre-shave oils basically insulate your face, and if you put pre-shave oil on unwashed skin, you're basically trapping dirt and dust and debris underneath the pre-shave oil, and then shaving over it. Not a good idea. And, gross.
A good wash with warm water will not only cleanse your skin, it'll open your pores (making it easier for the oil to penetrate your skin), it'll make your skin a little more elastic, leading to fewer weepers.
Pat Your Face Dry. Your face shouldn't be bone dry, but it's shouldn't be sopping wet, either. If your face is too dry, you skin may not absorb the liquid, and if it's too wet, it may get diluted and be less useful. Once you get out of the shower, you can pat your face dry and you should be good to go.
Get the Measurement Right. Six to ten drops should do it, and keep in mind, a little goes a long way. You truly do only need a few drops to saturate all the shave-able areas of your face, so there's no need to over-do it. Remember, you can always use more, but you can never use less, so use it sparingly to begin. After a while, you'll know exactly how much to use.
Rub Your Hands Together. This is actually an important step. The friction you'll create when you rub your hands together will create a little heat in the oil, and it'll 1) make it easier to spread over your skin, 2) make the oil more likely to penetrate your epidermis, and 3) feel a little nicer!
Work the Oil into Your Skin. Wherever you plan on shaving, rub the shave oil into that area of your skin. That's your cheeks, jawline, chin, and under your neck—but also in the area above your lips but beneath your nose, which is an area that's easy to forget.
Build Your Lather. After you've worked the oil into your skin, you're good to go! You can lather up and start shaving. Easy peasy!
A Few Usage Tips and Things to Remember
If you're a regular shaver who's new to wet shaving, you may be a little bit surprised at how much thought goes into a regular shave. There multiple different substances (pre-shave oils, creams and soaps, aftershaves), tools (shaving brushes, razors, scuttles), and so on, and each of those things takes a little getting used to. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when you're using pre-shave oil.
Pat Your Skin Dry. When you're drying your face, try not to rub your skin dry (even if may feel pretty good!). It can irritate the skin, especially if there's any soap or shaving cream residue on the towel, and patting your skin leaves a little moisture to mix with the shave oil.
If Your Skin is Extremely Oily, Look for Breakouts. In some cases, adding oil onto an already-oily face can block pores, leading to acne breakouts. If that's you, proceed with caution, and see how your skin reacts.
If You're Worried About Extending Your Shaving Routine, Don't Be. Those morning minutes between the time you wake up and the time you leave for work are so incredibly valuable, it sometimes seems like there's no room for an extra step in your morning rush. If that's a concern of yours, worry not—using pre-shave oil is most definitely an extra step, but it literally takes an extra 30 to 60 seconds. That's a small amount of time to trade for some protection from nicks.
Rinse Your Razor. One of the criticisms of pre-shave oil is that it gunks up your razor a little bit, and that's totally accurate. If you're using a double-edged safety razor, some whiskers are going to get stuck in there, so be sure you put your razor under running water whenever you can. Also—pro-tip—if you don't like all that gunk getting stuck in your razor, ditch the disposables / cartridge razors and start using a safety razor / straight razor. It's a totally different experience.
Don't Forget to Wipe the Bottle. Different shave lotions pour in different ways, but certain bottles get a little goopy after a while (The Art of Shaving pre-shave oil is a great example of a really good shave oil that gets a little sticky around the bottle's neck). Give it a wipe with a towel or run it under some water to get any excess oil off before you put the bottle away.
Experiment a Little Bit. Perhaps one of the most surprising things about wet shaving is that there's no "perfect" product out there. That's part of the joy of wet shaving, in fact—finding your favorite products, and discovering what you like. For every product, there are hundreds of different scents, textures, and recipes, and it's a great pleasure to find what you like. So take your time with shave oils, and look for the one that works for you. It may make sense to start off with a scent-free oil, before trying scented ones—that way, if you get one with an aroma that doesn't work for you, you can always fall back on the unscented variety.
Some Miscellaneous Questions
New wet shavers usually have a few questions related to shave oils, and here are three of the most common discussions that come up.
What's the Difference Between Pre-Shave Oil vs. Beard Oil?
A lot of guys confuse these two products, when in fact, they're kind of opposites.
Pre-shave oil, as you've learned, is used to soften whiskers so that you can shave them off more easily. Beard oil has nothing to do with shaving whiskers off—it's actually used to soften the whiskers you want to keep.
Beard oil is made from a lot of the same ingredients—carrier oils, essentials oils, and vitamin oils—and when you take a dab of it and work it into your beard, it provides a luxurious shine, a fully shape, and a nice scent (a lot of beard oils feature that same fantastic-smelling essential oils we mentioned above—sandalwood, tea tree, lemon / lime / orange, vanilla, and so on).
If you've got a full beard (or even a wispy beard) and you want to give it some shape and some shine, reach for the beard oil. If you want to get rid of all your whiskers, reach for the pre-shave oil.
Do All Wet Shavers Use Pre-Shave Oils?
Actually, no! There's a debate about how useful pre-shave oils are. Some people swear by them—and that would include us, here, at Rough and Tumble—and some people don't see the point.
As with everything we discuss, you'll need to draw your own conclusions. Maybe they'll be the answer to all your shaving prayers, and they'll allow you an irritation-free shave, or maybe you'll find that they gunk up your blade, and you choose to skip them entirely. Whatever you do decide, be sure to leave your pre-conceived notions behind, and observe what actually works. Wet shaving, ultimately, is a process of discovery, so you want to be sure you're truly doing things that are healthy for your skin and make you look great.
Why Do Some People Overlook Pre-Shave Oils?
We've got a couple of theories that might explain why pre-shave oils aren't more widely used. First of all, it's kind of a "niche" product that doesn't really get advertised too much. After all, if you've read this far, you probably didn't know too much about pre-shave oils to begin with. Most people have a very clear idea of other shaving products—creams, aftershaves, and so fourth—but most people don't really know pre-shave oil is even a thing. Many shavers simply don't know that pre-shave oils are an option.
Not only that, but pre-shave oil can seem a little unnecessary. Most men are "regular shavers" before they become "wet shavers." In other words, they use some kind of store-bought cream, a disposable or cartridge razor, and that's it. Pre-shave oils aren't a part of that routine, so when they begin wet shaving and hear about pre-shave oil, they think, "Why would I need that? I never used it before." The addition of another product seems unnecessary to many men who are new to wet shaving.
The funny thing is, many men who use a pre-shave oil for the first time are surprised at how much protection it provides, and it becomes an absolutely indispensable part of their shaving routine. In fact, for some of us, wet shaving without a pre-shave oil seems like a slightly insane thing to do. Wet shaving blades are SHARP, and skin protection becomes a must. But, again, as they say in the shaving community, "YMMV"—your mileage may vary. Your experience will be yours and yours alone.
Experiment a Bit and Find What You Like
There you go! You are now well-versed on the topic of shaving oils and how to use them. Now comes the fun part: exploration. There are dozens of varieties out there, so experiment with the ones that interest you. Good luck!
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.