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Does it matter how many blades are on your razor?

The Gillette Fusion offers five blades to keep your scruff at bay. Are all five really necessary to erase your five o'clock shadow? See more pictures of personal hygiene practices.
AP Photo/Don Ryan

Hold the shaving cream. You can now shave with up to five blades. That's how many are on the Gillette Fusion razor for men. For good measure, the Fusion adds another blade on the back of the razor for sideburns and mustaches. All those blades aren't just for men. Women also can wield a five-blade razor, such as the Gillette Venus Embrace, on whatever needs shaving.

Why do you need all those blades? In commercials for the Fusion, Derek Jeter and Tiger Woods don't say much. They simply knock three-blade razors out of men's hands. Ads for the Venus Embrace let women know that the razor will help them to reveal their inner goddesses. The "Goddess of the Hunt" featured in one commercial somehow can't find good shoe deals without shaving with five blades.

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Many of us are practical people. We want to shave less often, without irritating or cutting ourselves. If we're using evidence rather than marketing to guide us, it's hard to know what to do. Few scientists have bothered to study razor types or blade number and the quality of the shave. The lack of research makes it easy for companies to claim that more blades give the best shave.

Shaving is tricky -- so tricky that more blades just can't solve every issue. It's not like mowing a flat lawn. Our hairy parts have topography. Men have curvy chins and upper lips. Women have long, curvy legs and concave armpits. In fact, razors have different handle designs to deal with the differences between men's and women's curves [source: Draelos 2002].

You also encounter smaller bumps on the road to a smooth shave. The skin around each hair makes a small hill, a bump for the razor to traverse. And forget the idea of your hairs standing straight up. Hair grows in different directions, especially on men's chins and necks. For the least irritation, hair should be attacked in the direction it grows. Even trickier, some hair, like women's leg hair, is thin; other hair, like a mustache, is bristly. The razor should strike them with different amounts of force to slice them cleanly. Shaving, then, is less like mowing the lawn and more like bushwhacking in the jungle.

From what we've gathered, more blades do seem to give a closer shave. You'll find out why we think so next. You'll also find out why blade number seems to matter less than your overall shaving technique for avoiding nicks and irritation.

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A barber shaves a man at his street-side stand on Feb. 24, 2009, in China. A haircut and shave can be had by a street barber for only 3 to 4 yuan (about 43 to 58 cents).
A barber shaves a man at his street-side stand on Feb. 24, 2009, in China. A haircut and shave can be had by a street barber for only 3 to 4 yuan (about 43 to 58 cents).

After shaving, most people want silky smooth, clean-looking skin. They don't want skin dotted with nicks, razor burn or ingrown hairs.

For a close shave (which will also be smooth and long-lasting), you need only to cut the hair below the skin's surface. This isn't violent. The razor doesn't dig into the skin. Rather, many multiblade razors use this technique to shave closer than a single blade. Here's how: The first blade is blunt. It hooks the hair above the surface. As you push the razor, the blade pulls the hair forward and up. The next blade is sharp, and it comes behind and slices the hair. The hair finally retracts into the follicle, below the surface.

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One researcher focused a video microscope on men's jawlines to compare how closely an electric razor and a two-blade safety razor shaved men's beards. The electric razor tore the hair above the surface. The safety razor cut the hair below the surface [source: Draelos 2002].

Continuing this logic, Gillette claims that five blades cut closer than two do. It's because the catching-and-cutting process repeats twice: The first blade catches, the next cuts, the third catches and the fourth cuts. (We're not sure what the fifth blade does.) After this multi-pronged attack, the hair retracts even farther [source: Burns].

Some old-school barbers say straight razors give the closest shave. By their logic, you can vary the razor's angle to meet every hair, even in wild patches, something you can't do with a safety razor [source: Kugel]. Of course, you can nearly Sweeney Todd yourself if you don't learn proper technique.

If more blades make you worry about nicks, you're not alone. Some dermatologists recommend no more than two blades to avoid nicks. When razor heads occupy more area on sharp curves, the razor is harder to control. If the blade can't match the surface, you'll nick yourself [source: Burns].

Nicks also happen when the razor pushes down on the fat under your skin, forcing your skin into a hill in front of the razor. If the blade is the first thing the hill encounters, you get nicked. Safer razors place a flat surface in front of the blade to flatten the hill. Gillette says it tackles the hill problem by distributing the downward force over five closely spaced blades [source: Burns]. The simplest way to avoid nicks, though, is to shave gently instead of bearing down.

Nicks probably aren't the only shaving hazard you have to face. Learn how to deal with those pesky ingrown hairs next.

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Ingrown hairs are another bane to avoid. Hairs become ingrown in a few ways, all starting with a close shave. In close shaves, the cut hair retracts below the surface, into the follicle. If the hair is sliced at an angle, giving it a "sharp" tip, the hair can pierce the follicular wall below the skin's surface and grow into the surrounding skin. It can also exit the skin's surface, bend and poke into the skin from the top.

Men's chin and neck hairs, which already grow at an angle, are prone to becoming ingrown hairs [source: Draelos 2002]. Curly beard hairs, especially in African-American men, are especially prone. Bumps and irritation result, and if they happen repeatedly, there's scarring [source: Bridgeman-Shah, Greidanus]. Some men can escape the problem by shaving daily. They tend to be the ones whose sharp hairs reach the surface, bend and repenetrate the skin from the top. Daily shaving stops the hair from growing long enough to bend and enter the skin again [source: Draelos 2002]. Men with curly beards usually aren't so lucky. Some dermatologists recommend that they grow their beards. If they must shave, many dermatologists advise against the close shave that multiblade razors give. Instead, they recommend leaving the hair 2 to 3 millimeters (0.08 to 0.12 inches) long and trimming with an electric razor or the Bump Fighter Razor, whose foil guard prevents close shaves [source: Bridgeman-Shah].

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There's another injury to avoid: razor burn. Razor burn happens when the blades scrape off a lot of skin with the hair. Avoiding this has nothing to do with blade number. You need a proper shaving technique. Writing in Dermatology Times, dermatologist Zoe Diana Draelos says dull razors can be the culprit. You should replace old razor blades -- ones you've used for more than 5 to 7 shaves. You should also soften the hair, so you can plow it with less force. Wet the hair with warm water. Then, add shaving gel. Draelos recommends using shaving gel instead of cream because it allows more water to enter the hair shaft. To further soften the hair, leave the shaving gel on for 3 to 4 minutes [source: Draelos 2001].

Keep reading for more links on how to take care of that beautiful face of yours.

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Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Bridgeman-Shah, Sharon. "The Medical and Surgical Therapy of Pseudofolliculitis Barbae." Dematologic Therapy. Vol 17. No 2. 2004.
  • Burns, Nick. "Skin Deep: Shaving With Five Blades When Maybe Two Will Do." The New York Times. January 19, 2006 (9/22/2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/19/fashion/thursdaystyles/19skin.html
  • CVS.com. "Shaving." 2009. (9/29/2009)http://www.cvs.com/CVSApp/catalog/shop_category.jsp?filterBy=default&navAction=jump&navCount=0&itemId=cat34
  • Draelos, Zoe Diana. "Cosmetic Conundrums." Dermatology Times. August 1, 2002.
  • Draelos, Zoe Diana. "Q&A with Zoe Diana Draelos." Dermatology Times. December 1, 2001.
  • Greidanus, Thomas G and Beth Honl. "Pseudofolliculitis of the Beard." EMedicine. March 27, 2009. (9/24/2009)http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1071251-overview
  • Kugel, Seth. "Low Tech Vs. High Tech." The New York Times. December 11, 2008. (9/22/2009)http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9802E3D81531F932A25751C1A96E9C8B63

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