Of all the retro, artisanal products currently experiencing a renaissance – sustainably harvested coffee, French farmhouse ales – shaving soap may offer the most practical benefits. Despite having been sidelined since pressurized shaving cream arrived on the market in 1949, lathery bars actually offer a better shave than most commercial creams and gels. Because they produce a lighter and slicker lather, shaving soaps facilitate a smooth, nick-free glide (provided, of course, that you're using a decent blade).
"When your beard is properly hydrated, the hair is about 25 percent more elastic," says John Scala, CEO and founder of The New York Shaving Company. "That means you can shave closer with less irritation."
Then there is the nostalgic pleasure of choosing a scent and wielding a brush the way your grandfather did. Soaps help make shaving an activity rather than a weekday obligation. In that spirit, we surveyed the market and picked our favorite shaving soaps – three European classics that have stood the test of time and three that are made stateside.
Penhaligon's English Fern Shaving Soap
You can't go too much farther back into grooming history than London-based Penhaligon's, which first opened as a barbershop on Jermyn Street in 1870. Utilizing one of the company's signature scents that dates back to 1910, English Fern is big and green, with notes of geranium, lavender, clove, patchouli, sandalwood, and oakmoss. The lather is as thick and rich as most creams while simultaneously providing better lubrication that leaves your face feeling moisturized. By all standards, it's a luxury soap with a price to match, but, for those who like to smell as if they've just finished making love to a wood nymph behind a Cotswolds barn, there's no substitute. [$65 for 100g and wooden bowl; penhaligons.com]
Credit: Photograph by Michael Pirrocco