06-06-2012, 08:02 PM
#1
  • GreekGuy
  • Not saving money yet....
  • La Jolla, CA
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What makes a good soap?

Nearly everyday there are members asking for recommendations for a good soap. While like most everything in life, personal preference dictates a large majority of which shaving soaps one enjoys. I do not intend this to be gospel, but merely my impressions from using soaps nearly exclusively. My goal here is to give others ideas, suggestions, and a good ole fashioned interesting read.

I use soaps, as opposed to creams, about 95% of the time I shave. I think soaps have several huge advantages over creams. First, they tend to offer much better value, providing a significantly larger number of shaves per dollar. Second, I think soaps allow much more fine tuning of lather building than creams. Meaning, it is much easier to judge loading, as opposed to just squirting some cream in a bowl and adding water. Third, soaps have a significantly longer shelf life, which is fantastic for people like myself with large rotations. And fourth, shaving with a soap sounds so much more exclusive than shaving with a cream Wink. I’m kidding with the last one, but it does seem more traditional in my opinion. All that being said, when many members are starting out, soaps seem to be this mysterious monster. A cream is something people are used to. But shaving with a soap? It’s just something foreign to many from the cart and goo days of yore. They require a little bit different technique than creams, but the end result is nearly identical. Hopefully this article will also help to demystify shaving soaps for those using creams exclusively and have been interested in trying a soap but a little concerned about taking the plunge.

One way to think of a shaving soap is of a shaving cream with less water. This is, obviously, an oversimplification, but I think it’s a good starting point. If we have a cream, and begin to dry it out, we would encounter the 2 main types of shaving soaps. The soft soaps, or croaps (cream soaps), and the traditional hard soaps. Croaps are probably best represented by the Italian soaps. Cella, Valbora, Vitos, TFS, and the RazoRock line. Hard soaps, on the other hand, are often referred to as being “triple milled,” but that certainly isn’t always the case. In fact, it is probably more likely the exception than the rule in the “hard soap” camp. These are simply the 2 poles of shaving soaps, with a huge continuum in the middle. Soaps like Arko are firm, yet somewhat pliable. Others, like Cade by L’Occitane, are much harder, too hard to be molded by hand. And then you have Martin de Cadre (MdC), which is a pliable, sticky soap, but harder than the Italian croaps. So there is a huge range in consistency. Even within the same country or even company you can see a range of styles. Valbora, for example, makes a croap similar to Cella in consistency, but they also make a hard soap stick, which is the same formulation as the AOS and C&S soaps.

Before we talk about the performance of the soaps, we need to step back and talk about brushes. I would like to make an important note here, however, that there are no hard and fast rules, so to speak. Everyone has different tastes and preferences, so again, I do not intend this as gospel, but merely to share my point of view and experiences.

Now, in my estimation, there are 2 major factors that affect how a brush performs with a given soap. The first is backbone. A hard soap will require more backbone to achieve a similar lather than a softer soap. This is because to really pick up soap from the puck it requires more “force” when pressing lightly on the puck. Also, soaps with more backbone tend to be more dense. More hairs make it easier to pick up soap. The second major factor is density. A dense brush will lead to a thicker style of lather, while a less dense brush will lead to a more voluminous thinner style of lather. (Again, this is a gross generalization. With proper technique and the right soap one can make a thick lather from the floppiest of brushes, just as Lance Armstrong can ride the most pitiful of mountain bikes faster than I could ride a road bike) I think the softer soaps, like cella for example, lend themselves to work better with less dense brushes. I find the dense brushes with huge backbone actually pick up TOO much soap when working with soap softs. And truthfully speaking, I think a boar brush actually works best for the Italian Croaps (and they tend to be much more reasonably priced than their badger brethren). They seem to have the best mix of density, backbone, and softness. They have far less hair than a badger brush, but due to the resilience of the boar hair, they have plenty of backbone to pick up soap without become overloading like a dense 2-band does. Of course, your mileage may vary, but I only use boar brushes for my croaps, and I only use my croaps with boar brushes, despite having several brushes costing 10-20 times more. They just work best (for me).

To illustrate this point, here is a Simpson's Chubby 2 in Best, versus a Semogue 1305 lathering some RazoRock Artisan Series soap (An italian soft soap, or croap). The first 2 photos are of the Simpsons. The first one is after 1 minute of loading, the second after 30 seconds of palm lathering.

   

   
Now here is the Semogue 1305. Again, the first one is after 1 minute of loading, the second after 30 seconds of palm lathering.
   

   


I think this is apparent from the photos, but the Semogue really does do a better job with less effort. Not to mention its 1/6 the cost of the Chubby 2. Does that make the Semogue a better brush? No, not at all. I wouldn't even try using it with the Crabtree and Evelyn soaps (not to mention I prefer the feel of badger). But for the soft italian soaps, it works spectacularly. Every brush is designed for a certain purpose. Use that to your advantage.

On Loading: Besides the aforementioned characteristics of brushes, I find it helps to use a somewhat dryish brush to load as opposed to a wet brush. Let me clarify this point further, however. The most common problem people have with soaps is too runny of a lather. This is caused by 2 problems. 1: not enough product. 2: too much water. When you use a sopping wet brush, this adds way more water than is needed, and it also makes loading much more difficult as the excess water significantly reduces the friction of the hair tips on the soap, thus reducing its ability to pick up soap and “load” the brush. My suggestion is to soak the brush thoroughly. I think many users don’t realize how much water a badger brush can hold. Make sure to allow plenty of time for the brush to become saturated with water. Then, gently squeeze out some water over the sink and your brush is now ready to begin loading. Using a dry brush can lead to hairs breaking. I have found, however, with sufficient soaking the hairs become much softer and less clumped together by any residual soap scum from the previous shave(s) and this is not a problem at all. Even if the brush is wet, not allowing it to soak long enough can lead to hairs breaking, as they are still stiff and bound at the base by hardened soap scum. If you’re having trouble loading enough product, try this and see if it helps. You can always add more water to your bowl or brush when lathering to get the consistency where you like it, but you can’t un-add water to the soap. Instead, you’ll have to dump off the water from the soap, squeeze out the rubbish foamy lather from the brush, and start over.

To give you an idea of just how much water a brush can hold, take a look at this comparison after a 5 minute soak.

The first brush is a Simpson's Chubby 2 in Best

   

   
Next we have a Semogue 1305

   

   
Both are good brushes, but notice just how much more water the Simpson's soaks up. Part of this is due to the sheer density and size, but also because its badger as opposed to boar. The important part is not teasing out the individual variables, but rather noting that a large badger brush, or any brush for that matter, can absorb a significant amount of water. Please do be sure to give your brush sufficient time to absorb water. It helps to soften the hairs as well as remove any residual scum from your last shave, or at least soften it so it doesn't make the base of the hairs stiff and easy to snap from torsional stress.


Ok, now that we have some ground reference points established, lets talk terminology. There are several terms commonly thrown around when discussing soaps, and I’d like to try to de-mystify them.

First is slickness. I think this is the easiest of the terms to describe. Slickness refers to the ability of a given soap (or lather perhaps more technically speaking) to allow a blade edge to slide over the skin. Think of it as a lubrication for your skin. You want the blade to slide over your skin rather than dragging across it. While this is equally important to all styles of shaving, I think for straight razor users in particular it is of utmost importance.

Next we have cushion. There are a lot of definitions out there. I have yet to come across a really good one, so I’m going to make one up. To me, cushion is how protective the lather is. Meaning, how much of a “barrier” does the lather afford between the blade and the skin. Or in other words, if the angle is off or too much pressure is used, how much does the lather resist these efforts. I think this pertains more to the DE, SE, and Injector styles of shaving than using a straight. The reason being the edge of a straight tends to be in contact with the skin regardless of angle, while the blade on the other systems is held in place by a mechanism of some sort, and so seeing the angle is not always possible, but is rather done by feel. Thus, the blade can vary in angle more readily throughout a stroke. Again, generalizations made, but trying to explain some nuanced principles in simple terms.

Last, but certainly no less important, is density. Density is in my opinion, the most incorrectly used terminology when describing lather. The volume of lather on the brush or face has nothing at all to do with the density of the lather. For example, let us take 2 “canned goos.” The first is an aerosol. It produces a large volume of lather, but it is mostly air. This would be a thin lather due to the high air content causing the large volume with a given amount of “protective ingredients” The second is a gel. This would be a dense lather since it has very little air and mostly “protective ingredients.” While I would prefer not to use either, I think this illustrates the basic concept well. So a dense lather is defined as having more “soap particles” per given volume, while a thin lather would have less “soap particles” per given volume. There are 2 factors that can affect what makes a lather thick or thin for a given soap. The first is water. Using more water will the lather thinner, but more slick. Using less water will make the lather more dense, but less slick. I think less water gives it more cushion as well, and vice versa. The second is air. Meaning, spending more time whipping the lather up and introducing air can give you a larger volume of lather, but I also think this makes the lather less dense or more thin.

This is probably too late already to be saying this, but while dense, slick, and cushioning are all good properties, there are trade offs in each category. Some soaps excel in none of the above regardless of technique. Others make superbly slick lather but without good cushion. Etc etc. What makes a soap good isn’t its ability to produce a dense, or cushioning, or thick lather. What makes a soap good is its ability to make each respective part ideally for your intended purpose and preference. There is no perfect lather. What works best for using a straight razor would be horrendous for a cartridge user, and vice versa. In fact, I’d say that some of the lathers I prefer for straights would easily clog a DE very quickly and would not be ideal. So now that the concept of “best” or “perfect” is out of our minds (or at least reconsidered), and we have some underlying principles established, lets talk about some more details about what makes a good soap.

On Tallow: Tallow is an ingredient heavily discussed on the forums. What follows is my personal opinion. So take it with a grain of salt (or bucket) if you so desire. I think tallow adds a certain creaminess to soaps. It’s a feeling that’s difficult to describe. There are many fantastic soaps without tallow, and some poor ones with it. So tallow is, in my honest opinion, not a make or break ingredient. I suspect much of the tallow fervor stems from certain English makers reformulating their soaps away from tallow a few years back without taking the time to perfect the formula. As a result, tallow was associated with “good” versions while veggie was associated with “bad” versions. Also, tallow is just an assortment of fats. From a chemical standpoint, they are 100% identical whether derived from vegetables, beef lard, or bacteria. Stearic acid is stearic acid. I think the tallow versus veggie debate has grown immensely out of proportion to the issue at hand, and in reality, the discussion should be about soap x versus soap y. There are many members who exclusively use tallow soaps. That is entirely their right and there are still plenty of tallow soaps out there, but I think they are missing out on a lot of very good, and dare I say far superior, products by doing so.

On lanolin: I find that the properties of lanolin are most noticeable after the shave as opposed to during it. I think it adds a little extra bit of moisturizing to the post shave feel. I, as I’m sure many others do, always use after shave. So to me, this is really an insignificant point. I imagine it does help the post shave feel somewhat, but with adequate post shave care it doesn’t make or break the final experience. Additionally, lanolin causes an allergic reaction by a significant number of shavers, so it would be unfortunate were it to be used in most soaps. For better or worse, there are not many lanolin containing soaps. Those that I know of, also contain tallow. I do think this has added benefits, as opposed to tallow which as stated earlier does not, but for those with an allergy, or for those concerned about a soap without it, you do not have too much cause for concern of missing out.

On Water: I know I know, this is another one of those random bits, but I wanted to throw in my 2 cents regarding water. I used to live in St. Louis, and I was spoiled with fantastic water. In San Diego, well, lets just say its less than ideal. I really do think having soft water helps, but I don't think it makes or breaks a soap. The main factor to me is how much soap you have to use. Meaning, I think harder water requires more loading, and maybe slightly more time working the lather. Also, for making lather I recommend the same temperature of water as I do for soaking and cleaning brushes after the shave. If the water is too warm for comfort on your hands, then its too hot for your brush. Some guys like to use cold water. Its refreshing in a way I suppose, but not my thing. It certainly won't hurt anything, however. I know there are more and more scuttle users out there, which is fine, but I think hotter water can actually break down lather more quickly. I haven't performed any quantitative scientific experiments performed to confirm this, but I think its a thought to consider. Also, while using purified water may help, I personally find it far too impractical for the very marginal benefits it confers (in my opinion) over hard water.

What about the excess?: Often, there is plenty of excess lather left over from a shave. Instead of rinsing it all down the drain, I use it to wash my entire face (forehead and nose included), and then re-lather with whats left and leave it sit on my face while I strop my razor and clean my brush. Not only is this a good way to put otherwise "wasted" lather to use, but I find it really helps the post shave feel as well. Since doing this, I've noticed that any little nicks or weepers seem to seal much more quickly, and it helps moisturize the face after dragging a sharp edge across it. I think its one simple, easy trick which doesn't really add any extra time to the shave, and certainly no additional expense, but can really help improve that post shave feel.

About those bowls... Many soaps are available as a refill, or with a bowl from the manufacturer. Many soaps are only available as a separate puck. A common question for someone first getting into soaps is "Do I need to buy the bowl?" The short answer, is no, absolutely not. But if you've read this far, you probably know by now that I also have a long answer for everything as well Blush

I think some of the bowls, particularly the wooden ones, are very well made, look beautiful, and compliment the den nicely. To me, shaving isn't just an act, its an experience. So if having the wooden bowl adds to that for me, I have no qualms about making a one time purchase for it. For someone on a budget, however, they are totally unnecessary, and any container/bowl will work really.

There are downsides to the bowls, however. To illustrate this, take a look at this lather I just built with a 24mm 2-band brush. I would say that the size is on the more "reasonable" end of the spectrum. Even the most judicious of lathering leaves suds on the rim and sides. Now, truthfully, this isn't a BIG deal, but I'm a little OCD so I always make sure to wipe it down after use.
   

Now here is a more budget minded solution, which works fantastically for those pucks that don't come with bowls or if the bowl is nothing special. Notice how much more room there is to lather on the puck. The high walls mean that even the largest of brushes won't send lather flying all over the place, and the locking twist lids make storage a snap. Plus, this type of lid is much more durable than the simple pop top. Also, having concrete and marble in my bathroom, a glass bowl is less than ideal. I got a 3 pack of these at Target for $3. For price and functionality, they cannot be beat.

   
Some bowls, however, are nothing special. I don't own them, but the AOS ones are a good example. Great soap, mediocre bowl. For $19 extra, I expect more than just a plain bowl.

For $13 extra, you can get these beautiful Crabtree and Evelyn bowls, which feature the labels on the top and bottom.
   

Before ending I want to mention some of my favorite soaps. I've found these through recommendations, luck, trial, error, and well, 3 drawers worth of space. Again, this is just MY personal preferences, but if you're looking for a good soap to try, you can't go wrong with any of them.

1) Klar Seifen

   

2) Calani

   

3) Martin de Cadre (MdC)

   

4) Dr. Dittmar

   

5) Tcheon Fung Sing (TFS)

   

Whew....that was a lot

Thank you for reading this. I hope you enjoyed it, and maybe learned a new thing or two, or even just a different way to think about shaving soaps.

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 06-06-2012, 08:26 PM
#2
  • greyhawk
  • Senior Member
  • Southern California
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Nick, that is a wonderful article. Lots of time and effort went into it and there's a ton of great information there, even for those who are very experienced. Interesting that three of your top five are German--I think most of us have gravitated to the English, Italian, and French soaps a little more because they get so much more press. I enjoy the Dr. Dittmar's you turned me on to and will have to try the other two.
I'll have to come back and read this article a few more times to really absorb and appreciate it fully.
Thanks!

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 06-06-2012, 08:29 PM
#3
  • GreekGuy
  • Not saving money yet....
  • La Jolla, CA
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(06-06-2012, 08:26 PM)greyhawk Wrote: Nick, that is a wonderful article. Lots of time and effort went into it and there's a ton of great information there, even for those who are very experienced. Interesting that three of your top five are German--I think most of us have gravitated to the English, Italian, and French soaps a little more because they get so much more press. I enjoy the Dr. Dittmar's you turned me on to and will have to try the other two.
I'll have to come back and read this article a few more times to really absorb and appreciate it fully.
Thanks!

Thank you Stuart! Although my #1 soap of all time is the Tallow Penhaligons, my top 5 in production all happen to be veggie based. I'm happy to hear you are enjoying the Dr. Dittmars Smile

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 06-06-2012, 08:38 PM
#4
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Excellent stuff there Nick! Thank you for taking the time to share your experience and thoughts with us.

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 06-06-2012, 10:01 PM
#5
  • Teiste
  • Moderator Emeritus
  • Salt Lake City,UT
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Nick, BRILLIANT article.
I don believe in magical ingredients bit good formulations with good ingredients.You have covered all in your article and yes,there are many factors to consider,for sure they are.
You have gave excellent tips like use boar with soft soaps and badger with good backbone with triple milled soaps and also what to do with the excess of lather (I never thought about it).
Thanks again : I need to read it again,my friend,since its such a pleasure to read it.

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 06-06-2012, 10:09 PM
#6
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Wow, Nick! Brilliant write-up, sir!
Thanks for all of the information.

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 06-06-2012, 11:04 PM
#7
  • tgutc
  • Senior Member
  • Michigan
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Thank you for that wonderful article!

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 06-07-2012, 08:56 AM
#8
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Great article, Nick!

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 06-07-2012, 09:00 AM
#9
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Nick, that's a very good, comprehensive overview of soaps and their use with brushes. Thank you.

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 06-07-2012, 09:04 AM
#10
  • jfmii
  • Active Member
  • Pittsburgh PA
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Being new to wet shaving I found your article very educational. With so many different types of soaps it has been a bit overwhelming. The pictures are very helpful too!
I am interested in trying Klar Seifen soap ? I use the Klassik scent aftershave. What scent is your soap? Thanks for the great article.

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 06-07-2012, 09:24 AM
#11
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Thank you Nick for a superb article. It is extremely well written and repleat with knowledge and examples that even the most experienced shavers will find useful.

Jerry

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 06-07-2012, 12:19 PM
#12
  • GreekGuy
  • Not saving money yet....
  • La Jolla, CA
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(06-07-2012, 09:04 AM)jfmii Wrote: Being new to wet shaving I found your article very educational. With so many different types of soaps it has been a bit overwhelming. The pictures are very helpful too!
I am interested in trying Klar Seifen soap ? I use the Klassik scent aftershave. What scent is your soap? Thanks for the great article.

I have 2 versions of the Klar soap. I have the Klassik, which is a lemon sandalwood scent. I really enjoy it, and the AS goes with it beautifully. The AS is a tad heavier than the soap. The soap is definitely scented, it is not a light fragrance, but the AS is heavier.

I also have the sandalwood, which is a very nice take. It's not a really heavy sandalwood like the AOS version, but it isn't fleeting either. If you enjoy the sandalwood scent of the AS, you'll enjoy the Sandalwood soap.

There is also a Sport scent. I do not own it, but I have smelled it before. It is a clean, refreshing kind of scent. If you shave after a workout, or if its hot where you live, it may be a good choice. It's in the same family as Dr. Dittmar in terms of fragrance. It is not just a plain, soapy scent like MWF. It definitely has more fragrance than that. I have a friend who loves Irish Spring soap, and its reminiscent of that, but a little more refined, if that makes sense.

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 06-07-2012, 01:26 PM
#13
  • mikeperry
  • Senior Member
  • St Louis via the UK
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Hi Nick

Very! nice write up Thumbsup

Thank you for taking the time to do so and at the same time educating people like myself who are new to shaving soaps...

Take care, Mike

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 06-07-2012, 03:15 PM
#14
  • slantman
  • Expert Shaver
  • Leesburg, Florida
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Thank you so much Nick. Your article with wonderful pictures covers everything a wet shaver would won't to know.

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 06-07-2012, 06:53 PM
#15
  • Sully
  • Moderator Emeritus
  • Cedar Park, Texas
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Very nice article Nick! I enjoyed all of it but especially how different brushes excel at different soaps.

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 06-07-2012, 07:13 PM
#16
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Intelligent write up Nick. I am somewhat convinced that a best soap is a moving target dependent on each man's skin type, beard type and blade used.

I love Canali or TFS. (both truly effortless)

I think you are onto something big with this idea of density or viscosity. Therein lies the secret.

Genius article. Smile

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 06-07-2012, 07:40 PM
#17
  • Johnny
  • Super Moderator
  • Wausau, Wisconsin, USA
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Nick, job well done young man. I really enjoyed reading your opinions about how different brushes react with different soaps. I have a Semogue 1305 so now I'm forced to get a Simpsons Chubby 2 in best badger.

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 06-08-2012, 05:02 AM
#18
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I really agree with you about the performance of canned foam and canned gel.

I also think that once you've come up with the optimum soap-brush combo that you ought to stick with it! Changing soaps or brushes means learning all over again. With time and practice you can probably make anything work, but do you really want to?

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 06-08-2012, 11:41 AM
#19
  • Howler
  • A calamophile and vintage razor lover
  • Fort Smith AR
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Great article and loads of both great information and tips.

Thank you for sharing.

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 06-08-2012, 06:10 PM
#20
  • jfmii
  • Active Member
  • Pittsburgh PA
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(06-07-2012, 12:19 PM)GreekGuy Wrote:
(06-07-2012, 09:04 AM)jfmii Wrote: Being new to wet shaving I found your article very educational. With so many different types of soaps it has been a bit overwhelming. The pictures are very helpful too!
I am interested in trying Klar Seifen soap ? I use the Klassik scent aftershave. What scent is your soap? Thanks for the great article.

I have 2 versions of the Klar soap. I have the Klassik, which is a lemon sandalwood scent. I really enjoy it, and the AS goes with it beautifully. The AS is a tad heavier than the soap. The soap is definitely scented, it is not a light fragrance, but the AS is heavier.

I also have the sandalwood, which is a very nice take. It's not a really heavy sandalwood like the AOS version, but it isn't fleeting either. If you enjoy the sandalwood scent of the AS, you'll enjoy the Sandalwood soap.

There is also a Sport scent. I do not own it, but I have smelled it before. It is a clean, refreshing kind of scent. If you shave after a workout, or if its hot where you live, it may be a good choice. It's in the same family as Dr. Dittmar in terms of fragrance. It is not just a plain, soapy scent like MWF. It definitely has more fragrance than that. I have a friend who loves Irish Spring soap, and its reminiscent of that, but a little more refined, if that makes sense.
Thanks for the info on the scents. I'll have to try both!

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