Some time ago, I happened to visit a local electronics store. While there, I noticed an elderly couple standing before an aisle filled with electric shavers. Both of them looked somewhat distressed. They were searching for a salesperson who could explain to them the subtle differences between the models. I could hardly blame them. Different brands, colors, features, and price tags make you want to cry out in desperation.
Finally, a man came and after hearing out the wishes of the elderly couple, the first question he asked was “are you more inclined to try out rotary shavers or do you want a foil one?”
Of course, that question confused the couple even more. But I could imagine the same confusion among many of us. What makes them different from one another? How are they similar? So I decided to write an article about it.
What Is a Foil Shaver
So what exactly is a foil shaver? Foil shavers were invented in the 1930s. The name is derived from the thin metal sheet called foil covering the cutting blades. The foil layer is perforated with small holes. These allow hairs to pass through the metal sheet inside the cutting element.
Numerous factors determine how electric shaver behaves. For example the thinness of the foil. Also the amount, size and variety of different holes inside the foil. As well as the number of cutting elements and the units motor capacity that drives the blades which cut the hair.
What Is a Rotary Shaver
Rotary shavers were invented later compared to foil shavers. The main difference is the way the hair is cut. Instead of oscillating blades that are covered with foil, rotary shavers work a little bit differently.
Rotary shavers tend to have two or three cutting elements. Each element has a shaving head, a cap and a lock-ring. The blades move in a rotating fashion instead. The cap that covers the cutters has got small holes and fissures inside. This makes it possible for the hairs to reach the shaving head while protecting the skin.
While there are numerous features that both shavers share, there are also some that are specific to foil shavers
Rotary shaver shines where foil fails. The reason for this is the way rotary shaver works and how it is used
Foil shavers alas also have some disadvantages
Disadvantages stem from the same reason why they shine in some areas
If you compare the top of the line models for each of these shavers, you will notice that there are plenty of similarities:
A sensor that senses the thickness of the beard and adjusts power usage accordingly: BeardAdapt sensor in Philips, SyncroSonic in Braun and Active Shaving Sensor in Panasonic. This feature runs in the background, and most of the time, you don’t notice it. The sensor can get confused when you use shaving foam or gel. It starts changing the power output, which results in weird noise. Doesn’t affect the quality of the shave nor the battery life.
Charging and cleaning station. Most high-end foil shavers have this feature. It is less common with rotary shavers though. It is useful extra but comes with added cost. Not only will you have a place to keep your shaver, but it also cleans it automatically and dries it in the end. The downside is that you have to replace the cleaning cartridges regularly.
The travel lock is another essential feature that most electric shavers have. It helps to prevent your shaver accidentally activating by itself in your travel bag.
The travel pouch is a premium accessory and is included with pricier models. Some have thicker walls, and others use more elegant materials, but at the end of the day, they all perform as they should – protecting your electric shaver while traveling.
Trimmer is another feature that most if not all electric shavers have. It is useful should you want to clip longer growth before continuing to get a more closer shave. Or if you wish to trim your sideburns for example.
Most modern electric shavers don’t allow shaving while charging. Because wet shaving with electric shavers has become popular, it is potentially dangerous. A more cynical person might see this as a way to force consumers to replace their old electric shavers. Be as it may you rarely find electric shavers currently that enable you to use them while charging.
Quick charge function is widespread as well. It is a handy feature for those who travel a lot. Most models will charge in 5 minutes to last you one shave.
The display isn’t a feature by itself, but many models present this as a unique thing. It is true that LCD screens are usually present on more pricier models and missing on the cheaper ones. But at the end of the day they all pretty much do the same thing – show you the battery level and alert you to clean your shaver.
Wet and dry use means that besides the traditional dry shave, you can also use shaving cream, foam, or gel. This adds lubrication between skin and shaver, which results in a more comfortable shave. But it also means that you have more cleaning to do after shaving.
Flexible shaving head. The more money you pay for your shaver, the more dimensions it promises to cover. Both rotary and foil shavers have very maneuverable shaving heads when we compare models in the same price range. The mobile shaving head is convenient I give you that. But it seems to forget that your wrist is capable of changing the angle of the shaver as well.
What is more important than similarities are the differences. Most of the features that rotary and foil shavers share have little to do with shaving per se. It is important to know them because otherwise, you can easily get confused. Remember the story about the elderly couple I wrote about in the beginning? Well, the salesperson continued to spray them with all this information. I left before he had made his sales pitch, but there was utter confusion on the face of the older gent.
1. Shows the shaving head from outside 2. Panasonic electric shavers allow you to remove the foil separately 3. Shows the oscillating cutting elements consisting of numerous blades aligned parallel from each other
Foil shavers generate more cuttings per minute (CPM) because of the oscillating movement. They are typically referred to also as reciprocating shavers because the blades move back and forth at high speed. Braun S9 generates up to 40 000 CPM and Panasonic Arc 5 up to 70 000 CPM. These models also have 4 and 5 cutting elements respectively. So the high cutting speed and a greater number on cutting elements result in a faster and closer shave.
Rotary shavers, as explained earlier, use rotary movement. This means they produce much lower cutting speed. They also don’t have more than three cutting elements usually. But this design is better at handling longer, thicker, and curly beards. Because the mechanism can catch hairs better.
All discussions about the closeness of the shave at the end of the day are somewhat arbitrary. You just have no way to really measure how close the shave is. The same topic is often discussed in the traditional shaving forums. The best you can do is give an estimate based on the overall user experience. For example, Muhle R41 is an open comb safety razor that is generally considered very aggressive (shaves very close). The same thing is with electric shavers.
The second main difference in the cleaning. Top foil shavers have cleaning stations. It assures easier cleaning. But as I already mentioned, you have to buy cleaning cartridges that can add up to a significant cost yearly. There are ways to make your cartridges last longer and refill them, but you should be aware of this if you are planning to get one. Only a few rotary shavers have this accessory. It means that you have to clean your rotary electric shavers manually. It is tedious work. You have to clean each cutting element separately as the caps, lock-rings and cutters are a matching pair
1. Shaving head / cutter 2. Shaving cap 3. Holder assy 4. Lock-ring (retaining plate, holding plate, holder)
Maintenance is also a bit different. You need to oil the blades in your foil shaver and every year replace the shaving head. Newer rotary shavers have self-sharpening blades so that you don’t have to oil them. But you still need to replace them occasionally ~ every 2 years for the newer shaving heads (e.g., Philips Prestige SH98).
How Is Shaving Different With These Two?
Now that we have covered the pros and cons of each type of shaver. And looked at the similarities and differences. It is time to have a quick look at how using them is different.
When you use foil shavers, you move from side to side, up and down, and across the face. All movements are linear.
I like to shave the same way I use my manual razors. I first start with the grain, continue with across the grain pass and finish with against the grain pass. Circular movements don’t work with foil shavers, and the shaver is not designed for it. Overall, foil shavers assure good control and precision over the area you are shaving.
Verdict: Foil shavers are more suitable for sensitive skin
Rotary shavers work differently. You need to shave in a circular pattern. It means that you are basically doing small circles in one area and then you move on to the next area. In this fashion, you are catching wild and flat lying hairs in one motion. The downside is that you have less precision and no real control over the area you are shaving. You could scrape some part of the face 4-5x while some other part gets covered only 1-2x.
Verdict: Because rotary shavers are better with longer hair, they tend to be used with longer growth. This can cause pulling of the hairs. This is no good if you have very sensitive skin.
Best Foil Shaver
Foil shavers are great if you want close, comfortable shave and you shave daily. They can handle longer growth as well but everything that gets longer than 2-3 days is torture.
If you are willing to pay extra, the cleaning station is also pretty useful. You can clean your shaver perfectly well also without it. But if you are lazy like me and want a stand for your cutter, then I would recommend buying a unit with this feature.
So what is the best foil shaver? I am not going to lie here. Best means pricey. These four models are all widely considered to be the best foil shavers out there. Braun 9th and 7th series and Panasonic Arc 5 (ES-LV-9N , ES-LV-6N, ES-LV-9Q , ES-LV-6Q). Click to read a more detailed comparison between them.
Best Rotary Shaver
Rotary shavers are perfect option for those who shave irregularly but still want a close and comfortable shave. They don’t cut as close as foils but can handle up to 5-7 days worth of growth
Rotary shavers are mainly made by Philips. There are cheaper Chinese models also, but the quality, comfort, and closeness are lacking. Both Philips Series 9000 and 8000 are the best. There is also Prestige which is equivalent to Braun S9 and Panasonic Arc 5 but adds very little to the already excellent Series 9000. ROI (return on investment) wise you are better off with 9th and 8th series Philips.
Electric shavers are strange beasts. At first glance, it seems that there are so many things to consider. But once you take the time to familiarize yourself with the topic, you understand that there are only actually a few things to consider. How often you shave and how close you want your shave to be.
If its regular shaving and closeness you are after then foil is the way to go.
If you shave irregularly and closeness is less important than comfort, then rotary shaver is for you.