You have probably never asked yourself whether you use a carbon or stainless steel razor blade (perhaps because normality abounds in your life). It’s not a question that gets asked often, and because nearly all razor blades are made out of stainless steel, whether in a cartridge or double-edge, it’s a question with an easy answer. But that wasn’t always the case.
The exact history is somewhat murky, but here is what I’ve been able to learn…
When Gillette introduced the double-edge safety razor in 1904 all blades were made out of carbon steel, and this continued for almost 60 years. Using carbon steel created a significant problem though: because of the water involved in shaving there was significant risk that a blade would become rusty even over just a few days use, requiring either close care or frequent replacement.
To combat this Gillette turned to metallurgists to do science-y things. By 1945 they began experimenting with coating the blades with a thin layer of other material to protect them, and in short order they turned to polytetraflouroethylne (PTFE), better known as Teflon. They discovered that they could create a blade which, though initially slightly inferior than an untreated razor, would break in after a shave or two and then provide a sharper, longer lasting edge (for those of you interested in details of this, which go over my head, check out the above link).
This all came to a head in the 1960’s, when stainless steel was introduced. Depending on who you ask it was either Gillette or Wilkinson Sword who was the first to bring stainless steel to market, but by the mid-sixties it was conquering the market. The blades, often coated with PTFE as well, would last far longer than carbon steel resulting in much reduced need to purchase replacements. With patents expiring, fierce competition, and emerging products that required less purchases, it is little surprise that within a decade of stainless steel blades hitting the market that Gillette introduced the first cartridge razor blade, setting the course of modern shaving.
So if during that brief window stainless steel so thoroughly stomped on carbon steel, why use them? Stainless is so preferred, after all, that there are only a handful of brands that use carbon and most of these can be tough to come by (and only one that I know of that doesn’t use PTFE, a Treet brand nicknamed “black beauty”).
The edge. Carbon steel hasn’t completely died off because they offer a great edge. There is some debate over whether stainless steel or carbon steel blades are harder, and which one degrades faster, but most seem to agree that carbon steel offers an unusually sharp edge at the very beginning. While some say that the carbon steel dulls faster, others contend that the material allows for the edge to be kept far longer than with stainless, and even stropped for longer use.
At the same time, while carbon steel razors are comparable to stainless steel blades, their relative price has plummeted over the decades. Even if the blades are not cared for closely and require more frequent replacement, the cost is still so low that it is not economically prohibitive. If you use twice as many blades, replacing them more frequently, the cost difference amounts to just a few dollars a year (if that). The economic incentive of stainless, while still there, has been greatly reduced.
While the benefits of the two can be debated, what can’t be dismissed is that stainless steel remains the dominant force on the market. It is ironic that a method which draws so heavily on heritage and use of techniques and designs that have been around for a century primarily uses blades that appeared within the last few decades.
But if you want to try the type of razor blade that safety razors were originally built for you’ve still got options. Not many, but they’re out there.