So there you are, standing in front of rows and rows of shavers, feeling overwhelmed.  So much to think about—brands, price, battery length, cleaning, accessories, and more.  The first decision, though, is whether to get a foil or rotary shaver.  Once you do that, the process will be much less overwhelming.

If you have fine facial hair and want a close shave, you should choose a foil shaver.  Those with coarser hair who don’t shave every day will prefer a rotary shaver.  A foil shaver is better suited to shaving your legs, while those who shave their heads will have better results with a rotary.  

To help you decide which shaver type to choose, you need to know something about how they work.  We will start there and then walk you through the options for your specific needs.

How Does a Foil Shaver Cut Hair?

The history of foil shaver goes back to the 1930s and Jacob Schick.  Colonel Schick, who had injured an arm, invented the foil shaver so he could shave with one arm.  Although earlier electric shavers had been built (including several that had to be plugged into a light bulb socket), Schick’s shaver was the first practical model.

The name foil shaver comes from the metal mesh, or foil, that covers one or more oscillating blades.  As the blades move side to side, individual hairs enter the foil to be cut off by the blades.  Because the mesh is flexible, a foil shaver cuts close to the skin.

Because the blades move from side to side, a foil shaver needs to be moved in straight lines.  Circular shaving with a foil shaver will lead to discomfort.

How Does a Rotary Shaver Cut Hair?

Alexandre Horowitz invented the rotary shaver in 1939 while working for the Belgium Philips Company.  The first model had a single head, a double-headed model was developed during World War II, and the triple-headed model came later.  

Unlike a foil shaver, blades in a rotary shaver spin under stationary guards.  Stubble and hair get caught in the guards, where the blades trim them. 

The guards on a rotary shaver are not flexible, so your shave will not be as close.  However, because a rotary shaver does not have to be used in a straight line, shaving around the neck and chin is more natural with one.  

Should I use a Foil or Rotary Shaver for Sensitive Skin?

Since a foil shaver cuts closer, one would think it would be harder on sensitive skin.  However, the opposite is true—if you have sensitive skin, you should opt for a foil shaver, even though it cuts closer.

The secret is the flexible foil.  As you press the shaver to the skin, the foil expands, creating a greater surface area for cutting. This increased surface area allows the metal foil to lift the whiskers and guide them to the blades.  Think of it as a way to spread the pain—the hairs are spread apart and cut instead of being bunched together.

Remember those foil shavers are designed to be used in an up and down movement, not side to side.  Moving a foil shaver in a circular motion leads to razor burn. Often, shavers who claim foil shavers are painful to use a circular motion.

Which Shaver is Better for a Bald Head—Foil or Rotary?

For shaving your head, the advantage goes to rotary shavers.  Why?

It’s all in the motion.  When you use a rotary shaver, you move in a circular motion.  A foil, you will recall, needs to move in a straight line.  While shaving your face with a foil is not awkward, try shaving the back of your head and around your ears with a foil.    

Also, foil shavers work best on flat surfaces, such as your cheeks and chin. Your head, if it’s like most, is more round than flat, with contours and shapes not found on your cheeks.  Even if you have sensitive skin, going over the same area several times will irritate it.

Should I Use a Foil or Rotary for Pubic Hairs?

These are some advantages of rotary shavers:

  • Works better on coarse hair
  • Shaves contours better
  • Good on fast-growing, thick hair

If those describe your pubic hairs, then you should use a rotary.  However, do you want to get either your foil or rotary shavers too close to your private parts?  It seems a risky proposition.  Better to buy a trimmer made for the job, such as the Body Bare Triple Combo Pubic Hair Shaver or the Platinum Pro by Mangroomer.  

Which Shaver is Better for Legs—Foil or Rotary?

Foil wins the leg shaving battle for several reasons:

  • Close shave.  Who wants to shave their legs every day?  The closer the shave, the longer between shaves.
  • Gentle shave.  Foil is gentler on the skin, and the skin on the legs is surprisingly sensitive.
  • Motion.  The straight motion a foil requires is natural for shaving legs.

Want further proof?  Check out the leg shavers Amazon sells.  The best-selling shavers on this page include the Panasonic Electric Shaver for Women, The Remington Smooth and Silky, and the Philips SatinShave.  Each of them is a foil shaver.  Nary a rotary shaver in sight.

Should I use a Foil or Rotary Shaver for Razor Bumps?

With razor bumps, what’s important is not whether you use foil or rotary but how you will heal and prevent them.  Ingrown hairs usually cause razor bumps.  As your shaver goes over the hairs under the skin, the area becomes irritated.  

If you already have pseudofolliculitis barbae (that’s dermatologist-speak), then use this treatment:

  1. Use an exfoliant.  A chemical exfoliant will remove dead skin, eliminate bacteria, and reduce the bumps.  This will encourage the trapped hairs to grow through the skin.
  2. Practice patience.  Healing razor bumps is not going to happen overnight, although most should disappear within two to three days.  
  3. Do not shave the area.  You will only aggravate your skin more by shaving.  If you absolutely have to shave, then carefully avoid the area with the razor bumps. 
  4. Warm the area.  Apply a warm compress to the area once a day to soothe the skin. 

Prevention is always preferred to a cure.  Follow these steps to prevent troublesome razor bumps:

  1. Use an exfoliant cleanser.  A chemical exfoliant is needed to get rid of razor bumps.  A cleanser scrubs off dead skin before you begin, reducing the likelihood of ingrown hairs.
  2. Use clean and sharp blades.  Using dirty blades on a clean face defeats the purpose, and dull blades are more likely to cause ingrown hairs.
  3. Hydrate and disinfect.  After you finish shaving, use an aftershave product that will add moisture to your skin.  Look for products with aloe, such as Every Man Jack’s Face Lotion.

Bottom Line

If you have delicate skin, thin hair, and shave daily, then you will prefer a foil shaver.  Those with coarser hair who sometimes go a couple of days without shaving will prefer a rotary. Also, use the correct technique for the shaver—straight for the foil and circular for the rotary.  And if you switch to a new shaver, be patient.  It will take your skin several weeks to adjust to a new shaver.