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Stubble Jeopardy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The first thing you do in the morning, when you’re bleary and groggy without coffee, is take a razor and put it to your throat,” says grooming expert Robert Masello, author of “Things Your Father Never Taught You” (Perigee, 1995).

Still, the former staffer at GQ and Esquire stresses the importance of shaving. “The face you present to the world is the face value the world will take you at.”

And even though most men use disposable razors, Masello says they should be out of the question for anyone concerned about his skin. “You might as well scrape at your skin with a Swiss army knife,” says Masello, who favors Gillette Sensor blades.

We’ve come a long way from the early and difficult to master steel straight razor (known as the “cut throat,” for reasons all too obvious). Its successor, the basic 19th century “safety” razor, persists today, albeit with many advances that allow closer shaves and greater comfort. In their effort to win market share, razor companies keep introducing new twists.

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At the American Barber Colleges in Los Angeles, where a shave costs $3.50, Claude Gipson uses a straight razor on most of his customers. But for himself and for customers with special or delicate skin, Gipson favors Gillette’s SensorExcel, “definitely an improvement over past razors. There’s still room for improvement,” he says, but Gipson believes the new generation of blades offers greater comfort and closeness.

Among the latest and most high-tech razors are Schick’s Tracer FX (about $7 for five blades) and Gillette’s SensorExcel (about $9 for five blades). Each offers noticeable improvement over past products, and both are top-sellers.

Schick’s razor offers a flexible blade, which allows the razor to better follow the curvy contours of the face with less pressure and therefore less stress on the skin. The smooth Tracer FX handles like a Porsche on the Grande Corniche.

Gillette’s SensorExcel uses a spring-mounted twin blade that allows the razor to sense and adjust to curves and stick close to the face. Both SensorExcel and Tracer FX have skin guards that contact the face before the blade, stretching the skin, causing the hairs to stand straight up, where they can be more easily and more deeply cut.

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You’ll pay a premium for these latest, high-tech blades, perhaps a couple of dollars more per five pack. But if comfort is an issue--and nearly half of all men describe their skin as “sensitive"--it’s worth the cost.

The difference in closeness may be minor, but these newest lines of razors definitely provide a kinder, gentler--and less bloody--shave. It’s a small investment when you consider that the average male will spend more than 3,300 hours shaving nearly 30 feet of whiskers over the course of his lifetime. Just don’t be seduced by bells and whistles and pseudo-scientific trademarked names.

One of the highest-priced options is a John Hardy sterling silver razor from Saks Fifth Avenue ($350)--but you’ll still need replaceable blades.

On the less expensive end of the spectrum are disposables, including Bic’s latest, the Twin Select Tough Beard Shaver (about $3 for five razors). These, like all Bic’s blades, are coated with Teflon to reduce friction.

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For the third of the male population who shave with electrics, things are getting better too. Norelco’s new ad campaign promises, “If it shaves like a blade, we’ll give you your money back,” mocking the lower expectation of an old electric ad that promised, “Shaves as close as a blade or your money back.”

Electrics cut above the skin line, unlike razors that take off part of the top layer of dead skin cells along with the facial hair. While this different method can be irritating at first, electrics are generally kinder to the skin and cause fewer nicks and cuts, and less bleeding, once your skin adjusts. It’s a rare electric razor, though, that provides a complete shave, one that doesn’t need at least a tiny touch up with a blade.

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Norelco’s Reflex Action Razor ($150) and Braun’s Flex Integral 5550 ($150), two new high-end electrics, both offer money-back guarantees in the battle to lure men away from “wet” shaving. Both provide a fast, clean and close shave--though neither seems to work as well on the neck and throat as a simple blade.

In the handsome Braun unit, spring-mounted blades float under platinum-coated coils to allow them to adhere to the contours of the face. Norelco’s razor has three heads that swivel independently and cling to the skin as you navigate the curves of your jaw, throat and chin.

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The company that pioneered electric shaving is still around. Remington’s latest device is the TF-700 ($90), another triple foil, floating head electric, with the most powerful motor among electrics and a gauge that indicates how many shaves remain before recharging.

And if you prefer electric but miss shaving cream or like to shave in the shower, consider Panasonic’s ES881 ($350, only through the Sharper Image catalog and stores). This ultra-high-tech wet / dry electric looks like a tricorder from the “Star Trek” prop department.

It can be used dry, like a normal electric, with shaving creams like a razor, and even in the shower. Its electromagnetic linear system doesn’t rotate the blades, but instead moves them back and forth at 12,000 strokes per minute, making for a faster shave--and it buzzes like a bug zapper when it runs over hair.


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