“The eternal discussion”. Sounds deep, no? Not really. It’s just that deciding which is better – a foil electric shaver or a rotary model – becomes endless. The reason isn’t at all obscure.
It isn’t hard to define the difference between a rotary and a foil model. You’ve seen countless examples of both types of electric shaver. But doing it will reveal some points that lead to a useful comparison of pros and cons.
A foil model electric shaver is one covered by a foil. True, but not helpful. Let’s try again. A foil shaver is covered by a relatively large, curved rectangle of metal with a pattern of holes that arrange hair for efficient cutting. Underneath are a set of blades that vibrate left and right (or back and forth, if you prefer).
That raises a number of useful questions. What is that hole pattern? What makes them (more, or less) efficient? How do the blades interact with the foil cover? All good questions but let’s put them off for just a bit to introduce the rotary style so we can compare and contrast.
A rotary shaver houses a number of round heads (usually three to five) covering that number of rotating blades. That definition shows at once some of the important differences (and similarities) to a foil model.
The difference is obvious. One type of foil/blade system is rectangular the other is round. One type features blades that ‘shift’, the others whirl. The similarity isn’t as obvious but it’s important; both offer a set of holes of varying shapes and sizes that sit above moving blades.
Why are those similarities and differences important? By answering that question we’ll be able to explore the pros and cons of selecting one style of electric shaver over the other.
Pros and Cons
In discussions of the pros and cons of foil versus rotary, you might often see the assertion that a foil gives a closer shave. Sometimes, but not necessarily so. It depends on the model, how well the blades are made and positioned in each, your face, and a dozen other factors. In general, many foils do give a closer shave than many rotary models, but it’s not universally true. One reason it’s true some of the time owes less to the rectangle-vs-circle aspect than other facets of the shaver’s design.
For example, a good foil model will likely have a very high vibration rate, as high as 14,000 cycles per minute for example. Some rotaries do have a very high rotation rate but it’s less common. That’s as likely due to cost (and the quality) as any inherent advantage. Speed does make a difference, though. Just as a fast-spinning lawn mower blade cuts better than one rotating slower (it cuts rather than tugs), so it is with a shaver. All this assumes other things are equal, of course: blade quality, hole pattern, and more.
A more important design difference is that last one: hole pattern. It turns out that shaving closeness (and related aspects, like comfort) is to a large degree the result of that attribute.
Here’s where foil electric shavers tend to have an advantage. It’s just a lot easier to make a more efficient pattern in a relatively large curved rectangle than with a relatively small, thin disc. That hole pattern frequently consists of three different opening types. One type is often a short slit, another a rounder hole, and a third a (relatively) wide, long slot. There’s a lot of variation from one model to the next, of course, but in general that’s the common pattern.
The result is that hairs of different lengths can all be more efficiently lifted, pulled up slightly (and comfortably) and whacked off near the skin. When the ‘tug’ releases, the hair moves back deeper into the skin.
But that inherent advantage of a foil over a rotary can be wiped out by other factors. For one thing, rotaries have a hole pattern, too. A well-designed rotary can more than compensate for size and geometry (and even speed, to a degree) if compared, say, to a foil model that is just so-so. It’s simply that fewer rotary models have the complexity of hole pattern or the style more frequently used by a foil model.
Another important design aspect that distinguishes a foil shaver from a rotary is the overall shape of the covering. Clearly, in the first case it’s rectangular (though rolled) and the second covering is circular, as discussed several times already. But that shape has a big effect on closeness in a way not yet discussed. It influences where you can go and how easily.
You can certainly get a foil under and above your chin with ease. But you can’t get around the fact that a rotary is both smaller and shaped in a way that allows better access to all those natural curves and crannies of your face (or underarms, legs, and elsewhere, if used as ladies do).
The jawline near your ear, or the area around a very curved chin, is simply more accessible via a small disc than it is by a big rectangle. That’s especially true when the design of a rotary – as is often the case – lets the head ‘float’ in more directions. Foil designs could (and sometimes do, partly) flex around those curves. But here the rotary has an inherent advantage, and most designs make good use of it.
That’s one important reason that the blanket statement “a foil shaves closer” simply isn’t always true. Even ignoring the issue of comfort, closeness depends on more than just head/blade geometry and/or hole pattern; it depends on dynamics.
Cutting Style and Location
There are other aspects to shaving, though, than simply a close (or even comfortable) shave. For men in particular, you often want to trim sideburns or a mustache, or the edges of a beard. When women use an electric they often want to trim pubic hair, where getting close – but not too close – is important as well.
For that, a foil shaver clearly offers a big native advantage. The natural straight line of a foil makes it much easier to make a straight line on the bottom of a sideburn or to follow the line of a beard below the jaw.
Still, a rotary can eliminate any advantage here simply by including a trimmer, as many do. In fact, whether foil or rotary, those trimmers invariably do a better job in those situations than the main shaver itself. That’s what they’re put there for, after all.
One other area of comparison between a foil electric shaver and a rotary model has nothing to do with shaving, per se: maintenance.
Here, the foil has an inherent advantage that is not so easily overcome. Popping off the head of the rectangular unit and holding it is typically near effortless. Blowing or even rinsing is a breeze unless the head is so poorly designed you have to struggle unduly.
That said, it’s also usually easy to remove the head/foil covering the blades of a rotary model. Sometimes it’s too easy, which makes the rotary not as advantageous in this area. It’s a lot easier to lose that little disc, especially if you shave and clean in the shower, where they can too easily make their way down the drain.
All in all, though, it’s a pretty minor difference. That difference, as suggested just above, can often be more than compensated for (in either style) by the difficulty or ease of removal, the style of clip, and so forth.
The other style of maintenance – using an automated cleaning component – is a little trickier to assess. In my experience, foil units tend to have a cleaner that is a little easier to use, even when they’re no better in terms of vibration or cleansing solution. It’s typically easier – quicker, more stable – to place a rectangular shaver upside down in a cleaner.
However, even here I can’t make a broad statement without qualification. It depends on the specific models and the only way to compare fairly is case by case. Some rotaries have excellent cleaners both in terms of ease of use and quality of result.
After all that it isn’t hard to see why the question “Foil or rotary shaver, which is better?” generates eternal discussions. Every model – of either type – is unique, despite having much in common. Every face (leg, or underarm) is unique.
Aspects like noise, weight, body shape, and others are simply too varied (and too much a matter of personal taste) to draw any kind of reasonable comparison. Some foils are too big for some guys’ hands, some rotaries are too small. Some foil shavers are too heavy and some rotaries too light. Some foils are louder, but not all. Some rotaries are flimsier, but not all. And vice versa on all these aspects. There’s just too much variation in individual models to make overall comparisons between the two main types.
So, whether you evaluate them in terms of closeness, comfort, coverage, or maintenance, there’s only one thing you can truthfully say about which performs better – a foil or a rotary electric shaver: it all depends. Or, in other words, it comes down to personal preference.
Not an exciting conclusion, if you enjoy combat with only one winner, but inescapably true.