But my brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man. I recall those lines from a Beyond the Fringe sketch first released in 1964 (see below).* And so it was in my family: my brother was the hirsute Esau to my near-hairless Jacob. I didn’t need to shave until my late teens and even then it was iffy. That was in the late 1960s when sideburns and moustaches were the rage. By the time I could grow enough, everyone had gone back to being clean shaven.
Eternally unfashionable, I was, even back then. In another era, I suppose I would have been a clean-shaven Roman when Emperor Hadrian made the beard fashionable.
My grandfather – born in the 1880s – used a straight razor. Aka a “cut throat” razor. I remember seeing it in his bathroom, along with the small ceramic bowl for shaving soap and a badger-hair brush for lathering it on. A well-worn leather strop hung from a wall hook. Dangerous, Jack-the-Ripper sort of thing, that razor; understandably the weapon of choice in many slasher films. Its deceptively sharp blade swung out easily.
It had a bone handle, yellowed, marked with the signs of age and use. It was old, old enough that the handle may even have been ivory. Maybe even older than he was, passed down from his own father, although he never said as much. It had a severe beauty about it, sort of like a moray eel has. I was never tempted to try it – too dangerous, too easy to slip and slice, I thought.
I was surprised to find that, despite its venerable history (the oldest ones date back 3,500 years or so but the steel-bladed version more common today dates from 1680 CE), straight razors are still being manufactured – and used – today.
My father – born in 1914 – used a safety razor – the sort of all-metal device that had a double-edged blade where you unscrewed a knob on the bottom of the razor to open the top where the blade sat. It was first introduced in 1904 with King Camp Gillette’s patent, and hasn’t changed a lot since.
My father’s razor had heft and solidity; the knurled handle felt secure. He’d fill the sink with water and swirl the razor in the soapy water to clean it as he shaved in confident strokes.
I can’t exactly remember when, but I seem to recall him having one with a butterfly head that opened like wings to replace the blade. I remember turning the knob to open and close those wings. It had a satisfying sensation of engineering know-how; the very model of the industrial revolution’s ingenuity.
I did try that type of safety razor, way back when I first started shaving, albeit briefly. Not being terribly coordinated then, I cut myself easily, so I switched to something less likely to draw my blood in spurts.
I – a boomer child of the 1950s – went higher tech when it was my turn: I started with a convenient cartridge (injector) razor, one of those single-edged blades that you pushed from a small metal container into the razor every month or so to easily replace the dulled one. Introduced as the cutting edge – forgive the pun – of shaving tech in the 1920s by Schick, it evolved little by the time I took it up. Plastic handle, little grace in the design, but much utility. Easily purchased in any grocery or drug store, and not expensive. And not quite as likely to slit my throat as other types. (While no longer popular, versions of the injector are still being made by smaller companies)
Years later, I still prefer single blade razors, by the way, although they are rarely seen on drugstore shelves outside of disposable versions. And that disposable notion bothers me, enough to want to change a lifetime of shaving habits. So read on…
Over the years, I went techier. I tried a lot of the latest razors – I’m an early adopter by nature – the high-tech blades and accessories, even using several models of electric shaver. I graduated from the single to the twin-blade, then the triple and even the quintuple, the blades with Teflon or lotion-infused strips, the handles that vibrate, the memory gel handles, and the ones that look like they belong more on the belt of a character in Star Wars than a bathroom counter.
Throw-away stuff, a lot of them. Not one of them older than two or three years remains with me.
Five blade heads? Six-blade heads? Why not eleven? Or twenty-three? Come on… it got silly at three and looked more and more like a con game to sell more expensive plastic and metal after that. Gimcrackery, the lot. The curmudgeon in me arose against them.
Disposable? Hah. You mean something you buy then throw away for it to sit in a landfill for a few centuries. Not recyclable, not compostable, not something that will deteriorate into harmless biological film.
Bic introduced the first all-plastic “disposable” razor in 1974 and I’d bet ones from that first year can still be found intact in waste sites, buried in the trash. Probably some I owned, too. Along with millions of older blades… ain’t convenience grand?**
When I matured past my “oooh, shiny!” phase, I started to go back to the double and single blades. The elegance of simplicity appealed to me. Back to the basics. But I never went back to my father’s safety razor.
To be fair, I never really thought much about the environmental impact of shaving until recently. And it pains me to admit that I didn’t because all these years I’ve been doing it without that much-needed thought. Nor, apparently, so have millions of others, according to Shave.com:
…in the US a staggering two billion disposable razors go to landfill sites every year, and in the UK we throw away millions more too. And because they’re made from plastics that do not break down, that means your disposable razor is going to be a part of the landscape for a very long time to come.
But it isn’t just a matter of disposal. The manufacture of razors is extremely labour and cost intensive, as is shipping them around the world. While aesthetics are important if you are to attract the buying public to your particular brand of razor, the consumer is now starting to consider more than just the obvious factors such as cost, looks and effectiveness. There’s more disposition amongst consumers to look at the bigger picture and to ask some deeper, more fundamental questions like – what impact is my morning shave having on the planet?
Even shaving cream – which I have tried, but don’t use – has a larger environmental impact than I’m comfortable with. And for younger men, that cream may lower your sperm counts, according to recent research. As the Emporium Barber notes:
Did you know that, that can of “shaving cream cream for sensitive skin” contains surfactant chemicals that will eventually make your skin unable to hydrate itself? Then you’ve got Propylene Glycol that is commonly used for brake fluid’s and antifreeze, and has been linked to kidney problems, asthma and eczema. Top that with the mineral oils that clog up your pores, and you’ll soon end up looking like Freddy Kruger.
Sigh. Slow death by shaving cream.***
And then there are the increasingly popular “shaving clubs” where subscribers get automatically sent boxes of disposable razors (or just the blades) every month. Propped up by slick advertising, they promise cheaper but better shaves. But it’s more marking fluff, say other sources, and warn that the promises don’t live up to the delivery. The Emporium Barber site notes:
There is a fallacy that having the proper shaving instruments is a costly experiment, but it is not. Once you compare the initial cost of purchasing top grade shaving tools to the price of buying those branded disposable razor cartridges over a year, you will come out ahead.
And an article on Market Watch titled, “Does Dollar Shave Really Save?” noted:
Aside from price, some Dollar Shave Club customers are questioning the service’s reliability and billing practices. On the company’s Facebook page, between the raves and the woots, are persistent complaints from clients upset that Dollar Shave took their orders, but now says blades won’t be delivered until May 15.
Some of these subscription services also sell other products like shaving cream and inappropriately-named “flushable” face wipes which are a nightmare for wastewater facilities because they clog pipes and equipment (really: if you use these things STOP flushing them! They are a disaster and the extra work to clear those clogs costs water utilities a lot of money). When they send you a blade a week – where do those used blades end up? Right: the landfill site because you can’t recycle them.
And what’s in those tiny “lubricating strips” on blade? Can they actually lubricate when they follow, not precede the blades? Do they contain enough ingredients in that small space to actually work as advertised or are they another wacky marketing trick to separate consumers from their money? Something else that also can’t be recycled because they contain polyethylene glycol (PEG) – which is arguably something you don’t want on your skin or in the landfill (see the patent, here).
So what can anyone do – and this is an issue for both men and women – to improve our shaving’s environmental footprint? And make no mistake: we ALL have a responsibility to at least try to reduce our footprint, from not idling your car unnecessarily (and being cold or hot doesn’t count as a necessity), to conserving water to avoiding plastic bags and straws. We all have to help and to be more eco-friendly, more responsible and more considerate of the planet. Yes, I suppose electric would be the most eco-friendly – but only until it broke down and went into the trash, too. And besides, electrics never seem to give as good a shave.
My advice, shaving-wise: go old-fashioned.
(Sidebar: women shave various parts of their bodies for reasons beyond my simple understanding, but this article in Elle is a good discussion of the social pressures to do so, and this one in The Guardian is a good read, too).
Latherandblade.com says my father’s style of safety razor is becoming more and more popular among the cognoscenti who want to make the world less trashy:
Safety razors use less blades and contain no plastic. Thus, there is a little waste in their construction. Also, the blade can be recycled after use. Even though it results in excess shaving lather, it is cost saving and impacts less on the environment.
But where do you get one? I went to the local drugstores and grocery stores – I always try to shop locally – and baffled their employees by asking for one. In the few places where I could actually find an employee, that is. Only the drug stores even had the blades – each offered a single brand in small packs of five or ten at most. Lots and lots of the disposable, environmentally-hostile kinds of blades and razors, and many of the ones that look like heavy metal implements. Electric razors, too, and these are even sold in hardware stores. But no one sold the tried and true safety razors like my father used. One employee helpfully suggested I check Amazon.****
I considered the possibility they weren’t even made any more. Like gramophones, beta-max players or ethical politicians. But a quick trip to Amazon said that not only were they still in production, but that there are many options to choose from: Chinese knock-offs and bargain models for under $20 to top-end, highly-engineered German and Japanese models that sell for $250 or more. Ouch.
(Why with all these choices couldn’t a single local store stock even one type? Each store I visited had between 35 and 50 types of razor, most designed for the replaceable heads – all alike, aside from some cosmetic touches.)
Which to choose? Like with anything, that decision required some research: one of my favourite pastimes. Reading reviews, comparing models, looking for deals, reading forum and social media comments. One of the first things I learned is that the head design can significantly affect shaving: whether it’s open or closed comb, the amount of exposed blade (higher exposure is called “aggressive”), its angle or slant all play a part. But there are disagreements as to what role they play. For example, as Tools of Men notes:
While its widely claimed that open combed razors will provide a much closer shave than their closed comb counterparts, this just simply isn’t always true. While they are absent of the safety bar that’s found in the closed comb razors, open combs are designed to be able to cut a thicker and longer beard than a closed comb.
On the difference between open and closed comb, Prim and Prep notes:
The open comb head makes the shave much more aggressive because there is much less pressure taken by the guard bar and more pressure put on the blade.
The arguments online are as thick as midges in spring. Most, if not all, are, however, backed by personal experience or anecdote, not science, empirical experiment or double-blind tests. In other words: opinion, not fact.
By the way, there is nothing gender-related about men’s and women’s razors from an engineering point of view. Any difference is in the marketing and cosmetic touches (colour, for example), which generally pushes up the price of a razor sold as a woman’s compared to the price for the identical device sold for men.
And on top of that, I discovered I needed to learn about blades. The spartan selection found locally does not even begin to represent the wide range of blade brands available online: at least a dozen popular varieties, over which much digital ink has been spilt in arguments over which is best. Passions run high here, and fights break out over perceived millimeters of thickness. At least the blades are both reusable (as household tools) and recyclable.
After refining my choices to a rather handful of similarly-priced, popular models (eschewing both the high and low ends of the price scale), my biggest decision was which of the affordable, closed-comb English or German-made models to purchase (Edwin Jagger vs. Merkur). My heritage speaks to the former, but enough reviews suggested the latter, so I ordered a Merkur 23C. I think I’ll get the Jagger too, but a bit later. I suspect it will be like ukuleles- once you get one you gotta get another. Then another. Then another. Then another… *****
I ordered a couple of blade packs that offer a sampling so I could test for myself which one(s) best suited me. That may take a while, since I tend to keep my blades in use longer than most (and strop them, too). And I need to re-learn some shaving skills because it’s been many, many years since I held one of these razors, so I’m back to novice. Shades of teenhood! I expect nicks and cuts for a few days. or weeks.
But it’s one step to reduce what I dispose of, one step to lightening the load on the landfill. Even if it’s a just small step, every one counts.
* Beyond the Fringe skit:
** You can extend the life of any blade, even the disposable ones, with several methods, but I generally just stop them a few times on old jeans or the inside of an old belt now and then to keep them reasonably sharp. Drying them after use also helps. A little effort helps keep them from the trash bin while they’re still usable. My blades tend to last a couple of months that way.
** From the Emporium Barber, more stuff to consider (and buy):
A cream differs from a soap because it’s an emulsion of oils and water. A soap, on the other hand, is an emulsifier in itself which helps it to form a foam and lather to remove the natural oils on the face. This works well for shaving but can cause the skin on the face to dry out faster. A cream, on the other hand, provides a layer of oil back to the face while you shave, thus helping to prevent the skin from drying out.
**** One drugstore in town even sells the old Schick single-blade cartridges I used back in the 1970s. I almost bought a pack out of nostalgia. It’s in a section that also sells tubes of Brylcreem. Did finding that bring back memories. A little dab’ll do ya…
***** In ukulele land, it’s called UAS – ukulele Acquisition Syndrome. I am somewhat cured of it, having only a dozen ukes left. Guitarists suffer from a similar disorder.