Somewhere between the Paleolithic age and the dawn of recorded history, men began shaving. Today's contemporary stainless steel razors are unarguably a big improvement over the flakes of flint the first groomers likely used, but the shaving products offered today, even the natural ones, still bear a striking resemblance to the soaps and lotions formulated by the Greeks and other ancient peoples.
The cutting-edge shaving products formulated in recent years by natural products companies are really based on a few simple—and ancient—ideas. They make use of quality ingredients and basic formulations that manage to be highly effective while including moisturizing and healing qualities as an added benefit. "Here we are in the 21st century employing the same chemistry our ancestors did," says Chuck Friedman, scientific director of Burt's Bees based in Raleigh, N.C. Even the bay rum scent formulated by Burt's Bees—a blend of up to 10 essential oils—takes its cues from the original bay rum scent that Friedman says was used in the earliest men's shaving products.
Some consumers, used to the foaming aerosols that dominate the mainstream market, may initially shy away from natural shaving products, thinking them strange and different. But until recently, there were no aerosols, no petroleum by-products, no synthetic fragrances and no chemical preservatives. Instead, there were gentle, vegetable oil-based soaps scented with herbs and essential oils—strikingly similar to the natural shaving products offered today.
When comparing the ingredients of natural vs. mainstream shaving creams, shoppers will notice that the ingredients list for natural products tends to be shorter, with far fewer hard-to-pronounce additives. For example, Tom's of Maine shaving products contain only water, natural soaps from vegetable oils, glycerin from vegetable sources and natural oils for fragrance.
The Kennebunk, Maine-based company includes an ingredient purpose source box on each package of its natural mint and honeysuckle shaving creams. Kathleen Taggersell, team leader of corporate relationship development and communications for Tom's of Maine, explains the reason for this box. "Some people have sensitivities even to natural ingredients," she says. "For example, if they react to mint, they wouldn't want to choose a mint product." In addition, the information provided shows that some ingredients—such as sodium stearate—are actually derived from simple things like vegetable oils.
Mainstream products, on the other hand, almost always contain a bevy of potentially irritating ingredients, including petroleum-based lubricants, foaming agents such as sodium laureth and lauryl sulphate, and one or more chemical preservatives.
Burt's Bees Friedman formulated mainstream personal care products for many years before he began to develop natural ones. "A typical mainstream product contains all the poisons chemists cut their teeth on," he says, "including methyl and butyl parabens, which are synthetic compounds created to kill microorganisms. In a mainstream product, you'll find isopropyl isostearate and other hard-to-pronounce ingredients synthesized from petroleum. In Burt's Bees, you'll find olive oil and sunflower oil. When consumers read one of our labels, they'll find things they'd have in their pantries."
Friedman sees the Burt's Bees products—which include a shaving soap, cologne and aftershave balm—as a continuation of an ancient personal care lineage. "Burt's Bees as a whole is a throwback," he says. "Our shaving soaps harken back to thousands of years of indigenous production by native peoples."
The basic chemistry of combining alkalis and fats to create a lathering soap is the same today as it was at the dawn of history. But it would be a mistake to think that newer is better; these ancient shaving formulations are actually healthier for the skin than mass products, which are often both drying and irritating.
"There are a few good things about a natural soap over a synthetic soap," says Aubrey Hampton, president and research and development director for Aubrey Organics, based in Tampa, Fla. "When shaving, you're abrading your skin, taking away layers of dead skin cells, which leaves the skin very sensitive." Because the skin is left dry and abraded after shaving, Hampton says, many mainstream companies recommend an alcohol-based skin bracer, which acts as a disinfectant but can further dry the skin.
Natural soaps can avoid much of the abrasive action of shaving by including natural vegetable-based lubricants. "As you shave, a natural shaving cream helps guide the blade, especially if [the cream is] made with a good natural coconut oil base of some sort," Hampton says. Aubrey's mint and ginseng shaving cream uses such a base; thus, the company's mint ginseng aftershave doesn't require a base of alcohol to disinfect the skin after shaving. The company uses menthol, peppermint oil and ginseng to both lightly scent the product—"A lot of men don't like smelly, perfumy products on their skin," Hampton says—and to naturally disinfect and nourish the skin.
In fact, one of the significant differences between natural and mainstream products is in the way they are scented. Almost all mainstream products contain synthetic fragrances, which are often quite strong. Natural products, on the other hand, are scented with essential oils from plant sources. These oils not only have a less overpowering—and generally more pleasing—scent, they also have therapeutic benefits of their own.
Tim Schaeffer, marketing communications manager for Avalon Organics, based in Petaluma, Calif., says each of the four Avalon shaving lotions is formulated with a different therapeutic benefit in mind. "Lavender is soothing, lemon is a more refreshing feel, mint has a cooling feel and unscented aloe vera is moisturizing," he says.
In addition, 70 percent or more of the ingredients in the Avalon organics line are certified organic—again, the way all plant-derived ingredients were before the advent of chemical fertilizers. "That means you're getting something purer and more natural, not overly processed," Schaeffer says. "There are no herbicides, pesticides or other nasty chemical residues in the product."
In addition to the Avalon Organics line, the company also produces Alba Botanica shaving lotions that are more of a cream lotion, with less sudsing and foaming properties than the Avalon Organics line. Because they're enriched with vitamins A and E, Schaeffer says, the Alba Botanica products provide additional protection against chapped and dry skin.
Schaeffer also rebuts the notion some consumers may have that natural products won't perform as well as their mainstream counterparts. "There is still a resistance, especially with men," he says, "to move toward organics. The aerosol foams are what they're used to. But natural ingredients are actually much more moisturizing and better for the skin and perform just as well without the drying and irritation caused by mainstream products."
Tom's of Maine's two shaving creams have been successful for 25 years and much of that success can be attributed to the old-fashioned care the company takes in choosing ingredients, Taggersall says. "We don't use any animal products, artificial preservatives, [synthetic] fragrances or dyes in any of our products."
People are initially drawn to these natural alternatives for any number of reasons—because of chemical sensitivities, environmental concerns or just for the scents available. And naturals companies are committed to crafting these products not just to make a better shaving cream, but also because of the wider benefits of doing things naturally. "The tack Burt's Bees takes," says Friedman, "is to create as natural a product as possible, reach as many people as possible, and thereby reduce the amount of synthetic personal care poison that goes down the drain each day. Apparently we are succeeding."
And why shouldn't they? Providing a product that does everything it's supposed to and nothing that it's not—what's not to like about natural shaving cream?
Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer in Paonia, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 2/p. 42, 44, 48