As anyone with a television knows, shaving razors are high-tech. Men’s razors have gone from one blade to six, and they feature vibrating blades, rubber fins to stretch the skin and gooey strips to reduce friction. The money involved in shaving is staggering. According to Forbes, Gillette’s 35 percent profit margin is the highest of any Procter and Gamble brand, and the personal grooming market for men and women combined is worth $14 billion in annual sales.
But a band of contrarians gathering at such Web sites as Badger and Blade and Reddit.com’s Wicked Edge claim that, for all the change in men’s razors, we’ve made no progress. They say that multi-blade razors — often touted in commercials for their ability to “lift and cut” the hair beneath the skin line — are a major cause of ingrown hairs. They also say that dragging six blades across the face causes more bumps and irritation than a single blade would.
The darling of these shaving contrarians is the double-edged safety razor: a handle attached to a metal guard that exposes just the edge of a simple, two-sided blade. Conspiracy theorists say big companies largely abandoned the model, which dominated men’s shaving throughout the early and mid 20th century, when they realized that making five-cent blades wasn’t a growth industry. Anyone could manufacture them at bargain basement prices. So “big shave” developed a patentable product for which it could command a premium without direct competition.
Let’s take a step back and examine the science of shaving. The first comprehensive academic paper on the topic I could find was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1937, when two Pittsburgh scientists, Lester Hollander and Elbridge Casselman, conducted a delightful set of experiments. The researchers found, for example, that freshly cut hairs grow very quickly at first, before slowing to a rate of just under half an inch per month. Hairs almost never grow perpendicular to the face, but rather at an angle of 31 to 59 degrees. This can bedevil those seeking a close shave, because the hairs don’t stand up for cutting.
Hollander and Casselman noted that hair is composed largely of keratin, a substance that absorbs water easily, softening it and making it easier to cut through. The scientists weighted shafts of hair and submerged them in water, measuring how long it took for the hair to reach its maximum stretch. If warm, soapy water is used, it takes 21
2 to three minutes to fully hydrate and soften a facial hair.
Shaving removes almost as much skin, by volume, as hair, according to the study. The scraping away of the outer layer of skin likely accounts for much of the discomfort of shaving, with the scientists arguing that stiffer shaving lather and shaving no more than once every two days ameliorated the effect.
All of Hollander and Casselman’s experiments were based on the safety razor, which was most Americans’ weapon of choice in the 1930s. Disposable cartridge razors didn’t become popular until the 1970s. By that time, shaving was big business, and almost all of the research on razors and hair removal was produced or funded by the industry itself.