Skin Preparation

Many shavers are under the mistaken impression that shaving oil is primarily a lubricant. It is oil, after all. They try a homemade shaving oil recipe, find soap to be less messy and slicker, and forget about it. They have missed the point. So did I.

The many uses of shaving oil

At the flea market, I met actual live shavers who didn't use any soap or even water, which left me completely dumbfounded. I learned online that shaving on oil was the next closest thing. Having seen those dry shavers in the wild, I decided that further investigation, beyond the kitchen cupboard, was warranted. So I picked up some castor oil from the megalomart, some essential oils from online, and made an opportunistic purchase of argan oil from the beauty department of a discount store.

As I was researching how to mix them, I discovered this Crunchy Betty article on oil cleansing. Nothing has so greatly influenced the way I think about my skin. I did my first oil cleanse with a mix of 50/50 castor/argan, and was amazed at how comfortable and youthful-looking it left me.

In further testing, I found that, if applied sparingly as a pre-shave, my new shaving oil softened hair more than lather alone. It was a neo-traditional, consumer focus that led me to coat myself like a frying pan at first try. Two to five drops simply shifts the balance of protection in favor of the skin, so lather and blade can take more hair.

I discovered that a single drop, carefully distributed, makes the most minimal post-shave moisturizer. And indeed, I could even shave on the oil alone, with splashes of water in advance of the blade. Shaving on oil is significantly better than shaving with nothing, and it travels light. Still, I would not recommend it over shaving soap. Yes, oil provides barrier-like protection, both chemical and physical. However, that is more than negated by increased friction and poor angle selection.

Barbers' steamed towels, on the other hand, suddenly made a lot more sense. Time and culture have somehow perverted the hot towel into a separate, sensory experience, intended to add intangible value to the service. Sebum is softened, but mostly left in place. Or, a near miss in the other direction: the hot towel is applied to insulating, wasted lather, purportedly to soften the beard. Some follicle crud may be dissolved, but cleansing is not the strong suit of shaving soap. Only in oil cleansing is the thermal energy of the hot towel put to fullest use.

Pre-shave = oil cleansing

And here's how to do it. Apply four or five drops of shaving oil to fingertips, and share with the fingers of the other hand. Dab around the beard area of the dry face to distribute evenly, then rub it in. Reload fingertips and add more if needed. Apply a very hot, wet, half-squeezed washcloth to the same area. After a few moments, when the heat has dissipated, remove and repeat, as desired. Wipe the bulk of the oil away with a hot, damp, fully-squeezed cloth, then proceed with your shave.

With the cheesy component of its matrix destroyed, the skin deflates. It seems to relax in the presence of clean oil, relieved of its duty to protect. Follicles hang loosely about the hair like stretched-out gym socks. But there is a volume reduction at the surface, too, as intercellular lipids, "mortar" of the skin barrier, are also dissolved. Skin is tightened, retracting even before the action of brush and razor, allowing greater access to stubble.

If you don't mind the smell, and don't intend to apply it in any stand-alone role, cooking oil may well work for you. Mineral oil is the second foundation of the cosmetics industry, after glycerin, and is frequently found languishing in one's bathroom cupboard as baby oil. Certain purpose-made skin cleansers are also inexpensive and effective. Dry application seems to be the clue as to which will work. Cetaphil and Noxzema have greater activity than oil, making hot water unnecessary. Beware substances that plump up the skin rather than tighten it. But even hair conditioner and hand lotion can be used successfully, once the principle is understood.

Rosewater marks the aqueous end of the oil-cleansing spectrum, though it is usually considered a "toner." Witch Hazel, U.S.P. from which the ethanol has been evaporated overnight is similar. There are more expensive, glycerin and aloe versions, that make me forget how much I hate glycerin shaving soap. These may be exceptions to the rule, applying a penetrating chemical defense to the skin's living tissue as they cleanse.

Witch Hazel has, for me, become the foundation of a tiered shave prep, when I get serious about shaving close. Oil, dilute baking soda solution, pumpkin juice, a smear of soap, and a wet cloth are all applied in particular, ever-shifting iterations as I seek, once and for all, to unlock hair to hydration, and seal skin against injury. "Method Shaving" is another elaborate approach. The sky's the limit: go as far as your creativity -- or desperation -- carries you. I've only elucidated the common ground here.

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