Post Shave

The fact is, I never put much focus on alum, splashes, balms, powder and moisturizer in my own routine, until I was three years into it and felt like I had mastered everything else. Of course, I had not. But it is better to prevent damage than ameliorate. If one simply shaves less closely, with a less chemically active soap, the completely intact, non-inflamed skin gives a distinct sensation upon drydown. I strongly suggest you adopt that as the correct frame of reference.

Yet the cosmetics industry seems pretty secure in asserting direct, product-result correlations in this sphere. For once, commercialism is the authentic tradition. It bores me. In spite of that, I did eventually figure out how to care for my skin, all the better for shaving. It's a bit of a long story, I'm sorry to say. If you'd prefer more product reviews, you are excused.

Going Alternative

Ammonium alum, which I already possessed as a deodorant when I began in this way of shaving, is an exception to the rule, little more than a cosmetic commodity. The general category to which it belongs is "astringent," or "toner." I, however, quickly dismissed it as an irritant to broken skin. Imported, natural potassium alum didn't sting as much on cuts and abrasions, but still seemed to insult my face, over the course of a day. The aftershaves derived from mass market colognes burned even worse. Witch hazel offered a gentler alternative, but I didn't care for the smell. So I would simply dilute my preferred scents, cologne or aftershave, in a washcloth. Or vinegar, when I felt like an all-natural approach. These left my skin feeling less tender, and hopefully, somewhat sanitized.

Later, I discovered my own gift of nature: pumpkin juice. Decorative pumpkins, not carved into jack-o'-lanterns, had been left to freeze in my yard. Still wanting the delicious seeds, I cut them open on the next warmer day, when they were somewhat soft and deflated-looking. I found that not only were the seeds much easier to remove, but the flesh had decomposed into a spongy material. What had once been intracellular fluid now filled the cavity, and even more could simply be squeezed from the inverted carcass.

Pumpkin juice has a gel-like quality, soothing on a burn, and an immediate skin-tightening effect. If it does form a mask, a single drop of shaving oil, carefully distributed, perfects the finish. I therefore originally considered it to be an ideal balm. But its biological activity deeper in the skin can exacerbate inflammation and potentially lead to scarring or hyperpigmentation, when injury is present. Its true cosmetic category is "exfoliator," which stimulates cell turnover.

Mechanically extracted pumpkin juice is known and said to be rich in anti-aging substances. "Pumpkin ferment," often referred to as "enzymes" because of the decomposition, is an increasingly common cosmetic ingredient. My independent discovery might merely provide an authentic context, which is a remarkable reversal of the maple syrup story: a kind of sap harvested at the beginning of winter, from a dying plant, filled with antioxidants. I prize the substance as a hair softening serum, and find new uses all the time. However, cosmetics containing retinoids and alpha-hydroxy acid frequently bear warnings about wearing in sunlight, again, because of the inflammation risk. 

Turning Back the Clock

In the summer of 2015, I was researching a "new" product for my flea market business, Florida Water. This stuff is so old (1808), it predates our concept of "aftershave" by about a hundred years. It is the original, American version of Eau de Cologne. Used more to provide comfort to the wearer than create an impression, I would describe the fragrance as a combination of Old Spice and my favorite candy, Haribo Happy Cola, with the strength of the latter.

Baseball teams in the South put a few capfulls in a lunchbox cooler full of icewater and refresh at innings with an immersed cloth... not unlike my improvised toilet water. The same product is popular in China, where I imagine the humidity is comparable to the east coast of this continent. I guessed that citric acid, concealed as a fragrance ingredient, was the chemical difference saving me from pain. Duru Limon would eventually define what I call "cologne." Every non-citrus or stinging fragrance is "toilet water," while "aftershave" is, to me, a more open category centered around benzoin and benzoic acid. I'm not the one in charge, though. I can only confirm that Florida Water is indeed very comforting to hot, sticky skin, and seemed to cure a decent case of razor burn, concluding an experiment to see how long a Personna blade really lasts.

Coming Clean with Alum

Without the sting of traditional aftershave, I knew I'd want to leave the Florida Water on my skin full strength, no wet cloth. And it just didn't seem right to have no painful astringent... so I chose ammonium alum. Wet face, apply alum, wait a minute, rinse. Pat dry, apply Florida Water, fan with towel. Wow, I thought, that was different. I didn't feel irritated, or even numb. I felt... cured. And suddenly, I knew that I had never given alum a fair shake. It held back the penetration of the splash perfectly.

Googling a completely different topic (ways to denature protein), I learned that powdered potassium alum is used to purify cloudy water in places like India. So I poured 4 ounces of water back and forth between a glass mug and a cup containing Arko, making it cloudy with soap. I then used a toenail knife to scrape alum powder from my deodorant crystal, maybe 60 mg, and stirred it into the mug. As I expected, the soap (or some substantial components) precipitated as soft floating clumps -- after about a minute.

Whatever alum may or may not do to stop bleeding and disinfect minor wounds, I believe what makes it most useful in shaving is that it helps rinse soap clean away from the skin. Soap scum, not alum, is the irritant that plagues later in the day. KEEP THE FACE WET for a moment, then take it off with a wrung cloth.

Deliberately Dirty

Noting the clay ingredient in my favorite artisan soap, I once bought a pound of bentonite from an online vitamin store. It didn't seem too useful for doctoring Ivory lather, so it sat on the shelf awhile, until curiosity about powder finally got the best of me. I quickly learned that bentonite's absorptive powers are not to be underestimated. Applied like makeup or baby powder, it was much too drying.

On the other hand, I observed that it sucked enough fluid to the surface of flaky skin lesions to seal them immediately. Light dustings, wet down with a spray bottle, perfectly conditioned hair and scalp, as if I had just been swimming at the lake. For off-label, internal use -- brushing teeth, digestive aid, nasal rinse and ear wash -- shaking a brush over a cup of water and swirling produced a suitably dilute mixture.

In every case, clay made me feel stronger, in the sense of physical integrity. Teeth were more firmly rooted; my abs turned to concrete overnight. As good as the postshave feel is with clay-enriched soaps and creams, I'd rather have that strength in my preshave. Placing my snurdle of cold cream in the palm of my non-dominant hand, I shake a kabuki brush over it, then mix it up before applying to the face.

I conclude that having a water supply with no dirt in it isn't natural, and just as I once had "sensitive skin," I apparently also had a "leaky gut." I now join parrots and aboriginal people around the world in geophagy. If everyone got enough vitamin D and silicates, I think modern medicine would be out of business... or at least restructuring.

Moisture: Inside Out

Each autumn, when the natural synthesis of vitamin D began to dwindle, I noticed my facial skin thickening and hardening, as if it were begging me to grow a beard for the winter. I scolded it with unrepeatable epithets, then used the most moisturizing shaving medium ever conceived, Kiss My Face moisture shave, to eliminate it. But what remained had a poor, orange-rind texture, and was translucent enough to expose years of photodamage, acne, and other mishaps, not to mention hair stubs.

This seasonal cycle really turned me on to the larger arena of dermatology. I already had a vague sense that glycerin wasn't my friend, not in shaving soap, anyway. I learned that the stratum corneum is not to be simply considered "dead skin," but rather a vital part of the larger organ. A less goopy shaving medium and aftershave allow the barrier to signal deeper tissues for reinforcement: more corneocytes and "natural moisturizing factor," NMF. Glycerin, on the other hand, upregulates aquaporin, leaving the barrier more water-permeable.

Hoping to maintain a thicker, smoother epidermis, I aimed to limit the exfoliation and moisturizing coincidental to shaving. I kept to my gentlest razors when skin was at its toughest, rather than taking it as a green light for overexposed edges. Cheap, non-enriched soap did present a technical challenge, but prevented poofy, large-pored, "distressed" skin. Reconceiving skincare as akin to muscular fitness, I shifted my focus from nurturing to toning. Substituting astringent witch hazel for less penetrating alum helped keep the skin from looking like an "old bag," yet moisture from within permeated more easily, as nature intended. Pre- or post-shave, it directly counteracted the destructive effects of glycerin. The freedom from inflammation that I had previously only experienced with oil cleansing, became the new baseline!

I conclude that it is best to keep overt, artificial moisturizing and exfoliating temporally separate from the shave itself --  if they are needed at all. Moisturizer can be an excellent cleanser for removing irritating, glycerin soap residue, which may account for much of the confusion at large. Make a balm by mixing it with the splash of your choice -- but I'd still wipe it off. Likewise, fruit acids help to soften stubble and make the skin smoother as preshave, but are best not left on your face all day. An ideal compromise, when the face feels like a lifeless mask, is to use virgin coconut oil as the finishing cleanser/balm base.

Witch hazel toner demonstrates a good balance of conditioning ingredients for the humidity of summer. (Tip: bring in some alum, and you can make your own, perfectly filmy antiperspirant!) But in the dark of winter, a drop of oil home-made from liquid D3 supplement, meant to replace summer's sun, seals my skin. Cocoa butter and/or jojoba oil are more emollient and dry, respectively, but signal for internal moisture as the day progresses. Bedtime is the right time to turn over a new leaf with pumpkin juice, because excessively horny skin will make shaving bumps more likely in the morning. I learned that from African-American shavers, who, interestingly, have the lowest vitamin D of anyone.

But Wait... There's More

Returning to the topic of acute shaving wounds, I've found that a solution of 1/2 tsp. baking soda in a cup of water, "boo-boo juice," is good for washing cuts at all stages of healing. The alkalizing solution seems to shut down the metabolic signals (by saponifying esters, probably) that promote scarring. Actually, that recipe is an old remedy to quiet inflammation and fight a cold or flu. I've come to believe that sensitive skin is a reflection of metabolic acidosis -- to the extent that it isn't an excuse for inferior products and methods.

To stop bleeding, break out the toilet paper: daub, styptic... repeat as needed, then ointment (triple antibiotic, or plain vaseline). With the broken skin thus sealed, I think you will find the above aftershave routines a bit more enjoyable! Only as a last resort, the classic pinch of TP will absorb blood until the petrolatum "well cap" seals itself.

Razor burn is more painful than any shaving cut. I hope my lessons have taught you to avoid it! But my ace in the hole is "Psoriasis" creme from the Dollar Tree, which is a generic form of Dermarest. I hate to mention specific products, but if I told you "salicylic acid," you might choose an acne toner. (Ouch!)