The Zen of Shaving

Somerset Maugham observed that “in each shave lies a philosophy”.
w somerset maugham
In 2009, Haruki Murakami introduced me to this aphorism when he applied it to his daily ritual of running. Murakami went on to write that “No matter how mundane an action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes contemplative, even meditative”.

Extending the ritual a few feet away, from the shaving mirror to the shower, it comes as no surprise that many of us get bright ideas in the shower. The nature of the shower, with eyes mostly closed, eliminating external stimuli, focussed on just one act at a time, helps the sub-conscious mind create some of our better ideas. By logical extension, world changing ideas should occur in the bathtub. Balzac and Ben Franklin wrote extensively in the bathtub and we all know what happened to Archimedes in the tub. A shave is a faster, coarser and less joyous ritual compared to a shower but nonetheless has meditative potential.
Maugham’s aphorism has stayed with me in many different ways since the day I first read it. Today when I look at myself in the mirror before the shave, I cannot help thinking about the philosophical implications of each stroke of the razor. I find it remarkable that one single line written by Maugham could elevate my daily ritual of nearly twenty years from ennui to Zen.
And One day I realized that as much as “in each shave lies a philosophy” there is also an underlying philosophy to the shave itself, a finer contemplation of the act that yielded much refinement.
My Shaving Philosophy
The first refinement or evolution in the shaving philosophy happened with the after-shave lotion. The heady, spicy, musky fragrance and the mental images of surfing, set to music from Carmina Burana, really compensated for the sharp sting of the denatured alcohol in the after-shave for several years. Razor burn and cuts (especially from cheap single blades in the dark ages) were supposedly taken care of by the alcohol. I always knew there had to be a better solution than rubbing alcohol on raw skin but until recently I did not have the motivation to look for it.
(Of course, to discuss why the alcohol based after shave is not a good idea on the dimensions of health and environmental safety will require another article entirely.)
The better way was always available in any low brow barber shop, the alum, a rough, milky-coloured stone-like block, that the barber would wet and rub the customer’s face with. Alum (potash alum) is a naturally occurring crystalline compound that has been used for centuries as an after shave for its astringent and haemostatic properties.
alum

Alum

I picked up a 75 gram block of alum for Rs 12 a couple of years ago and it works really well, with a mild tingle which was not really a sting, and pleasant fragrance. There is also a marked astringent action for a few seconds as you feel the gentle tightening of the facial skin.
The real surprise is that after two years of regular use, the 75 gram alum block still seems to be a 75 gram block and is a prime candidate to bequeath or become a family heirloom. The only way to reduce its weight apparently is to lose it or break it.
The alum block is so effective, elegant, and versatile and eerily long lasting, it makes me wonder why we abandoned it in the first place. It now occupies a place of pride in my shaving philosophy.
The Foaming Can
The next piece of the Shaving philosophy to go under the microscope was the shaving foam can. The real purpose of any shaving foam or soap is to create a rich lather that will then

  • Reduce friction for the razor
  • Provide a protective covering over the skin preventing cuts
  • Make the stubble stand on end for a closer shave

Today the most popular format is shaving foam or gel delivered in a pressurized metal can or aerosol can. Aerosol cans are straight away bad news from an environmental perspective. Although we are well past the dark era when CFC based aerosols were burning holes in the ozone layer , the whole aerosol mechanism to produce shaving foam comes at an absurd environmental cost.
Consider this: the aerosol can requires the metal can, the plastic lid, the hydrocarbon propellants, the highly manufactured valve mechanism, the paraben preservatives, the foaming agents just to produce a handful of foam that might save a few seconds in the morning. How difficult is to pick up a brush and work up a lather with basic shaving soap? The aerosol can is environmentally expensive to make or safely dispose and offers little potential for easy recycling.
Further depending upon your point of view of toxic household chemicals, all shaving foams and gels contain a cocktail of the usual suspects of Parabens, Sodium LauryL Sulfate ( SLS), strong fragrances that release VOC ( volatile organic compounds) ,which makes the shaving can format highly questionable.
There is then the technical debate on whether the shaving foam from a pressurized delivers on the afore mentioned three basic requirements. The gas from the foam could push the hair down instead of making it stand on end, reducing the closeness of the shave. Some have argued that the shaving foam does not protect the skin from cuts like a rich lather and merely offers lubrication for the razor.
I have decided that the very manly shaving ritual should not start with a sissy can of foam. A simple brush and an honest shaving soap obviate many of the environmental hazards and deliver a nice wake-up call on a groggy morning.
What next?
The shaving philosophy is evolving. Wet shaving versus dry shaving? Disposable razors or straight blades, those literally take you to life on the bleeding edge.
I cannot claim that my solution has solved all the problems of the shaving philosophy like Wittgenstein did with the entire subject of philosophy after writing his opus “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”. Then again, growing a beard could put an end to the shaving philosophy and grant you an environmental halo.
 

0 thoughts on “The Zen of Shaving

  1. Hi,
    Really useful post.Its true.I’ve grown up seeing my father use it daily.Not only for an after shave,I heard that it is an anti dandruff product.(Mix a cup of water with 2 spoons of powdered alum,apply it on ur scalp and wash it after an hour).I think we’ve a natural solution for everything which our ancestors tested and used.Looking forward to find more eco friendly ideas for a green living.Thank you for your posts.
    Best Wishes,
    Malini.

    1. Hey Malini, Thank you !

  2. Hi – wisdom dawned atlast for me 2 months ago when i replaced the heads and shoulder shampoo with a shampoo free of SLS . using mayonnaise on the head helps a dry scalp to bulk up on the protein.

    1. Awesome Anrosh!

  3. Alum can be used for body odor too..

    1. Hello Malti!
      Thank you for dropping by.
      Yes , Alum is a fantastic deo as well – we use it quite regularly, and are always amazed at how well it works. Thank you for pointing that out.

  4. Good post.
    I have been using aloe vera as a substitute for shaving cream and it is great. It is so effective, I am able to use twin track blades which I had discarded and get at least 20% more shaves. The skin is smooth after shave and I see no need for after-shave lotions. Lastly, it does save money!

    1. Sounds like a great idea – will ask Srini to try this out too.

  5. Well, after turning vegan in 2008, the first change was the jettisoning of the aerosol shaving cream can. I switched to Godrej shaving soap and obtained a brush with the hope that it may not have been tested on animals. I haven’t been able to locate a block of alum that easily. Is it available in all grocery shops?

    1. Yes it is Mohan – at the more traditional grocers. Ask for the alum shaving stone. You could also get this at a Nattu Marundhu Kadai, but they would have the uncut lumps which are used for water purification. The shaving stone variety looks neater and is like a block of soap.

    2. You can get it from Naatu marunthu kadai

  6. oh forgot to mention as for padikaaram [in tamil]

  7. New to your site and your blog. Discovered it as I was browsing for organic initiatives as part of study for a similar initiative of my own. Truly appreciate the work you are doing, and wish you all the best.

    1. Thank you Subhorup!

  8. […] of octenals besides being hazardous to humans and environment. A alum stick which we blogged about earlier is a super […]

  9. Where do you get the Alum crystal from? I live in Pune and haven’t been able to find it anywhere. Can you supply this with my order for Krya dishwashing powder?

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