Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Ethics of Traditional Shaving Products Pt 1: Animal products and ingredients

In our latest shipment of shaving goodies from the UK, we received some fantastic vegan-friendly Synthetic Silvertip brushes from Edwin Jagger, and some luxurious but decidedly non-vegetarian shaving soaps from D.R. Harris made with animal tallow- a very traditional and effective ingredient, but one that many manufacturers have abandoned. Now seems to be as good a time as any to take a look at some of the options that ethically-minded consumers have with regards to traditional grooming products. For the first part, we'll take a look at vegan and vegetarian options. 

Disclaimer: I am neither vegetarian nor vegan. However, I DO put thought into decisions involving animal products, and all else being equal, I'll pick the animal friendly option. 

The Ethics of Traditional Shaving Products Pt 1: Animal products and ingredients

Back when your great Grandfather's generation was using a brush and soap to shave, wet-shaving was a decidedly non-vegan affair. All of the available shaving brushes would have been made from animal hair, and all soaps would originally have been made from processed animal fats. Straight razors would often have scales made of horn or bone and all razor blades would require maintenance using leather strops. Things have changed since then, and there are now many vegan/vegetarian friendly products for wet-shavers. Below we'll look at the vegan, vegetarian and non-vegetarian options available today, and what their advantages and disadvantages are.


Brushes

Simpson's Berkeley Best Badger Brush
Simpson's Berkeley Best Badger Brush


For a long time, the only animal friendly alternatives to shaving brushes have been nylon or ethically sourced horse-hair brushes. Nylon compares poorly to natural fibers for most purposes (Although it works, it's only real strength is that it's cheap and it dries quickly if you need to throw it in a travel kit), while horse hair, though good, has never been as popular as badger, as it holds less water and generally has less "backbone" for dealing with hard soaps (that said, I have one, and I like it for lathering creams).

Vie-Long Ethically Sourced Horse Hair Shaving Brush
Vie-Long Ethically Sourced Horse Hair Shaving Brush


However, synthetic brushes have advanced significantly in the last few years, and the latest generation of synthetic badger brushes are very similar to the "real deal". Although most men can tell the difference in a side-by-side comparison, the quality of the shaving experience with the latest Synthetic Silvertip brushes is close to that of the real thing, and many men are switching over to the synthetics. An added advantage of the synthetic brushes is that they still have nylon's resistance to becoming "musty" if thrown into a travel kit in a hurry.


Edwin Jagger Synthetic Silvertip Shaving Brush
Edwin Jagger Synthetic Silvertip Shaving Brush

The brands to consider for synthetic brushes are: Edwin Jagger, Muhle, HL Thater
For ethically sourced horse-hair, your best bet is Vie-Long.

Soaps

D.R. Harris Shaving Soap- an animal tallow based option
D.R. Harris Shaving Soap- an animal tallow based option


All soaps are made using processed fatty acids. Traditionally, the fatty acids for high quality soaps were sourced from animal tallow (rendered animal fat), as this was a readily available source of the fatty acids needed. In modern times there has been a movement away from animal ingredients in soaps, and many big-name shaving soap manufacturers (Taylor of Old Bond Street, Truefitt and Hill, Geo F Trumper, Klar Seifen) have reformulated their shaving soaps around fatty acids derived from palm oil and coconut oil. Others, like D.R. Harris, have proudly stuck to their old formulas, on the belief that tallow is still the most effective option (their "Naturals" shaving soap IS vegetable based however).

Taylor of Old Bond Street Shaving Soap- reformulated without animal tallow
Taylor of Old Bond Street Shaving Soap- reformulated without animal tallow


These reformulations have been controversial with many wet-shaving enthusiasts, as some feel that these reformulations have changed the lathering experience of these soaps (whether the change is for the worse or not is also a matter of debate). While manufacturers can in theory recreate animal tallow's fatty acid profile using vegetable sources, it is entirely possible that some companies have done so less well than others.

Klar Seifen Shaving Soap- a very popular vegetable based option
Klar Seifen Shaving Soap- a very popular vegetable based option


Klar Seifen are definitely a brand that got the change right. Their shaving soaps have been consistently praised for their lathering ability, and not only are they committed to using vegetable oils, they are experimenting with different vegetable oil bases to ensure their products are as good as they can be.

eShave's Avocado and Linden Shaving soap- another vegetable based option
eShave's Avocado and Linden Shaving soap- another vegetable based option


eShave are also notable; as a newer company they formulated their soaps to be free of animal ingredients from the start, and they also have an excellent reputation.

Vegans and vegetarians are advised to avoid products listed as tallow soaps on the excellent Badger and Blade wiki.

Alternatives to Leather Strops

Dovo Inox Straight Razor with Olivewood Scales
Dovo Inox Straight Razor with Olivewood Scales


Provided you buy a model with scales (handles) made from non-animal ingredients, there is no reason why a straight razor wouldn't be suitable for a vegan. Things get a little more complicated when you get to the "essential maintenance" part of shaving (assuming you aren't using a straight razor that takes disposable blades- they're maintenance free).

A traditional (and distinctly non-vegan) hanging leather strop
A traditional (and distinctly non-vegan) hanging leather strop


While a razor blade may look like one perfectly smooth and fine edge to the naked eye, under a microscope it will look rather "ragged", with many little burrs and imperfections. On a sharp and ready-to-shave razor, all these little burrs are aligned with each other, forming the edge. As your razor dulls with use, these burrs become folded back and mis-aligned. Stropping is a daily maintenance task that helps to correct this, and is essential for keeping your shave comfortable.

The process of stropping involves drawing the blade along your strop, with the blade flat against the strop, spine first with the sharp edge trailing, using little to no pressure ("rolling" the razor on it's spine after each pass so as to strop in both directions). Done properly, this action gently folds any microscopic burrs in the metal back into alignment with  the edge of the blade. Traditionally, this process is done on a smooth leather surface, either a hanging strop held taught, or a paddle strop where the leather is backed with wood. Leather is considered by many to be the best material for stropping with; it has just the right combination of pliability, softness but also strength to gently fold the fine metal edge into place, and it is smooth- essential if you are not to cause more problems in the blade.

For all it's suitability, there is nothing magic about leather- in theory any material with the right qualities can be used to stop a razor. By way of example (but not suggestion as it is probably not a practical answer for most people), the birch bracket fungus was once used to strop razors.

The Razor Strop fungus- image courtesy of CaptainPixel


Probably the best, and certainly most common recommendation is a synthetic strop. At least one manufacturer makes a synthetic strop- an artisan by the name of Tony Miller (who can be found easily enough by searching for "Tony Miller strops"). His work is in high demand and limited supply, but by all accounts worth it. Synthetic strops do have a different "feel" to leather, and there is no guarantee that they work quite as well yet, but certainly they can produce a shave-ready edge.

Another potential alternative is a denim strop, although this probably won't result in as smooth an edge as leather. Balsa strops exist, but are mainly used in combination with abrasive pastes for polishing an edge.
Some brave and presumably very careful individuals strop their razors using the palm of their hands. This is not something we recommend (and not something I'm in a hurry to try myself), and is only for people with good co-ordination, patience, and somewhere distraction-free to practice. But, by all accounts, it does work.

Finally, for those willing to compromise, there are occasionally restored vintage leather strops to be found. These are obviously not vegan or vegetarian, but from an ethical standpoint, some people who would not buy a new leather item may be able to justify it, and is arguably better than letting a leather product go to waste.

If in any doubt, barber-style straight razors with replaceable blades are probably still the best vegan option. They will guarantee you a sharp edge to shave with, and are still more economical and environmentally friendly than cartridge blades.

All of the products pictured here (minus the fungus) are available at the Kaliandee store.