I’m really bad at consumerism. Even as a highly-paid engineer I can’t stand spending money on most of the things in a mall or supermarket. Every time I try to buy something, I’m tormented by the knowledge that what I’m buying is mostly rent for the store, packaging, advertising, and additives and colorants I don’t need, and possibly the entire product category has been a manufactured need.
So, it was a given that my recent project of growing a beard was going to run into that. I will need some new products or practices to curb scratchiness and maintain the beard, but what?
In these modern times, of course there are startups who are trying to help. A friend recommended Birchbox, but I was revolted by their marketing angle – they’re trying to do to men what women’s magazines have long done to women. Every other tweet is “YOU’RE DOING $manlyThing WRONG!!” I suppose it’s gender equality, but in the wrong direction.
I’m not happy unless I’m getting something at a ridiculous deal, and doing something that’s been scientifically verified. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of great info. I subscribe to Consumer Reports, but even they just compare existing consumer products. They don’t do the null hypothesis – do you even need this? Nor do they test simpler, multipurpose ingredients (like, can you reuse oils that you get from the grocery store?).
So, long story short, here’s what I’m doing.
If you listen to podcasts you’ve heard about Dollar Shave and Harry’s. The business model is that they’ll mail you cheaper and better razor blades every month. Harry’s allegedly has a finer product (because Germany) but Dollar Shave is just reselling razor blades from Dorco, a Korean manufacturer. Lifehacker did a good story on them a few years ago: Dollar Shave’s entire value-add here is that they put them in the mail every month. So I got a supply from Dorco that will last me a very long time, and that takes up very little room, for just $20. I’m also happy to escape the insanity of razors with four, five, or six blades: two is plenty.
I actually started doing this before the whole beard project, but now that I’ll be shaving less, this supply might last me the decade for less than what I was paying every month or two.
That’s not even taking into consideration techniques like stropping – basically, honing the blade against a towel or old pair of jeans can extend the life of a razor blade for months. I don’t do that, but other people seem to have good results.
I’ve given up on beards before due to the period of scratchiness. So this time, I thought maybe I should take some steps to do that better. My girlfriend offered the use of some of her products, but since I have that allergic reaction to consumerism, I wanted to see if there were alternatives. What I learned:
Okay, so, one of the main reasons the beard feels scratchy is because the ends are still “sharp” from the last time you shaved. At a certain length, they tend to curl against your skin. This is unavoidable and you just have to deal with it until they’re long enough to be combable.
A secondary reason for itchiness is dry skin. The only purpose of beard oil is to replace the oil that was lost when you used soaps or shampoos. So step one, don’t over-clean the beard, and when you do, use a mild soap.
I already use a very mild soap – the unscented baby-mild version of Dr. Bronner’s. Yeah, I guess that makes me a hippie, but I discovered that during Burning Man prep, and have used it ever since. If you look at the ingredients they aren’t that different from other consumer soaps and shampoos, but they lack the ludicrous additives to make it goopy or shiny and whatnot. Since it’s a very simple soap, it’s versatile – you can use it for dishes, hair, or your body, and you can put it in a pump soap dispenser if you dilute it. You need only a tiny amount for an entire shower. (The mild one is less effective for dishes, though.)
Beard oil does seem to help, and I managed to make my own, thanks to a guide on The Art of Manliness. I wince a bit at the blog title, but the information seems to be good – they explain carrier oils and essential oils, and how to mix them.
I decided to use cold pressed extra virgin coconut oil, because I already had a large jar. (Getting the right coconut oil is a whole other blog post; there’s a lot of nonsense about it online. The ‘superfood’ claims are dubious, but I know people who have improved their health with it, and it sure is tasty.)
While coconut oil is usually solid at room temperature, it liquifies right away when you touch it due to body heat. I was worried that maybe it would harden on the beard, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem. I also expressed concern that maybe I’d smell like a Malaysian curry, but my girlfriend assured me that many products are scented with coconut anyway.
You can use coconut oil just plain, but some people like to add essential oils for fragrance or because they like the astringency of substances like peppermint.
My girlfriend likes to use aromas in a nebulizer, to scent the air. So we already had a lot of little bottles of essential oils.
We got them out and had a little chemistry party on the kitchen counter. I heated some coconut oil in a glass container in the microwave (it only takes a few seconds to liquefy) and tried drops of various substances. We settled on a mix of Bergamot and other citrus scents. We waited for the oil to cool until it was just warm, and then poured it into a small tupperware tub.
End result: a supply of scented beard oil, that should last for months, and I bought absolutely nothing. I didn’t even leave home.
If you’re a single male you probably don’t have essential oil just lying around the apartment like I did, but you can get a vial for something like $10.
My girlfriend was a bit agog, saying that this would have normally cost something like $30. And she loves the scent and texture my beard has after I apply this concoction.
I’m going to need some kind of beard comb, and then a trimmer. My beard grows incredibly fast and even a few weeks in it’s already curling over my lip.
I suppose I could use some sort of bladed tool, but I have a weakness for buying power tools, so I might use the money I saved above to get some electric thing. We’ll see.