I’ve mentioned Annette Kellerman before. I read her book Physical Beauty: How to Keep It while I was researching my book, Build Your Signature Wardrobe. I included some of her advice including her assertion that the best soap for hair care is a pure soap like shaving soap followed by a rainwater rinse. We have so many different kinds of shampoo that picking one is a nightmarish scenario so I decided to conduct an experiment to determine whether shaving soap is still a viable option.
After some interesting (but irrelevant for shampooing) research, I’m taking pure soap to be the basic kind of soap made from fat and an alkaline like lye, that isn’t full of the other things that go into the modern synthetic mass-produced soaps. In Kellerman’s time, this would have been an all-purpose chunk of soap that you hacked bits off to use in the kitchen, laundry and bathroom so shaving soap probably would have been the best option. She would have been quite familiar with shaving soaps, but shaving cream would have been a new-fangled and quite possibly very suspicious thing so she might not have known much about it (she did specify soap) but I’ve looked into them anyway because there is some in my house already!
Shaving creams are very soft and easy to lather with or without a shaving brush. They are often heavily scented and last about two months of daily use.
Soaps require a shaving brush to generate lather. They have a light scent and last about three months. There are two kinds of soap.
Hard Soap is triple-milled to produce a soap with an even consistency that produces a nice uniform lather. Essentially, the same tablet is ground up and remade three times before it is allowed to fully dry out – this is also very common in expensive high-end bath soaps. The process was pioneered by the French so you often see it referred to as French-milled soap.
Soft Soap has a softer consistency that I have seen described as putty, play-doh, and modelling clay. These are sometimes called Italian soaps because this kind of soap most commonly comes from there. The compounds used to trigger saponification are different, and it is this, not the ageing that produces the resulting consistency.
And The Difference Is…
Nada. Both creams and soaps have a high-fat content of 30% – 50% to provide lubrication so the razor glides across the skin. Soaps are more likely to use animal fats (tallow and lanolin) and creams are more likely to use vegetable oils like coconut, avocado, almond, and/or jojoba. Both have added glycerin which generates a thicker lather and greater skin hydration.
Blokes choose based on their personal preference of aroma, face feel and the amount of time and effort they are prepared to spend on whipping up a lather. I haven’t been able to find any definitive difference between the ingredient lists that suggest that one product type is more appropriate than another for shaving let alone hair washing.
- The shaving cream DB is currently using (not his usual brand).
- Savon de Marseille; a traditionally made all-purpose style soap.
- A hard shaving soap manufactured by a traditional English company (on the assumption that this would be closest to what was available to Kellerman).
- A “natural” shampoo; according to the label, it’s made of all-natural ingredients, scented with essential oils and pumped up with vegetable oils.
- Baby shampoo.
Ms Kellerman suggested you really only need to wash your hair once every two weeks, but I wasn’t sure I could do that, so I washed once a week. Each wash would use the same technique: wet hair, lather product in hands, wash the scalp and pull lather through the hair to the ends. Rinse with rainwater, towel dry, comb and air dry. In keeping with the Edwardian style, there was no conditioner, blow drying or treatments as they were not available at the time. There was a daily brush with a stiff bristle brush, I was surprised how quickly you can get through 50 strokes.
After the shaving cream kerfuffle (see below), I felt obliged to wash with a clarifying shampoo between experiment washes.
DB and I both gave a score out of five, for the softness and attractiveness of my hair.
I found this really strange and interesting. It doesn’t really wash, more like rub in and rinse off. The first day my hair looked like a dandelion clock but felt very soft if soap scummy with fabulous shine. The scummy-ness brushed out leaving my hair completely flat. This would have been very useful if I had been pinning it up (Edwardian style), but I wasn’t so I had to comb it out to release it. The scent was very strong and long-lasting (shame as I didn’t really like the fragrance) and it was so invigorated by my attempt to wash it out that I had to use a clarifying shampoo (twice!) to remove it (and the fragrance).
All up 3 from him and 3 from me, a total of 6
Savon de Marseille
I was surprised by this because I really thought it would dry my hair out, yet it did not. Once again dandelion clock, soft, scummy and shiny, however, it brushed out beautifully and left my hair very soft and glossy. And my hair smelt fresh for the week and just got glossier day by day.
3.5 from us both, a total of 7
I had no idea what to expect, so I was surprised and quite pleased. My hair was not terribly fluffy or scummy, but very soft and shiny. The fragrance seemed to die down very quickly but now and again I got whiffs of it. My hair got shinier as the week progressed.
3.5 from him, 4 from me, a total of 7.5
I thought this would be gentle and leave my hair soft and shiny. Sadly for me, I was dandelion head for the whole week. Brushing did make it soft and shiny, but made the fluffiness worse! After a couple of days, the fragrance evaporated leaving the most appallingly dank and musty smell. It was really hard to wait for the full week before washing.
4 from him, 2 from me, a total of 6
I usually use baby shampoo, so I thought this would be a clear winner. There was a little fluffiness, but not much softness or glossiness. After a few days brushing my hair seemed to lose its mojo and went sort of limp.
3.5 from us both, a total of 7
Bonus: two weeks without washing
Just out of curiosity I didn’t wash the baby shampoo hair for the extra week. It reached its peak of greasiness at the end of the first week and didn’t get much worse during the second. It didn’t smell fresh, but it didn’t smell bad either – not like the “natural” soap.
I was surprised and not surprised by the results. And I think that if there was no blow drying or other hair products, I could easily go two weeks without washing my hair.
- Shaving Soap (7.5)
- Savon de Marseille and Baby Shampoo (7)
- Shaving Cream and Natural Shampoo (6)
There isn’t really much variation in my results, but I scored on the hair elements that are important to me right now (softness and shine). If I had thought to make aroma the key criteria, the shaving cream would have come top and the natural shampoo at the bottom. It does make me wonder how often we wash our hair because it doesn’t smell fresh, or we want to straighten it rather than because it needs it.
Having said that, I think the key ingredients in the process are the hair brushing and the rainwater rinse. If you do those, it probably doesn’t matter a great deal if you don’t use shaving soap shampoo.
Bristle Brush: Your brush has to be bristle, and the best bristle is boar (as opposed to badger for shaving brushes). There’s something about the way the scales of the boar bristle interact with the scales of your hair that smooths it out and increases the shine. It also spreads the oil from your scalp down to the tips of your hair which improves its condition and reduces frizz without any additives (conditioners). And without the extra products in your hair, you don’t need to wash it as often. It also increases the blood flow to your scalp, and when I mentioned it to my hairdresser she agreed my hair was starting to grow back thicker and five years post-transplant I didn’t think that was ever going to happen (yay!). These brushes can be expensive, and if I didn’t already have one I might not buy one. But I do have one, and I recommend that you buy the best quality you can afford.
Rainwater: Rainwater is pure soft water that falls from the sky (I was reminded of this when I let my hair air dry after coming in from the rain). While it’s an ideal hair rinse, it is clearly not practical for everyone to collect their own rainwater, (e.g. someone who lives in a fifth-floor inner-city apartment where the windows don’t open). And others face legislative restrictions and penalties for collecting their own. Water that comes from the ground picks up calcium and magnesium salts that make it harder, and most town water is also treated with chlorine, aluminium, fluoride and/or other chemicals to kill bugs and make the water drinkable. Water hardness can be treated with the addition of water softeners like washing soda, ammonia and borax in a process known as demineralisation. Some kinds of water purifiers can remove most of the chemicals the municipalities add.
I’ve searched my way through some interesting (and mostly irrelevant) forums and sites, and the consensus seems to be that distilled water is the best substitute for rainwater when dealing with carnivorous or tropical plants, fish tanks, in beauty products or for brewing beer. Do not use deionised water as this is a special form of demineralised water generally reserved for industrial or chemical processes and can be corrosive and damage your hair as well as your skin. Without getting too technical, distilled water has been evaporated and condensed into a clean container, whereas deionised water is filtered through an electrically charged resin.
But when I use up the current bottle of shampoo, I will use up the shaving soap next. And what I buy after remains to be seen. Are you tempted to give shaving soap shampoo a try?
French vs Italian Shaving Soap (I’m so sorry, this site has closed down its blog).
Kellerman, Annette. 1918. Physical Beauty: How to Keep It. New York: George H. Dorian Company.
Pick Your Poison: Soap or Cream? (I’m sorry to say this site has closed down too.)
The Shaving Cream Guide
The Shaving Soap Guide
What Is The Best Shaving Soap?