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Grooming Habits

27 February 2010


low tech writer

These essays are now also available in book form, printed on real paper


I don’t hate innovation. But I do hate innovation that has been driven by the desire to sell more crap and not by the needs of human beings. Proctor & Gamble, one of America’s largest advertisers (and that is saying something), is a company that markets and sells such commodity products as toothbrushes and shaving razors. In the early 90s advertising book, Where the Suckers Moon, Randall Rothenberg describes Proctor & Gamble as “… the corporation that pioneered the selling of mass products to mass audiences through mass media” and that has an “expertise at moving undifferentiated commodity products unmatched by any other marketer.” In order to continue to grow, companies like P&G need to continue to “innovate”. That means … get you to buy a “new and improved” thing, even where the existing product does a fine job of cleaning your teeth, or whatever. With Proctor & Gamble and other consumer goods companies, every day in this great country is a day for revolutionary product design.

What, you thought that your old toothbrush was getting your teeth clean? How sad. I guess you can’t be blamed. You made do with what was available to you. After all, until today, no company on earth had yet invented the revolutionary sonic vibrating, ProSoft, CrossMax, Interslide, Power Tip, Micropulse, Indicator-bristle Warrior Brush 2000! Your plaque is doomed. It’s the battle of Helm’s Deep in your mouth.

But, hold on there soldier! Before you make the mistake of thinking that your brush is actually doing anything by itself (you have so much to learn), you’ll need a toothpaste with our revolutionary cavity-crusading crystals, rainbow swirls, bleaching chemicals, breath-fresheners, plaque disintegrators, tartar control, enamel protectors (makes you wonder what your enamel needs to be protected from) and a few other chemistry-set ingredients that should trigger alarms at the airport–and why not? Your mouth is a battlefield. Whatever you do, don’t use baking soda to brush your teeth: it’s not at all minty. Or dangerous. Or expensive.

And, sorry. Men, are you still shaving with less than five blades? Does your razor not have a revolutionary battery-powered beard trimmer in the handle or Micropulse vibration in the blades? Are you not experiencing the revolutionary benefits of on-blade Indicator lubricating strips or enhanced Microfin stubble stimulating technology? Then you are not sexy. You aren’t groomed until Proctor & Gamble says you are. In fact, I’m willing to bet you haven’t even gotten to second base with your razor: P&G’s Gillette Fusion web site seductively invites you to “Go further … with body shaving!” (And don’t assume I’m the one with my blades in the gutter … I will not. repeat. their. advice.)

Death By a Thousand Cuts

I don’t like to upgrade my tools or technology unless the benefit is obvious and looked for. Trade in a hot and sweaty rubber raincoat for waterproof and breathable rain gear? Easy: yes. Trade in cheap and heavy hi-tensile steel tubing for lightweight and strong steel-alloy bicycle frame materials? Easy: yes. Trade my three-blade razor that cuts my beard just fine for a 5-blade fusion razor? Easy: no.


I use a three-bladed razor because that’s the blade replacement that fits on the handle that I received as a gift years ago. I’ve used twin-bladed disposables and not suffered for it (though there are way, way too many of these razors thrown away each year). I’m pretty sure I only need one blade, and would happily downgrade if there wasn’t such a high cost of (re) entry. I’ve seen retro-productions of the old “safety razors” (see retrorazor.com … really) that hold double-sided razors, but I won’t be paying 50 bucks for a setup (yet! I still have to use up my 3-fers. I found out my dad still has the safety razor that I remember from my childhood–above–and thought I might take possession of the old treasure, but it turns out he’s still using it!) And besides, I’m not sure that I’m convinced by the satisfied customer on retrorazor.com that said he was only nicking himself once a week … after practice (the starter kit on that site comes with a styptic pencil. That’s good marketing: according to Wikipedia these ‘pencils’ work by “contracting tissue to seal injured blood vessels”. Hm.) I’m willing to concede that someone actually pulled off something good with the upgrade to multi-blade safety razors, cause I do not cut myself shaving.

One shaving-related hill I’m willing to fight on is the question of shaving creme. In order to shave you need wet skin and a little lubrication. Hot water in the shower is almost enough, but a little soap goes a long way to keeping your stubble wet for the blade, and adding a touch of slippery. Below is my rig. A funky old travel brush (the head unscrews and hides in the handle) and a cake of shaving soap in a metal cup from the gift shop on Alcatraz (The soap fits perfectly, and I think the cup is really cool–see, it’s metal so it can’t be broken to be used as a shiv if there were ever a riot in my bathroom.)


I’ve used cans of shave creme which are a horrible waste: they do not last and too much metal and plastic gets thrown away (to say nothing of the propellant that escapes into the atmosphere. So what if it’s CFC free, can anyone say it’s a good thing to be releasing compressed flammable gas in the shower?). These products simply reek of invented need. Is it quicker to push a button on a can than to lather up with shaving soap? Yes. Will you regret those lost seconds when you look back on your life? Unlikely.


There is also a temptation with the push-button solution to think the product that comes out is all you need. But in fact the one thing you need for a close (and safe) shave is wet skin, and since water isn’t needed with a can of insta-foam, you are less likely to wet your face every time. This means that P&G gets to ‘innovate’ new ways for their millions of blades to slide over your skin without cutting it. Washed and wet skin is not nearly as exciting (or marketable) as lubri-strips and micro-fins.

There are also really nice shaving cremes that come in squeeze tubes. I’ve used them for years: a pea-sized bead and a brush produces the same lovely lather that you get with the soap (or the can), but I think the soap is the easiest on the environment, with the least throwaway. It’s also the most work: about 10 seconds to produce a lather each day, which works out to one hour a year. You can get that hour back, with dividends, by turning away from the television whenever a P&G ad comes on, and taking the opportunity to tell the other people in the room that you love and/or appreciate them, and that they should not, under any circumstances, buy you the Gillette Fusion for Christmas. Everybody wins.

As for toothpaste, I’ve never liked the perpetual innovation machines that turn out minty abominations as fast as consumers can buy them. I can tolerate the natural ‘spearmint’ flavor from Tom’s of Maine (but worry, now that Colgate-Palmolive bought them, that the integrity of their all-natural product will slip). My favorite flavor of toothpaste? Tom’s Silly Strawberry, without question. Yes it is a children’s toothpaste. It’s flavored with strawberries and banana. It’s a great toothpaste, and doesn’t pretend to explode in your mouth with minty amazingness.

Ok, I see the way you’re looking at me. You are wondering if I have a paranoid fixation on the flavor mint. Not true! Just because it would be possible for P&G to mask mind-control drugs in their toothpaste with minty crystals in order to influence the entire country to think that a six-bladed razor would help them Face the Day With Confidence, doesn’t mean they are planning to do that. Yet. Seriously, in my defense, allow me to describe the landscape as I see it. To take one example, following are the actual flavor names that involve mint in P&G’s current Crest brand toothpaste line:

  1. “Invigorating Mint”
  2. “Cool Mint”
  3. “Sparkling Mint”
  4. “Fresh Mint”
  5. “Long-Lasting Mint”
  6. “Clean Night Mint”
  7. “Minty Fresh”
  8. “Super Action Mint”
  9. “Fresh Clean Mint”
  10. “Soothing Whitening Mint”
  11. “Moonlight Mint”
  12. “Revitalizing Mint”
  13. “Refreshing Mint”
  14. “Refreshing Vanilla Mint”
  15. “Minty Fresh Striped”
  16. and last but not least (but probably not even ‘last’), “Extreme Herbal Mint”

I’m not even listing the sparkly variations on peppermints, wintergreens, or the non-minty fruits, burstin’ bubblegums, and others. One reviewer on Crest’s site has this to say: “I demand minty fresh breath everyday. This is the only toothpaste I have ever used that has kept my breath really minty fresh for hours …! (Five stars).”

So who’s got the unhealthy fixation now?

When I run out of Silly Strawberry–and I can’t find any in my kid’s bathroom–I brush my teeth with baking soda. It tastes bad. I dub the flavor, “Extreme Powdery Non-Mintiness”, but will say that it is, in fact, refreshing, and works really well, costs next to nothing, and involves very little throwaway (a recyclable cardboard box). If you’re game to use one of the original tooth cleaning products, I have a simple piece of advice. Don’t get it from a box that has been used to absorb odors in your fridge or a musty closet. Simple. Wet your toothbrush and mash it in the powder, and brush.

But be warned, if you’re not getting your daily dose of mint … you may start to wonder why you spend money on various mass produced consumer products that only solve problems you learn about in commercials. Confidence to face the day … for free: how revolutionary.