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Taking a closer look at the shaving ritual


Shaving is a ritual men have been performing since . . . well, we don't really know when, do we?

Ancient man didn't have the benefit of hot-lather machines, electric shavers, disposable plastic or twin blades. Too bad. We do know that the oldest-known metal razors date to 3,000 B.C., and the ancient Egyptians often were buried with their silver and bronze razors.

Although modern man may moan about this daily chore, it is surely made easier with technology's intervention in removing the daily average of 15,500 facial hairs.

Getting a beard removed at a barbershop is losing popularity, the upscale men's magazine GQ tells us. In earlier days, the barber with his well-stropped straight blade also removed teeth and tonsils -- and performed an occasional blood-letting.

Of course, if he's not careful, modern man can perform his own blood-letting. Doing anything that involves sharp instruments before you've had your morning coffee could give a new meaning to the term "armed and dangerous."

Facial hair for men has always been a fashion statement and more. In our recent history it has divided generations. (Consult the musical "Hair" for cultural reference.) Long hair and a beard became a sign of irreverent youth, "up the establishment" and something that would drive your parents crazy.

Beards also can be a religious statement. While some of the strictest sects of many religions may differ on theological chapter and verse, they do share a common custom: facial hair for men. Orthodox Jews, Quakers, Greek Orthodox Christians, Sikhs and certain Hindu sects wear beards as part of respect for God.

The latest fashion hair-beard statement, thanks in large part to Jason Priestly and Luke Perry on television's popular "Beverly Hills 90210," is sideburns. Everything old is new again: See '50s teen idol James Dean.

Sideburns came from a play on the name of Ambrose Burnside, a Union general during the Civil War who sported such whiskers. They also were called mutton chops, Piccadilly weepers or dundrearys after Lord Dundreary, a character in the play "Our American Cousin."

We doubt the exaggerated mutton chop will catch on again. And men in corporate America seem likely to keep their clean-shaven look.

Using an electric razor is known in the trade as dry shaving, while wet shaving is applying a lather and scraping it off with a blade. American men who shave prefer wet (70 percent) over dry (30 percent), according to Braun Inc., the German shaver maker that's now a division of Gillette Co. Japanese men prefer dry shaving (57 percent) to wet (43 percent).

For the ultimate wet shave, hang an acrylic fog-free mirror in your shower. (Showertek is a popular brand, with prices from about $20 to $40.) Showering in warm water for about two minutes softens whiskers, making them easier to cut. The gel shaving lather was shown to be most popular among shower shavers by an informal GQ survey.

Standing up straight to shave in the shower is a benefit for men with back problems who have difficulty stooping over the sink to rinse off. A drawback to the shower save is myopia. Men who can't see well may need some touch-up at the sink after they put on their contact lenses or glasses. You need to keep the blade clean between shaves, so rinse it out in the shower and hang it on a hook.

Here are some other basics:

* No matter what kind of lather you use, when you shave you are removing the top layer of skin. In one sense this is an advantage: You are scraping off dead skin cells. But this can have a drying effect, so moisturize after the shave. Avoid products with too much alcohol, because that can have a drying effect.

* Keep your equipment clean. Rinse a blade razor well between strokes and especially well when you finish. Hang up your razor to keep the blade sharp. Electric razors should be cleaned before and after use.

* Very hot water is bad for any skin type, so soften your beard for wet shaves with lukewarm water.

* Then apply your cream or soap. Some prefer gel types, others a creamier foam. Or you can whip up a lather using a shaving mug and shaving bar soap. This is the most cost-effective once you invest in a good brush, which generally sells for $2 to $8. A cake of shaving soap is priced from under $2 to about $8 for designer brands.

Some types are quite alkaline and can destroy your skin's protective acid barrier. That won't be a problem if you use an after-shave to restore the acid level. Shaving with a blade pulls at the hair before it cuts it off, and the pulling and cutting get worse the closer you shave. If you have a heavy beard, you may be better off aiming for a mild shave twice a day.

* If you shave with an electric razor, you want your beard as dry and stiff as possible. Wash your face and neck and dry thoroughly. Use a pre-electric shave lotion, which dries quickly, to reduce friction between the skin and the shaving head.

There are two types of electric shaving heads, the foil-head (named for the thin foil screen that fits over the cutter) and the rotary shaver (which uses two or three whirling cutters.)

* If your skin is red and irritated after a wet shave, you could be trying for too close a cut. You may want to switch to an electric shaver because they don't pull at the hair, reducing the possibility of irritation.

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