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Anatomy of a Shaving Cream

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What Do The Ingredients Do?

Have you ever read the ingredients on the label of your shaving soap or cream and wondered what they are and what they do? In every shaving cream formulation, each ingredient plays a role. While some ingredients are essential, others only have a minor effect. The performance of the cream serves as the ultimate test for the formulation and indicates whether the correct blend of ingredients and concentrations has been used. High tier shaving creams have a common structure that includes carefully selected ingredients that have been optimized for years. Deviations from these general guidelines results in poorer performance. In this article, the role of the most common ingredients found in high performance shaving creams and their effect on performance will be described.
The following is a typical ingredient list on a high end shaving cream: aqua (water), stearic acid, myristic acid, potassium hydroxide, coconut acid, glycerin, triethanolamine, parfum (fragrance) and sodium hydroxide. The word cocoate, usually preceded by sodium or potassium, may be found replacing coconut acid to indicate that saponification has occurred. Saponification literally means “soap making” (from the root word, “sapo”, which is Latin for soap), and is a chemical reaction used to produce fatty acids from triglycerides. Triglyceride consist of three fatty acid molecules joined to a glycerin molecule, which is also released during saponification. Triglycerides are the preferred molecules used by living organisms to store fats and their constitution is unique for a particular species but varies from one species to another.

In addition, shaving creams often contain other ingredients including: botanicals, essential oil derivatives (e. g. citral, farnesol, geraniol, geranial, myrcene, limonene, linalool, etc.), chelators, preservatives and other chemicals. Besides modulating performance, these ingredients can add antiseptic qualities, serve as skin toners, increase shelf life, etc. but more importantly, they make each formulation unique. The focus of this article will be the core ingredients that define the scaffold found in high end shaving creams:

Aqua: water
Stearic acid: saturated fatty acid
Myristic acid: saturated fatty acid
Potassium hydroxide: inorganic base
Sodium hydroxide: inorganic base
Coconut acid: triglyceride
Glycerin: polyol or sugar alcohol
Triethanolamine: organic base

Aqua: Water is a solvent that is used to dissolve certain ingredients in the shaving cream and serves as the matrix in which air is trapped when lather (foam) is formed. Water is also used as a spreading agent that distributes other ingredients evenly and gives shaving creams a soft texture. In the lather, water contributes to keep the hair moist during the shave and is responsible for the glide or slip of the lather. When water concentration in lather is not optimal, the performance of the lather is subpar.

Stearic acid: Stearic acid is a saturated fatty acid and a surfactant (literally, an amphiphilic,“surface acting”, chemical that lowers surface tension at the interface between molecules or groups of molecules that do not mix well) that has excellent emulsifying and lather stabilizing properties. It is also used as an emollient and thickening agent. Stearic acid is often used as inorganic or organic salt or as an ester.

Myristic acid: Another saturated member of the fatty acid family and is also used in shaving creams for its surfactant and emulsifying properties. Myristic acid forms intermediate bubble sizes that result in faster foaming and reduced mechanical stability.

Coconut acid: Coconut acid is a triglyceride extracted from the plant Cocos nucifera or coconut palm. It is commonly known as coconut oil. When saponified, coconut acid is used in shaving cream as a source of surfactants and cleansing agents.. Saponification of coconut oil produces a mixture rich in saturated fatty acids that include (listed in order of abundance): lauric, myristic, palmitic and stearic acids and a small proportion of unsaturated fatty acids. Unsaturated fatty acids can be completely removed from formulation and recently have been linked to comedogenesis (a type of acne caused by cosmetics). In high concentration, unsaturated fatty acids can oxidize over time and decrease shelf life. Glycerin is a by-product of the saponification reaction. Coconut acid also is used to adjust pH, and its derivatives are used as emollients.

Sodium and Potassium hydroxides: These are strong inorganic bases that are used to saponify triglycerides. Inorganic bases are also used to make fatty acids more soluble in water. Typically, fatty acids are found in shaving creams as sodium and potassium salts. The ratio in which these bases are used determines the consistency of the shaving cream for a given water and fatty acid composition. These are highly alkaline and are used to adjust pH. Sodium hydroxide is also called caustic soda or lye. The common name for potassium hydroxide is potash.

Glycerin: Glycerin, or more correctly, glycerol, belongs to the sugar alcohol family. Gycerol does not have surface activity and cannot form lather. Glycerol can retain water, thus increasing lather density and stability. For this reason, glycerol is also used as a humectant. Glycerol also increases the viscosity of water-glycerol solutions, affecting the glide of the lather. Although its effect on deeper layers of the skin remains under investigation, there is very little doubt that hydrated glycerin has a beneficial effect when applied to the outer-most layer of the skin (the stratum corneum).

Triethanolamine: Triethanolamine or TEA is an organic base used primarily as emulsifier and surfactant. It is also used in shaving creams to neutralize the pH of fatty acids and to solubilize oils and other ingredients that have poor solubility in water. Triethanolamine use has been reduced in recent times because of growing safety and health concerns due to its suspected role as irritant and carcinogen and its ability to react with other chemicals to form carcinogenic nitrosamines. Some studies have linked TEA to contact dermatitis and allergies. TEA is currently under review in USA, UK and European countries. Triethanolamine can be completely removed from shaving cream formulations without any loss of performance.

Determining performance from ingredient lists is often complicated because the actual contents of the product are not listed. Furthermore, ingredient lists do not include the concentration of each ingredient or their purity. This can also be problematic when troubleshooting allergic reactions. It is important to realize that the process of selecting shaving products is not an exact science and several factors, including glycerin content, scent and other additives can modulate performance. Personal preference, allergies, etc. can be important factors in the selection process. However, shaving creams that use the scaffold covered here rank among the best in the market and are known for their unsurpassed performance.


Al D'Aquino

Al D'Aquino

20 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Shaving Cream”

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  2. Sir I need a simple formulation just like shaving cream for face wash and aftershave lotion. I will apreaciate your kindness. Thank you as am hoping to hear from you soonest.

  3. I need a high alkalinity (pH around 10) soap or cream to soften my whiskers reliably, especially as I don’t shower first or use a steaming hot towel. Otherwise I have to scrape and scrape and must either rely on gooey lubricants or risk irritation. I rinse it off after shaving, use a good shave balm or lotion and have never had any problems.

  4. Hi there
    My name is Mzee Shake and I come from Kenya. I am working on a mini project on making a highly and richly foaming liquid hand soap.I am asking for assistance in my formulation since the ones I have are not quite working. The ingredients I have are:-
    lauric, myristic, palmitic and stearic acid
    sodiul lauryl ether sulfate
    cocamidopropyl betaine
    hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose
    These are my main ingredients, please help me on the formulation since I am having trouble dissolving the fatty acids in the water phase.

  5. I’m just getting into shaving with a safety razor and shaving brush, as much for health as potential financial savings. I’m disheartened to find that the shaving creams I’ve considered thus far from Geo. F. Trumper and Taylor of Old Bond Street (even the Jermyn Street Shaving Cream for Sensitive Skin) that had so many glowing reviews online, seem to all contain Triethanolamine! I was hoping to avoid this chemical as I’ve read it could be potentially harmful. Which of the top performing varieties or brands do not? I’d imagine many shaving soaps do not, but I wanted to start with creams.

  6. It seems like a lot of people like these natural soaps for shaving, but what they fail to see and what this article fails to mention is that natural soaps have a very alkaline pH of about 9, whereas skin has a natural pH of about 5.5 (acid mantle). Alkaline soaps aren’t particularly good for skin quality despite thick lather that people like. This said synthetic foaming agents with natural oils added could be a better option.

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  10. Thank you for all your articles. I read them today, and this and the Tallow Myths posts were very good.
    One ingredient I often see, and that I understand is used to chelate ions to improve lathering in hard water is EDTA. Are there any negative effects of using that on your skin, that you are aware of?

    1. Johan,
      Chelators, such as EDTA, are added to the cream to extend shelf life rather than improving latherability. Their concentration in the cream is minimal and they are likely “spent” before the lathering starts, as they form very stable complexes with metal ions. I would not be concerned with them scavenging the ions from your skin if that is what you mean. Great comment and excellent logic, THANKS!

  11. Hi Al, thank you for your post, it was really interesting. I wanted to know what could be natural substitutes for these components?
    Thank you!

    1. Thanks, I appreciate it. Besides triethanolamine, everything else in the formulation is pretty “natural”. The industrial production of hydroxides may require human intervention but they sure can be formed during wildfires. Inorganic hydroxides (lye) are considered safe enough to be used in the food industry. Furthermore, these compounds are completely neutralized in the final product. Shaving creams that use this formulation and do not contain TEA, are among the most natural products known to mankind.
      Al raz.

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  13. Very cool and informative article. It makes a nice companion piece to Mantic’s How to Select and Use Aftershave video.
    I have a tub of Al’s Goodfellas Shaving Cream and it creates ridiculous amounts of rich lather; highly recommended.

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