Part of the fun of wet shaving is escaping the world of generic foams with little to no scent and delving into a world filled with a complex arrays of fragrant components. All these options in shaving creams/soaps can transform the dread of shaving into an enjoyable experience. Though exploring scents is a pretty exciting adventure, many will likely fall into one major trap: an allergic reaction. The skin is quite a vital defensive organ, so it will throw an immune response to anything which poses an allergic threat, including a fragrance component. The problem lies in the individual, as there are no general trends in who reacts or how, so scent searching is a game of “trial by error”.
However, there are ways that you can help narrow down the spectrum, and this will typically come down to having some knowledge between the two most commonplace fragrance components: essential oils and fragrance oils. In this blog, I will review some common characteristics of each of the two, as well as some oils that present as relatively common irritants/allergens for many.
Background on Essential Oils
Essential oils are a class of oil obtained from steam distilling the plant material (whether leaf, stem, flower, root, peel, or otherwise), whereby the plant material is placed in a flask with water (or another solvent), then heated until steam is produced. The steam is then condensed down a cooled tube - appropriately named the “condenser” - and collected in a second flask. The oil taken from this second flask is what we call the essential oil. A second, less common method of extraction is via expression or “cold-pressing”, which is used more effectively with peels.
There are a few scents commonly used in perfumery that are obtained via steam distillation. Here are a few examples:
Bergamot: Commonly utilized as a top note, bergamot is used as a bright, yet smooth, citrus note in fragrances and is taken from cold-pressing the peel of the bergamot orange.
Vetiver: Vetiver is a common oil taken from steam distilling the roots of C. zizanioides, a perennial grass native to India and several tropical regions of Asia. This yields a dry, dark, woodsy or grassy note to the scent profile.
Cedarwood: This equally common oil is obtained via steam distillation of (usually) the bark and leaves. It takes a different, more “warm” and inviting approach to the woody profile. It is often used in conjunction with vetiver as a combination of base notes that result in a dark, woodsy, yet smooth base.
Lavender: Lavender oil is taken via steam distillation of the flower spikes of several lavender species. Lavender has a very pleasant, lightly floral and aromatic, profile and has even been shown to significantly reduce stress levels if inhaled for about 15 minutes (about the length of a 3-pass shave, eh?)!
This is a very natural method of obtaining scent notes, and these essential oils (usually abbreviated to “EOs”) can be found quite easily. Many also have a place in aromatherapy, being effective treatments for certain emotional symptoms (e.g. in stress and depression). However, their natural form may prove complex and, in some cases, may cause allergic reaction. In addition, many oils need to go through additional, often laborious, processes to extract the most precise or powerfully-scented oil. This means that the end product may be very costly.
Background on Fragrance Oils:
Fragrance oils (commonly abbreviated to FOs) are a more synthetic approach to fragrance production. The word “synthetic” gets a very bad rap, but this just means the scent has been synthesized by a laboratory technician. The purpose is typically to solve a few of the issues mentioned above: cost and allergic reaction.
Many labs dedicate their research to reverse engineering fragrances. A sample of a long-lost cologne or expensive scent note (such as oud/agarwood or rose absolute), is given to the lab and, if need be, purified to prepare for deformulation. Many labs’ deformulation processes are hush-hush, but I imagine it must use a type of NMR or other chemical spectroscopy to view the major scent chemicals. They will then utilize various chemical processes to obtain a similar - if not identical - scent product.
This also allows for the scent to be achieved in as minimal a composition as possible, which has an allergenic advantage over essential oils. It is important to note, though, that you may still experience irritation with certain fragrance oils.
Here are a few common fragrance oils!
Rose Oil: Pure rose essential oil clocks in at about $150 USD for only around 5 ml and is not always very strong. So, rose fragrance oils take the main scent components (geraniol, citronellol, and ß-demascenone), and synthetically combine these - and likely a few others - to produce the synthetic oil.
Ambergris: This substance, produced in the digestive tract of sperm whales, is incredibly rare, and a small nugget of this could cost you between $500-2,000. Unfortunately, the uniquely animalic/marine note it produces is quite weak, so synthetic approaches are more common. Ambrein ( a triterpene alcohol), epicoprostanol, and coprostanone are the common scent ingredients used in synthetic ambergris.
Bergamot: No, this was no error! Pure bergamot essential oil contains a chemical known as bergaptene- an organic molecule with somewhat common and mild allergenic effects. In rare cases, it is known to cause phototoxicity and, in even more rare cases, skin cancer. Thus, bergamot is oftentimes synthesized to eliminate this end product.
Oud: A very unique fragrance, oud - otherwise known as Agarwood - oil is listed at around $1500 an ounce, one of the most expensive fragrances on the planet. This fragrance is unique in that the numerous fragrant compounds in oud oil make it a complex scent profile in itself, with woodsy, sweet, green, animalic notes all in one. Being at such a horrific price point, synthetic oud is much more practical for significant use in fragrance.
As with all things wet shaving, scent is all about personal preference. Finding out what notes stand out to you, which are not to your liking, or which notes may actually cause a reaction are all matters of exploration. Hopefully, this article helps to narrow down your search for scents to satiate your shaving endeavors. As always, shave on!