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Are there harmful chemicals in aftershave?

Aftershave may burn, but are chemicals doing more damage? See more personal hygiene pictures.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Since 30,000 B.C., men have been trying to remove unwanted hair from their bodies. Cavemen in those days used seashells and flint to actually scrape off the hair. Technology has since yielded blades, and shaving became more civilized. But razor burn still exists. Enter aftershave.

Our vision of early aftershave is a man with a 1980s coif splashing a fragrant, water-like substance on his freshly shaven face, and then cringing slightly when the alcohol-based formula hits the tiny little cuts. Remember, this decade's shaver didn't have the benefit of using a razor with a protective shell and a moisture strip, so there was a lot of residual razor burn and bumps. Men's shaving tools and grooming routines have come a long way since the '80s, and now there are more aftershave products on the marketplace than you could possibly imagine.

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Historically, aftershave has typically served two main purposes: to soothe and to heal. Razors make cuts, and aftershave cleans the skin and protects those cuts from getting infected. But many aftershaves these days are marketed to men like perfumes are to women -- as a fragrance product. And they come in several different formulas, like lotions, gels and balms. With the multipurpose platform, many chemicals that have shown up on the ingredients list are less than ideal for use on your skin. But some could actually help. Let's start with those.

 

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Let's take a look at the anatomy of an aftershave. The goal of the product is to soothe, moisturize and scent your freshly shaved skin, so the basic ingredients that make up a typical formula are an antiseptic agent, a moisturizer and a fragrance. A quality aftershave that does the trick will have an ingredients list that you can actually pronounce.

The leading ingredient in almost all aftershaves is an astringent that serves as an antiseptic, to make sure all of the little cuts your on your tender face skin are properly cleaned and sealed, which prevents infection. In many brands, this ingredient is alcohol-based. Though alcohol is made from natural ingredients (sugar and yeast), and it's effective at accomplishing the task, it can also be extremely drying to many skin types. There are other natural astringents that are less irritating, such as witch hazel, which is derived from the oil of a tree native to North America. You can also look for aftershaves that boast essential oils as key ingredients. Tea tree oil is an essential oil that's naturally antiseptic and antibacterial. It's also an incredibly effective astringent. Tea tree oil lends its distinct scent to the formula -- fairly strong and medicinal on its own, but a great base when mixed with other scented oils.

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Next comes the moisturizing ingredients. The most effective ones are naturally derived from tree nuts, such as olive oil and sweet almond oil, because these oils are easily absorbed by your skin. Glycerin, which is a byproduct of soapmaking, is another helpful ingredient in aftershave. It's a humectant, which means it draws moisture into your skin and seals it there. Many balms and lotions contain healing herbal extracts, like chickweed and hibiscus. These herbs contain naturally occurring anti-inflammatory properties that help heal rashes caused by shaving. Aloe is another beneficial ingredient because it's extremely soothing to irritated skin, as you well know if you've ever used it on a sunburn.

As far as scent goes, most fragrances are made up of synthetic chemicals, which we'll cover in our next section. If you like a scent and want it to be natural, look for essential oils in the ingredients list. These oils are all-natural, scented oils that are extracted from plants. Types of essential oils commonly found in body products include lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus and tea tree oils.

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Careful! The more nicks, the more pain.
Careful! The more nicks, the more pain.
Hemera/Thinkstock

A quick trip through the grocery store shelves will yield a selection of aftershaves with ingredient lists that read like a chemistry paper. Synthetic ingredients are used in the majority of skincare products because they're almost always cheaper than natural ingredients, and they help make a formula more stable, meaning a longer shelf life, too. But, they generally aren't as effective as their natural counterparts. Not all are harmful, but there are some that should be avoided as much as possible. Here's what to look out for.

In the astringent category, propolene glycol is a type of alcohol approved for use in small amounts in the cosmetic industry. But this is the same stuff that's used to make antifreeze, so do you really want to put it on your skin? Benzyl acetate and ethyl acetate are solvents that are often found in perfumes and aftershaves. They're known carcinogens that have been linked to pancreatic cancer, not to mention they're found to be irritating to eyes and respiratory systems.

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Fragrances are a controversial topic in the world of skincare. The problem with fragrance is that formulas are proprietary to the manufacturers, so they're not required to list the ingredients. A fragrance could be made up from as many as 4,000 different chemicals, but it's just listed in the ingredients as "fragrance" or "perfume." These chemicals can be responsible for all sorts of reactions like headaches, dizziness and trouble breathing, and sometimes even more serious reactions in particularly sensitive people. They're best avoided, especially if you have sensitive skin or allergies.

And lastly on our steer clear list are synthetic colorants. Remember red dye No. 5 in the M&M's that could kill you? The part about the deadly M&M's wasn't true, but it did make us take a closer look at synthetic colorants. Manufacturers may think a colored formula looks better in the bottle and therefore on the shelf, and maybe it does. But FD&C Yellow No. 5 is believed to be the cause of multiple reactions like asthma and hives, not to mention aggravating eczema problems. You'd hate to find out the hard way, so your best bet is to avoid dyes all together.

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Sources

  • "History of Hair Removal." Totalbeautyexp.com, July 24, 2009. http://www.totalbeautyexp.com/blog/index.php/page/5/
  • "Ingredients in Aftershave." Livestrong.com, 2010. http://www.livestrong.com/article/171885-ingredients-in-aftershave/
  • Petch, Simon. "Are Perfumes Harmful?" beautymagonline.com, 2010. http://www.beautymagonline.com/pages/perfumes_harm.htm
  • "Propylene Glycol." Health-report.co.uk, 2010. http://www.health-report.co.uk/ethylene_glycol_propylene_glycol.html
  • "Toxic Chemicals in Toiletries." Health-report.co.uk, 2010. http://www.health-report.co.uk/toxic_toiletries.html
  • "Twenty Most Common Chemicals in Thirty-one Fragrance Products [based on a 1991 EPA Study." Outlittleplace.com, 2010. http://www.ourlittleplace.com/chemicals.html

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