Walk into any pharmacy that caters to a significant customer base of black men, and you’re likely to see a field of products that tout themselves as solutions to the razor-bump problem—Bump Stopper cream, Tend Skin ointment, Bump Fighter razors—most of which I tried in my personal quest for a smooth and bumpless shave. Many of the products seemed to give up on the idea of a close shave altogether. The razors and trimmers were advertised as keeping the blade a safe distance from the skin, not that useful for a clean shave, but perhaps effective as stubble maintenance. The creams and ointments tend to boast their effectiveness at softening the hairs and exfoliating the skin around them, but generally must be applied twice daily without fail, or else the bumps come right back.
But there was something reassuring, I found, in the number of “sensitive skin” products on offer. It suggested that many great minds were aware of the problem, and companies were attacking it from every angle. So when each successive product failed me, I imagined that pseudofolliculitis barbae was just a problem too advanced for modern science to resolve. For years, I thought the best solution to the problem was to stick to my Gillette Mach 3 multi-blade razor, assiduously applying bump-fighting cream morning and night, and accepting a mild but permanent rash of angry bumps beneath my chin.
In 2005, I happened upon an online review for a razor the reviewer claimed was especially good at preventing skin irritation. But far from being a feat of cutting-edge R&D, the razor was, in fact, technology from the early 20th century: the Merkur classic heavy duty stainless steel double-edge safety razor.
You’re unlikely to find any razor like this on your pharmacy shelves, which are mostly given over to high-tech multi-blade razors with pricey cartridges (I couldn’t find a single-blade razor on Gillette’s site) or cheap, blunt disposable razors that don’t even claim to offer a close shave. A safety razor uses those old-fashioned rectangular razor blades, probably still the first thing you think of when you hear the phrase “razor blade,” even though many pharmacies no longer seem to carry them. The razor is shaped like a tiny mallet, with a curved metal head that unscrews from the handle to reveal pegs that line up with the holes in the center of the blade. When you insert the razor beneath the head and screw it onto the handle, the delicate platinum blade gently and gracefully arches as it settles into place, leaving a thin, sharp strip exposed on either side (hence “double-edge”) at a perfect angle for a shave that’s close, but not too close for comfort.
To complement this old-school razor, I acquired an old-school badger hair shaving brush, and a tub of old-school shaving cream, the three vital ingredients in the classic art known as wet shaving. “Few moments in masculine hygiene are as satisfying as making smooth, perfect rectangles appear on your face where foam and hair had been just before,” I wrote after I started using my razor. The razor bumps went away, and they’ve been gone ever since, leaving me only with a quiet lingering skepticism for the slickly packaged goods of the skincare-industrial complex.