In recent reviews of shaving creams, I assessed products from three very different manufacturers: an old, small pharmacy that built its brand through clever marketing, a start-up dedicated to natural products, and a formerly independent manufacturer now part of a huge conglomerate. The results were that the old shop (Santa Maria Novella) sold a harmful and useless product, the start-up (Nurture My Body) made a harmless and useless product, while and the former independent (Dermalogica) delivered a high quality product. Continuing my investigative journey to find a pattern between the corporate history of a cosmetic company and the type of products it sells, I was delighted to remember that I had in my cupboard a remaining free sample of Kiehl’s Closer Shaver's Squadron Ultimate Brushless shaving cream.

Kiehl’s is a pharmacy in New York’s East Side and dates from 1851. Its strict marketing policy is to not advertise much beyond word of mouth and limit distribution to its original shop on Third Avenue and select stored including Barney’s or Bergdorf Goodman. Since it was bought by giant L’Oreal in 2000, Kiehl’s distribution has expanded to more than half of US states and to high-end retail locations overseas. The original shop still exists with the nice wooden floors, a restored Harley Davidson and staff dressed in white “lab researchers” uniforms – most of them are young, good looking and cooler than we will ever be. The walls are covered with photos of the Kiehl family’s skiing exploits, reminding me that I discovered Kiehl’s for their great lip balms and hyper-moisturizing creams, both totally over the top in oils but remarkably comforting on dry winter days.

The shave cream sample was probably a few years’ old but I simply had to “massage” the tube with a few strokes for the cream to recover its natural smooth texture. The company says the face does not need to be moistened first and indeed, spreading the product is truly enjoyable with or without a wet skin, which is why I used to use these samples as my travelling shaving cream in the past (great for camping in Utah!!).  Only a minute nut is enough to cover the entire shaving area and the while cream is mildly lathering you feel it penetrating the epidermis. This is when the Kiehl’s trick is at its most convincing; they call their cream the “hair raiser” and indeed one feels one’s stubbles straightening up in their eagerness to be decapitated… This effect is mostly due to the use of camphor and menthol, frankly nothing new there as even the plainest Gillette foam would use the same approach, but in the case of Kiehl’s, the impact is striking and the resulting shave is indeed very close and long lasting; quite exceptional.

Actually, the shave is so close that it does not prevent a few minor cuts and some skin grazing, I found this surprising and disappointing as the cream is also relatively fat and oily, generally a good protection against such things. Fat and oily, however, is also a sign of bad petroleum products. A further concern –totally irrational technically, but nevertheless a true personal concern – is that, as I was grazing and cutting myself, the cream was getting in contact not only with my superficial skin layers but also my blood stream and thus my whole body… I started peering through the small print of the ingredients: I recognized some mild natural ointments such as olive and palm oils, squalane and the like, but I also read through a long list of weird things that reminded me of some early century, hellish chemical experiment. You willfind a few carcinogens alongside the kind of stuff recommended to kill cockroaches or clean factory floors…. In the interest of Truth in Aging readers (and of public health concerns) I have asked Marta to go through the most obvious toxics. Here is what she found:

•    Sodium borate: In the north of England, shortly after the dawn of the industrial revolution, people would clean their front door steps with something called borax. It is also known as sodium borate, sodium tetraborate or disodium tetraborate. It is extremely toxic. Before people knew better and thought it was OK to clean wounds with something you’d clean the floor with, the unfortunate recipients would frequently die. Infants are especially prone to borax poisoning, but thankfully it is no longer used to clean nurseries. Spillage on the skin will cause blisters and red rashes. Apart from unscrupulous use by cosmetic companies, it is mostly commonly employed these days to kill cockroaches.

•    Parabens: There are three of these known irritants here. There is also widespread concern that parabens mimic estrogen and are linked to cancer.

•    Triethanolamine: an irritant and, according to an animal study, a carcinogen.

•    Myristyl alcohol. An allergan and carcinogen associated with skin tumors. In the Human Toxome Project, a mapping of pollution levels in people throughout the world, Myristyl Alcohol was found in 1 out of 9 people

So enjoy Kielh’s efficient products at your own risk. Personally, I will not renew my reserve of samples from the company.

To conclude, I want to return to my attempts at modeling the content of products according to the origin of their makers. Here we have an old artisanal manufacturer very similar – in its American translation – to the Santa Novella pharmacy. And, in a similar way, their list of ingredients is antiquated and still using the kind of products that most car mechanics would now avoid imposing on their engines. The fact that Kiehl’s was bought by L’Oreal has not affected its products (just as when Estee Lauder bought Dermatologica). Here is why:

I imagine the dialogue between the Kiehl’s family and L’Oreal at the time of the acquisition:

-    [Kiehl’s] “You commit to maintain our creative integrity and not to interfere with our unique and fabulous products. Our family is proud of its heritage”.

-    [L’Oreal] Yes, we promise, we will be careful to maintain your distinctiveness as it is your strength and our value”.

Translation in plain English:

-    [Kiehl’s] “If L’Oreal changes our recipe, gran’pa will refuse to sell and I will have to spend my life behind the counter of this dreaded shop instead of with my girlfriends in Florida… PLEASE do not make any waves!”

-    [L’Oreal] “You, incompetent hicks, you are poisoning people with your products, but don’t worry, I will not threaten my profit margins by involving my clever research people. I will simply make money by selling more and more and more and more of the same thing, this is all about marketing your authenticity. I will not make any waves!

Ingredients

Water, Stearic Acid, Squalane, Hydrogenated Polyisobutene, Propylene Glycol, Polysorbate 21, Polysorbate 60, Myristyl Alcohol, PEG 100 Stearate, Glyceryl Stearate, Sesamum Indicum/Sesame Seed Oil, Triethanolamine, Ethyl Paba, Cetyl Acetate, Caprylic/ Capric Triglyceride. CI 77891, Titanium Dioxide, Imidazolidinyl Urea, Sodium Borate, Isopropyl Lanolate, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Cetyl Alcohol, Petrolatum,  Sodium PCA, Methylparaben, Stearyl Alcohol. Olive Fruit Oil, Allantoin Acetyl Methionine, Palm Oil, Cholesterol. Propylparaben, Acetylated Lanolin Alcohol, Camphor, Menthol, Butylparaben, Lanolin Alcohol, Maltodextrin, Aloe.