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As spring nears, many of us will be breaking out our razors on a daily or near-daily basis. I prepare to say goodbye to the thick tights and long pants of winter and hello to less forgiving stockings and bare legs, and that means hair removal (shaving for me).
Ordinarily, I opt for a shaving cream-razor duo, but recently Somersets sent over shaving its Somersets Women Sensitive Shave Oil ($23.99) that’s a blend of natural oils meant to be gentler on your skin than the traditional shave gel or cream. Essential oils have some mixed reviews overall, but I liked the idea of softening the hairs with oil before shaving them.
But I was careful about getting excited about the “natural” moniker. Often, people blindly trust that “natural” means “safe,” when natural ingredients can be just as irritating as chemical ingredients. In fact, this oil blend contains a high enough proportion of oils that can cause contact dermatitis that I think a fair number of people wouldn’t be able to use it.
Many Oils Means Many Potential Benefits… And Downsides
There are many, many oils in this product. And while a lot of them do wonderful things for your skin, some of them can cause allergic reaction. With so many oils that could cause problems, it’s really important to patch test this product before rubbing it over large portions of your body, lest you discover a new allergy.
Aloe vera is ubiquitous in beauty products in part because of its long history of usage for treating burns and wounds (University of Maryland Medical Center). Claims that it’s an anti-inflammatory agent have been backed up by research (Journal of Ethnopharmacology). While results are mixed on whether it shortens wound healing time, it certainly works to soften skin.
French lavender oil is a very commonly used oil that’s thought to be anti-fungal, antibacterial, calming, and muscle relaxing, though there aren’t many scientific studies to back these claims up (Phytotherapy Research). And why is it important that it’s “French”? Researchers found that lavender from England and France had more antioxidant activity than lavender from Japan (Photochemical and Photobiological Sciences). There are some questions about the potential downsides of lavender, but one of the very real potential issues is contact dermatitis and photosensitivity (DermNet NZ, Contact Dermatitis).
Tea tree oil is commonly used to treat acne, and studies find that five percent tea tree oil works as well as five percent benzoyl peroxide with less irritation, though it takes longer to work (MedLine Plus). It’s also been used frequently for its antiseptic activity. There are potential links between lavender oil and tea tree oil and estrogenic effects, but these claims warrant more research (National Institutes of Health). One thing you do need to be careful of is the possibility of contact dermatitis (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology).
Evening primrose oil has been found to help improve skin barrier function in a small number of studies (International Journal of Cosmetic Science). It’s also a good antioxidant that doubles as a preservative, preventing oxidation of water as well as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry).
There are a lot of potential positives to this cocktail of oils, but there are also potential problems. While one ingredient that might cause contact dermatitis might be a problem for a handful of people, having this many ingredients that could cause irritation means that there could be quite a few people who can’t use this oil.
Why is Menthol the Second Listed Ingredient?
Frankly, I’m not entirely certain why menthol is so high up on the ingredients list for these oils. Menthol isn’t bad in and of itself, but it can cause problems in high concentrations. It can help relieve pain and itch and acts as a penetration enhancer, but does so at the risk of causing irritation and contact dermatitis.
Menthol acts as a penetration enhancer, but it does this by acting as an “extractor,” removing lipid bilayers from the uppermost layer of the skin, the stratum corneum (SC) (Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States). Because SC lipid bilayers are crucial in maintaining water levels, the way menthol increases penetration can actually increase transepidermal water loss (TEWL). This method of functioning can also increase contact dermatitis (Contact Dermatitis).
It’s possible that menthol is included in such high quantities because it helps to prevent itching and minor pain by acting as a cooling agent and counterirritant (Neuroreport). Don’t think of it as traditional inflammation, but by stimulating pain receptors and causing inflammation it can bring relief (Journal of Physiology). Unfortunately, too much menthol can cause moderate extreme sensitivity to cold, a kind of pain all its own.
I can understand the inclusion of menthol: It can help to alleviate pain. But the amount in this can be irritating to skin.
Personal Use and Opinion
Somersets Women Sensitive Shave Oil smells pretty strongly of menthol and something else that reminds me of patchouli. It rubbed onto my legs and underarms easily and I didn’t need to use more than the recommended three drops per leg. One problem I encountered shaving was that the oil had a tendency to gunk up my razor in a way that’s more difficult to clean off than conventional shaving cream. However, I could feel that the oil had softened my skin nicely.
The menthol made my legs feel subtly tingly, like standing outside on a brisk day, but it was quite a powerful, almost uncomfortable, sensation on my underarms even after I’d dried off from my shower. Frankly, I can’t imagine using this on one’s bikini area as the company suggests. And I realized too little to late that you should use soap to wash the oil off your hands when I touched my cheek and felt the stinging of menthol.
I got a comparable shave to using cream and my skin retained some of the oils, staying soft even after running my razor over it (though I still used moisturizer on my body after I got out of the shower).
I’m hesitant to recommend Somersets Women Sensitive Shave Oil, at least to a broad audience. For one, while the essential oils are moisturizing and have plenty of beneficial qualities, they can also cause contact dermatitis. With so many different oils in one bottle, I’d imagine that there would be a decent number of people who cannot use this oil and I’d highly recommend patch testing before use. One more qualm: I don’t know why there’s so much menthol, particularly in something intended for sensitive skin. Menthol can relieve pain, but it can also be irritating and drying, which doesn’t make it ideal to have in large quantities.
As far as shaving, I had a positive experience with Somersets Women Sensitive Shave Oil, but the effects of the menthol made it a little unpleasant to use. If you’re really interested in trying this, patch test it first.
Product Rating: 6/10
Ingredients in Somersets Women Sensitive Shave Oil
Hybrid Vegetable Oils, Menthol, Natural Fragrance, Aloe Vera, Organic Sandalwood Oil, French Lavender Oil, Organic Tea Tree Oil, Evening Primrose Oil, Sweet Almond Oil, Jojoba Oil, Virginian Cedarwood Oil, Vetiver Oil, Safflower Oil, Grapefruit Oil, Corianda Oil, Palmarosa Oil, Comores Ylang Ylang Oil,Organic Brazilian Bisabalol, Organic Chilean Rosehip Seed Oil