Camellia oil: the ideal shave
Like many, I have a drawer half-full of part-used shaving soaps, brushes, and so on. Over the last year I began pursuing simpler solutions that would travel well, and had settled on the smallest soap sticks I could find: Speick and La Toja with a neat Mühle travel brush. I began using the sticks at home, too. It’s less hassle to lather on my face than in a bowl.
A few months ago I was planning a five-day backpacking trip, and realized that I often end up with an itchy neck by day four. I needed an option that would be suitable for lightweight or ultralight backpacking: I didn’t want to carry soap and a brush, and ideally wouldn’t need to thoroughly heat water, lather, and clean up just to shave.
Shave oil was the obvious option. But every brand I looked at was the same: packed to the gills with scents and botanicals, heavy on the menthol, and as much as $20 for a tiny bottle. I tried Somerset’s “Extra Sensitive Shaving Oil” (£11.50 for 35ml) and I have to wonder what the regular version is like — the “extra sensitive” was heavily scented and made my skin vibrate with menthol.
I tried shaving with some common cosmetic ingredients (e.g., squalane) and did not get a good shave. I didn’t want to use a typical food oil that would go rancid or attract bears in the backcountry, so I didn’t try olive or nut oil.
Eventually it occurred to me that I had a big bottle of stable, safe, non-food oil sitting on my shelf. I gave it a try, and enjoyed a bafflingly good shave: smooth, unscented, nick-free. The only downside is one shared with all shaving oils, a tendency to leave clumps of oil and stubble in the sink.
The oil I settled on is cold-pressed camellia oil (tsubaki abura), the oil of camellia japonica. A 100ml bottle is $10. I have been using it for years to oil carbon steel kitchen knives, which is its traditional use, along with machine lubrication (e.g., sewing machines). It’s tasteless, odorless, food-safe, and non-drying (all of which are good for kitchen knives!). Apparently it’s also non-comedogenic and used in skincare.
Six drops is more than sufficient to shave my entire face. I put some in a little dropper bottle for travel, and I’ve also been using it at home, because it’s fast, convenient, and gives just as good a shave as careful prep and luxurious lather.
For carry-on travel I pair the little dropper bottle of oil with a Bic Metal disposable razor, which is the simplest and best TSA-safe razor I’ve found. When I’m checking a bag I take my RazoRock Game Changer 0.84-P with a little sliding metal tin of Gillette Nacet blades.
As pictured, the Bic Metal weighs 5g, and the half-full dropper bottle is 9.4g. You could probably get that lower by using a different dropper bottle.
A total outlay of $10 in oil might be enough for me to shave at home and on the road for my entire life. Shaves at home with the Nacet blades cost me about 7¢. Shaves on the road with the Bic Metal cost about 25¢.
For backpacking and travel the oil also serves as an impromptu lubricant for squeaky gear that folds or turns, and as a skin emollient, but it’s small and light enough that it doesn’t need to be multipurpose.
My goal with a lot of gear is to get to a point of simply not having to think about it: to have found a solution that’s robust, reliable, and works so well that I stop looking for anything better. I have reached that point with this kit.