Why Are Razors So Darn Expensive?

Because shaving is a science.

Gillette's tktk in Fort Point/South Boston. Photo by Melissa Malamut

Razors are made here. Gillette’s Plant in South Boston. Photo by Melissa Malamut

Why are razors so expensive? Because shaving is a science.

There are more than 150 scientists with PhDs in topics like physics, materials science, and engineering in Reading, UK, that are watching people shave. Right now. Seriously, they are sitting behind a two-way mirror in a lab watching more than 80 people a day (locals, friends, employees) shave. The scientists are studying how much pressure people apply when shaving, how they hold the handle, and exactly how the razor moves in their hands. And all of this studying costs money. People with PhDs don’t work cheap (I assume).

Dr. Kristina Vanoosthuyze, a principal scientist at the Gillette Innovation Centre in Reading, has worked for both Olay and Gillette on skin care sciences and is an inventor on 20 published patent applications for various skin care technologies. She says that watching people shave is a very important part of the innovation process. “We know that no two men or women shave in the exact same way. There are guys that take 30 strokes and some take 700 strokes,” she says. “Some people take 30 seconds, some take 30 minutes.”

The amount of pressure people apply differs, and the skin and hair characteristics between people are also different, Vanoosthuyze says. There are also differences between cheek and neck skin, underarm skin and leg skin, and leg and bikini skin, and all of this must be taken into account when designing razors.

The razor section at CVS is not small. Photo by Melissa Malamut

The razor section at CVS is not small. Photo by Melissa Malamut

The South Boston Gillette campus was built in 1905 across Fort Point Channel from Downtown Boston. It consists of 24-interconnected buildings, and in 2005, thanks to a $200 million investment from Procter & Gamble, which is Gillette’s parent company, there’s new office space, a brand new lobby area, and an employee fitness facility. The plant, known as the Gillette World Shaving Headquarters, is 33-acres and currently makes a lot of Gillette’s most popular products like the Fusion ProGlide. Razors like the ProGlide take years of study before a prototype is made and tested.

“The complexity, length of time, and the cost of the [research and development] process is what factors into cost,” Vanoosthuyze says. “It looks so simple and so intuitive, yet it is so complex in its design and development process. The small details and dimensions go far beyond what the naked eye can see. For the ProGlide, to give you an idea of the scale of consumer testing that we do, 30,000 guys were involved in testing the innovation process,” she says.

So let’s do the math. In the photo above, a women’s package of razors costs $18.79 for five cartridges. If each cartridge lasts about a week, that comes out to about 54 cents a shave. Seems pricey, but what exactly goes into making a razor? Those stainless steel blades that you see are only a small part of the final product.

Vanoosthuyze says that the stainless steel blades alone are not strong enough to cut beard hair, so coatings of diamond-like carbon are applied to each blade for added strength and then a lubricating polymer layer is applied for comfort and a smoother glide along the skin. In all, four layers of complex coatings are applied to each blade.

Five years ago, three blades was all the rage, then it was four, and now, five. Are five blades really necessary? Do they do the same job as three? Vanoosthuyze says that more blades means a better shave. She also says that the blades are incredibly thin and that is on purpose for a closer shave. “More blades translates to better closeness and better comfort,” she says.

The price of razors for men and women are both high, but women’s razors seem to be more expensive. But Vanoosthuyze says that this is because men and women shave differently. “[For women’s razors] the elastomer materials in the grip points, finger rests, and how women hold the razor are different and more comprehensive,” she says. “It’s important to make the razor ergonomic to use, because women typically shave in a fairly wet environment. And for women, shaving can be like acrobatics, trying to get the ankles, back of the legs, knees, etc. We want the handle to have good control so she can move it around in her hands.”