Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
If Wes Anderson hasn’t done an entire movie at the Mohonk Mountain House spa, it’s probably because he can’t get a reservation. This “Victorian Castle Resort” — an 1870s-era, swank-but-rugged Teddy Roosevelt-esque 259-room palace — sits on the edge of a reservoir on top of a mountain in upstate New York. It has an incredible sunset deck which I cannot see at the moment, as I’m in the middle of a hot-towel facial. Specifically one from the Colorado men’s facial-care company Organic Male.
Mohonk has always been the sort of place where the Rough Riders could set out on horseback and come in for tea. The halls are lined with portraits of old men with fanciful mustaches, and while an employee wraps my face in hot towels I wonder how many of those fellas got a facial treatment here. And did they mask?
Men have been shaving for millennia without consulting an “aesthetician,” but things have changed — men’s grooming is now a $16 billion industry and growing. The faster-growing sectors are made up of men like me with towels over their faces in spas.
I take shaving fairly seriously. My 30th birthday present to myself was an Merkur Adjustable Safety Razor from one of those new barber shops that look like tattoo shops. It has six numbered angles for shaving. When my friend’s mother visits from Italy, she brings me tubes of Proraso menthol and eucalyptus shaving paste. But when that runs out, I’m content with $1.37 Barbasol on Amazon.
When it comes to skincare, I admit to having mediocre habits. There are periods of time when I’m all about the Burt’s Bees toner, but when I run out of cotton balls I cease to care. But once Courtney, the woman administering my Mohonk Mountain House facial, puts the “shave mask” on my skin, I know they have me right in the crosshairs.
Shaving in general is so close to a facial that it’s strange that it doesn’t fit squarely in that category. Shave cream, aftershave, and a follow-up moisturizer aren’t really all that far off from a face cleanser, toner, and moisturizer regimen. Any man who argues otherwise is like a kid whining, “They’re not dolls, Grandma, they’re action figures.” And this is a fact Organic Male, aka OM4, seizes on.
“Since only 3 percent of men will use a mask, we built it into the shave product,” OM4 CEO Mike Bruggeman tells me later. “We formulate it to work in [a] short burst of time (during shaving) by using a bio-accumulative emulsifier, which enable[s] the mask to work if used three times per week without leaving it rest for a full five minutes.”
Bruggeman started the line from his own resort spa in the getaway town of La Conner, Washington, an hour north of Seattle. The men there are much like the men here at Mohonk: some singles, but mostly coupled men who have joined their partners for a treatment in a fit of vacation camaraderie.
The spa world and the drug-store world have a relationship that’s a bit like the one between the Apple Store and Best Buy. Spa employees provide all the hand-holding, finesse, time, and patience to help you try out and understand what, exactly, you’re getting in a $45 shave mask that you can’t get from that $1.37 can of Barbasol.
I don’t mask. I think once upon a time, in a pre-selfie universe, I put on some green Bath & Body Works mask for a laugh in my college dorm room. Even men who do mask, like Allure Digital Editor Phillip Picardi, use neutral-colored masks like Herbivore Brighten Instant Glow Mask ($48) or Ole Henriksen Moment of Truth 2-in-1 Polishing Sugar Mask ($42). When reached on Twitter, Picardi said the glow mask is “more orange, but it's not opaque.” But I’m pleased to find out that this shave mask goes on clear; it’s water-based, so it doesn’t gum up my razor like Proraso does (sorry, Nonna!). Rather than looking like Christian Slater in King Cobra while I shave, I just look like someone in the middle of washing his face.
As for which guys are actually buying this stuff, it’s a trend we know all too well; for insight, we need only to look toward Jeff Bezos’s acquisition of Whole Foods. The contents of this system look like they could go into a smoothie, and that’s exactly the point. Younger users read the organic ingredients and know they’re good for them; older users buy the product to keep them looking younger. Patrick Carter, OM4’s vice president of operations, put it best: “Older people are going to care more about anti-aging, whereas what we see with young millennials is they are very educated as far as ingredients are concerned.”
When I mentioned to the jovial and friendly OM4 CEO that I wanted to compare his shave mask product to Barbasol, I got a very carefully worded email in response where he pointed out something I had missed. Upon closer inspection, the Barbasol “Soothing Aloe” turns out to be mostly water (harmless), but also includes ingredients other manufacturers are phasing out (like sodium lauryl sulfate) and some that are downright scary (propane, anyone?). What does it have the least of, though? Aloe. “Foams are just not that great for the skin, and to claim aloe when it is your least prominent ingredient could be called misleading.”
The conventional wisdom of advertising to men is best exemplified in advertising campaigns for board games and video games: Boys like any game where they win. In the ’80s, boys in commercials always won, because they simply wouldn’t play a game whose commercial showed the girl winning. In the same vein, men’s skincare marketing suggests that once the man feels emasculated, it’s game over. Which makes me wonder: Is aging a game that men think they have beat?
“Men’s lines either originated as barber lines with shaving as the central focus or were women’s lines spin-offs,” Bruggeman says. “Many were repackaged to appeal to men and the women who make product purchases for them ... in some cases with no change in ingredients, not even fragrance.”
Clinique for Men — a line my mother has tried to foist on my father since the ’70s — is a nonstarter, and costs on average about $9 per bottle less for the three-part system than OM4. Its marketing has always suffered because it looks exactly like something your mom would pick up at the Kohl’s makeup counter.
While I like the scent and how my face feels after using OM4, I like best that it improves a habit. In general, people are better served by a habit than a goal. If by next year you want to publish a book, you would be better served by making your goal “write for an hour every morning” than “write a book this year.” And thus, like flossing or keeping your receipts, getting into the masking habit is easier when you spend that time giving yourself a nice shave. No matter what product you use.
But this stuff? It feels good and works well. Make it a habit and and in no time you’ll be looking like a doll.
Er, action figure.