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Shaving Cream on Tombstones

by Dr. Gregg Bonner
How gullible do you have to be
to believe that shaving cream harms tombstones?
So, you have fallen for the "shaving cream harms tombstones hoax", eh? The rationale that suggested the "acids" in shaving cream could harm tombstones sounded reasonable to you, did it? Don't worry - plenty of people much smarter than you have fallen for this hoax. This hoax is actually a slight derivative of the much more popular "Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO)" hoax. The only difference is that "DHMO" has been replaced with "stearic acid" (or any other constituent of shaving cream chosen by the hoaxster), and 'bodily harm' has been replaced by 'harm to tombstones'.


The shaving cream hoax mirrors the ban DHMO hoax
in a number of important respects:

1. Both hoaxes rely on an ignorance on the part of the reader relating to knowledge of chemistry. In the case of DHMO, it relies on the reader being unaware that DHMO is actually just a deceptively technical way of saying "water". In the case of shaving cream, it relies on the reader being unaware of all the following: a) that stearic acid is so insoluble in water that the term "pH" is meaningless, b) that stearic acid is an organic acid, not a mineral acid, c) that the stearic acid in shaving cream is neutralized with triethanolamine, & d) that the pH of shaving cream is less acidic than ordinary rain.

2. They both have websites devoted to the continued preservation of the hoax. The ban DHMO website is here. The shaving cream hoax website you have already seen.

3. Both hoax websites contain material data safety sheets (MSDS) for the constituents. The ban DHMO website has a MSDS for DHMO, and the shaving cream hoax website has one for stearic acid. These MSDS sheets are included in the website design purely for tactical fear-mongering.

4. Both hoax websites have spurious icon tags. The ban DHMO website has one for the "United States Environmental Assessment Center", whereas the shaving cream hoax website has one for "The History Channel".

5. Both hoax websites foment fear by the use of the same fear-generating buzzwords. For example, both include references to comparison to "acid rain".

Rather than continue listing all the other similarities of these two obvious hoaxes, I think it better to simply refer to what snopes.com (the popular online myth debunking website) has to say about the Ban DHMO hoax, as I think you will see that it applies also to the shaving cream hoax.

That said, this example does aptly demonstrate the kind of fallacious reasoning that's thrust at us every day under the guise of "important information": how with a little effort, even the most innocuous of substances can be made to sound like a dangerous threat to human life [tombstones, in the case of shaving cream - ed.]. The next time you receive an ominous message such as the one warning you that sodium lauryl sulfate (a common foaming ingredient used in shampoos) causes cancer, with the "proof" being that this caustic chemical is also used to scrub garage floors, keep in mind that the very same thing could be said of another ubiquitous cleaning agent ... dihydrogen monoxide [or of stearic acid - ed.].

For the whole text of snopes.com's treatment of DHMO, click here.

If you want a more point-by-point refutation of the shaving cream nonsense, then please read below. But if you are a proselytizing Zohnerite, then don't bother.

Wrong and misleading comments made about shaving cream and its constituents


Misleading/erroneous comment:

Acids on marble and limestone dissolve the stone, leaving an inappropriate glossy and crystallized looking surface. This damage cannot be undone and the use of acids is also dangerous to you and surrounding vegetation.

Source: http://www.chicora.org/cleaning.htm, and elsewhere online.

Why it is misleading/erroneous:

The item is misleading because it does not include the required modifier "some". It is true that some acids will dissolve marble and limestone. It is not true that all acids will do so. The acids that will dissolve the stone are the familiar strong mineral acids, like hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid. Weak organic acids, like the long-chain hydrocarbon acids (stearic acid and palmitic acid, for examples) found in shaving cream will not dissolve marble and limestone.

The fact of the matter is that stearic acid is actually less of an acid than is plain old water itself. The pH of pure water is 7, whereas the pKa of stearic acid is 10.15. Since the pH scale is log-based (i.e., each integer increment is a factor of 10), this means that water is 1,000 times more acidic than stearic acid. The hoaxers rely on you not knowing the pKa of long-chain organic acids, like stearic acid, and, moreover, rely on you never thinking to look it up, but rather simply believe what they say without ever giving it any thought.

Source: Journal of Colloid and Interface Science 256:201-207 (2002).


Misleading/erroneous comment:

An experiment was done to test the effects of shaving cream directly, and it was shown that a 1mm depth of damage was done to the surface in 5 minutes.

Source: soc.genealogy.methods discussion (Subject: Reading tombstones) of June 1996, and subsequently cited many places online.

Why it is misleading/erroneous:

Because it is patently absurd even on its face. Think about this for a second. How far is 1mm? If the shaving cream disintegrated 1mm in 5 minutes, then how much would it do in one hour? That would be 12mm of damage. There are 25.4mm in an inch, so this suggests that nearly a half-inch of disintegration would be acheived with an application of shaving cream for one hour. That means that a 4" thick tombstone would be completely dissolved if shaving cream were applied to it for 8 hours.

The fact of the matter is that it is impossible/absurd to think a tombstone can be dissolved by shaving cream in 8 hours. The hoaxers rely on your lack of knowledge of the metric system and inability to apply simple mathematics. In short, the hoaxers rely on you believing this "experiment" without thinking about it at all. Even a cursory investigation into the claims made show it to be impossible. More recently, people who clearly lack a grasp of the fundamental concepts of chemistry have tried to explain that you can't extrapolate the results over 8 hours. For example, Drew Smith wrote this stunning misunderstanding of chemical application to the Roots-L list on 02 JUN 2008:

"You can't merely extrapolate from 1 mm damage in 5 minutes to 12 mm damage in an hour, because the removal is a *chemical reaction*. As the damage is done, the amount of shaving cream used is used up. When it all reacts, the damage stops at that point. That's basic chemistry."
Actually, basic chemistry is such that you can ADD MORE of the putatively limiting reagent DURING a chemical reaction, and it is no longer the limiting reagent, it being now the EXCESS reagent, instead. You could stand there with a fire hose pumping 1,000 gallons of shaving cream per minute on the stone, and it STILL isn't going to dissolve the stone in 8 hours. Where is your limiting reagent theory now?

The above is just another example among many where the shaving-cream-causes-harm-to-tombstones evangelists move the goalposts to try to defend their positions, and in so doing provide no more support for their position, but instead just re-proving that they don't understand the fundamentals of chemistry. How could anyone be so naive as to believe that shaving cream destroys 1 mm of stone in 5 minutes? Even if you don't like the extrapolation example above, perform this experiment in your mind (or in reality, if you prefer): You have a 1 mm thick piece of stone and you apply shaving cream to it for 5 minutes - now you wash off the shaving cream. Is there any stone left, or is it gone? If you think there would be stone left after 5 minutes of shaving cream, then you obviously don't believe that there is 1 mm damage done to the stone in 5 minutes.


Misleading/erroneous comment:

"Shaving cream does, indeed, leave an acid residue that does not wash off. It destroys marble and limestone".

Source: Newsletter of the Canterbury Genealogy Society Discussion Group, February 2000

Why it is misleading/erroneous:

Because the word "indeed" represents a factual basis. The statement should have read, "Shaving cream does, in our opinion, leave an acid residue that does not wash off.

The fact of the matter is that nobody has ever reported an experiment that even pretends to make a determination of the presence or absence of any residue. It is simply an opinion, masquerading as if it were fact. If it "indeed" leaves a residue, then what method was used to determine that a residue was present? How was it determined that the residue was from shaving cream? Where are the data/measurements that back up the claim that a residue persists? The answer is - nowhere...this experiment has never been done. The last part of the quote, about "destroying marble and limestone" is in error, as addressed above. The hoaxers rely on you simply believing a pronouncement without having need for ever providing any evidence that it is true.


Misleading/erroneous comment:

"Our professional conservators tell us it is definitely not a good idea to use shaving cream on porous gravestones..."

Source: Association for Gravestone Studies

Why it is misleading/erroneous:

This is logical fallacy known as appeal to false authority. Do any of these "professional conservators" have names? Of course not.

The fact of the matter is that the hoaxers rely on you believing that these "professional conservators" exist. If you ask for some names, then you will be met with another of the hoaxsters tactics...the goose chase. Why not just list the conservators' names with the comments supposedly attributed to them? Because it's a hoax.


Misleading/erroneous comment:

You can't cite any evidence which shows shaving cream does not harm tombstones.

Why it is misleading/erroneous:

This comment is logical error on two counts. Firstly, it creates an expectation that the other person could possibly prove a negative. Think about it this way - how would you go about proving that the Loch Ness Monster does not exist? You can't. Even if you drained Loch Ness, and found no monster, the believers would just say Nessie escaped elsewhere. Similarly, even if you tested a thousand stones in a randomized double-blind test with shaving cream and control group over 50 years, and found no evidence of damage, the believers would just say, "yeah, no damage yet". So this argument is even illogical in its conception. Secondly, it is a known fallacy known as shifting the burden of proof. Imagine if this were to happen; let's say you see online a claim of parentage for one of your brick wall ancestors. You e-mail them for proof, and get as a reply, "prove they are NOT the parents". Sorry, it doesn't work that way. The burden of proof is always on the original assertion. There is no burden of proof on the other side to prove the negative. The hoaxers rely on your not calling them on their illogical and fallacious thinking.


Misleading/erroneous comment:

"So now we have solid, logical reasoning backed up with hard facts as to why not use shaving cream on a stone."

Source: http://www.savinggraves.org/education/bookshelf/shavingcream.htm

Why it is misleading/erroneous:

Because the reasoning is neither solid nor logical, and there are no hard facts to back it up.

The fact of the matter is that the best way to convince someone of something is to simply prove it with evidence, and convert everybody to your way of thinking on the merits. Why are there never any "hard facts" brought to bear on this "logical reasoning"? Because there aren't any. The hoaxers rely on you reading their erroneous rationale, and being duped into believing that it is a good substitute for evidence.

Questions and Answers


Question 1: I understand shaving cream contains stearic acid. With a name like that, it really has to be corrosive, doesn't it?

Answer 1: Uhm, this is shaving cream we are talking about here. Does it feel corrosive when you put it on your skin? Is it really reasonable to think that shaving cream is going to cause stone to melt, when it does nothing even to your own skin?

Question 2: But that is my question, I read somewhere that marble and limestone are highly reactive to acids, and will actually sublimate in the presence of hydrochloric acid.

Answer 2: Uhm, this is shaving cream we are talking about here, not hydrochloric acid. I can't think of anyone who recommends pouring hydrochloric acid (one of the strongest acids known to man) directly onto a tombstone. Stearic acid is a very weak acid, being less than 1 ten-thousandth as strong as hydrochloric acid. Furthermore, what is not mentioned is the RATE at which sublimation occurs. Rock etchings, which employ acid use the strongest acids in the world, in direct application over the course of long time periods to achieve etch depths of microns.

Question 3: But I read that stearic acid is more acidic than acid rain. Isn't acid rain the stuff we get after a nuclear war or something? If stearic acid is stronger than acid rain, it has to be dangerous, right?

Answer 3: I don't know of anyone who is advocating putting 100% pure stearic acid directly on a tombstone. We are talking about shaving cream. Shaving cream is pH balanced, which means that it is not a net acid. It has things in it which neutralize the free acid and bring it into pH balance. The net acidity of shaving cream is essentially the same as water.

Question 4: Are you going to ignore my question about acid rain?

Answer 4: Oh yes, acid rain. It is not the result of nuclear holocaust armageddon. It may surprise you to learn that ALL rain is acidic, and it always has been. [Editor's Note: For readers who do not believe this, don't take my word for it - find out for yourself. Get some pH strips from your friendly High School Chemistry teacher, and go anywhere in the world, any day of the year, and collect rain in a cup. Then test the pH of the rain with the test strips to satisfy yourself that this is true.] I think a lot of people are confused by the pH scale. Anything less than pH=7 is acidic, and the closer you get to 0, the more acidic it is (and note that a 1M concentration of hydrochloric acid has a pH=0). Note the following picture:
The digram shows that ALL the rain that fell on the United States had a pH of less than 7, which means that it was ALL acidic. Moreover, note that stearic acid has a pKa=10.15. This means that the part of the chemical responsible for it being an acid thousand of times less powerful. Therefore, stearic acid is actually less acidic than normal rain.

Question 5: But I heard that the pH of shaving cream is about 5, so it is worse than acid rain. Isn't that true?

Answer 5: See the picture again. See how ALL the rain is pH of about 5, or even more acidic? If shaving cream has a pH that is more neutral than rain (for example, see the rain pH in the northeastern USA), then why aren't people advocating covering tombstones in shaving cream to protect it from the rain, seeing as how it is LESS acidic than the rain? Why are people so worried about shaving cream when it is obvious that it is not as bad as the rain. Why aren't people out covering graves with shaving cream to protect them?

Question 6: I am still not sure about this stearic acid stuff. I saw on a website somewhere a link for stearic acid, and when I clicked on it, I saw its material data safety sheet. It talks about breathing problems and irritation and stuff.

Answer 6: I don't know anyone who is recommending that you eat 100% pure stearic acid, or breathe 100% pure stearic acid. That would probably be bad. We, however, are talking about shaving cream here. Shaving cream. The white fluffy stuff people put on their face routinely.

Question 7: Okay, I guess I am satisfied with that, but why do professional conservators say to not use shaving cream? I saw a website that said "Our professional conservators tell us it is definitely not a good idea...."

Answer 7: Do any of these "Professional Conservators" have names? I have seen lots of people claim that professional conservators say not to use shaving cream, yet somehow, I never see any names or credentials. The only people I see mentioned are hobby-time genealogists who are stating their opinion that it is bad. And their reasoning always comes back to how evil stearic acid is. Perhaps I would feel differently about it if someone could turn up a professional who actually knows what they are talking about, rather than point to some tombstone discussion group online, whose membership is open to anyone, credentials or not.

Question 8: But won't shaving cream get in the cracks, and act as food for micro-organisms, which, when they grow, will cause the cracks to widen?

Answer 8: I guess so, if your shaving cream is made of meat. Generally speaking, things which are metabolizable are carbohydrates, fats, protein, and alcohols.

Question 9: But that is the point, doesn't shaving cream contain fatty acids and alcohols?

Answer 9: I am not aware of anyone who is advocating covering a gravestone in fat. We are talking about shaving cream here. Furthermore, foodstuffs must be "biologically available", which in many cases, means 'in aqueous solution at low concentrations'. Alcohol, for example, can be metabolized by humans. But go into ANY tissue culture laboratory, and ask the technician what they use to kill all micro-organisms. They will tell you that they use alcohol. The fact that alcohol can be metabolized has nothing to do with it. Alcohol is a disinfectant for a reason. Yet why are people not out there covering graves in alcohol to keep that pesky micro-organism growth down?

Question 10: I heard that using shaving cream is never recommended. If it is okay to use, then why is it never recommended?

Answer 10: What you heard is clearly a lie. It IS recommended. Do you know who Dick Eastman is? You know the guy who runs "Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter"? The Dick Eastman who is the one of the most respected genealogists in the history of this planet? Yeah, that Dick Eastman. He recommends it. Therefore, the assertion that nobody recommends it is clearly false.

Question 11: I saw a discussion of this before, and a guy posted before and after pictures of a tombstone. It looked awful in the picture taken after it had been shaving creamed. Don't pictures like this prove shaving cream is bad?

Answer 11: If it is the same picture I saw, then did they guy bother to tell you that that cemetery had also been in a fire? I don't know anyone who is recommending using shaving cream, then setting the cemetery on fire. I have no personal knowledge of it, but I would presume that fire would be bad for a tombstone. Shaving cream, on the other hand, is fine.

Question 12: I saw someone post that the tombstones were "her" ancestor's, like she had exclusive right to them. Isn't it arrogant of her to destroy these tombstones with shaving cream, seeing as how they are other people's ancestors also?

Answer 12: No - an example of arrogance is when people say that another person is destroying a tombstone just to get a picture for themselves, and without any regard for the tombstone for later persons, when the fact of the matter is that the person rightly knows that the shaving cream will not harm the stone, and would never do it if they thought it would harm the stone. This is simply an attempt at guilt by association. It is an attempt to say, "This person is arrogant; arrogance is wrong; thus this person is wrong; this person is using shaving cream; thus since this person is wrong and using shaving cream, it follows that using shaving cream is wrong". This is the kind of logical fallacy that is consistently used by the shaving cream opponents.

Conclusion

"Stearic acid, stearic acid, stearic acid"...is the mindless mantra of the opponents. They chant the words with pride, as if they mean something. And for proof, they will always send you someplace that is supposed to show "proof". Yet, when you get there, all you will find is more opinion.

This whole "no shaving cream" thing got started a long time ago when someone saw the word "acid" listed in the ingredients of shaving cream and got frightened. Then, to make matters worse, they began to look into the actions of acid on rock. Unfortunately, they found the information about hydrochloric acid, and presumed that it would apply equally to stearic acid, in spite of the fact that hydrochloric acid is one of the strongest acids known to man, and stearic acid one of the weakest. Since this time, all the arguments against shaving cream have either been roundly defeated, or have been shown to be without any scientific foundation, and only exist as the opinions of some.

Now, the shaving cream opponents no longer even attempt to make scientific arguments, but rather rely on the last refuge of the scoundrel. These come in two types:

1. Lie. Take two pictures of the same stone and alter one of them to look bad, then represent one to be after the effects of shaving cream. Or else, claim a quote from some famous conservator, who in actuality does not exist. There are many variants of these outright lies.

2. Paint the opponent. No matter how logical the counter-argument of the opponent, try to make him/her look like a selfish person, who cares only about getting their precious picture, and cares nothing about the stone. Don't even bother to try to defeat the valid points, and instead go straight to attacking their character.

The shaving cream opponents are now evangelical about their mission to stop shaving cream. That is to say, they no longer worry about any evidence required, but simply accept it as an article of faith. However, if pushed, you will note that they will always point back to the same website, which will always point back to the evils of stearic acid, and will always cite the same supposed unnamed professional conservators.

This author is not an evangelist - he simply calls them how he sees the best available scientific evidence at the time. And at this time, there is absolutely no scientific evidence whatsoever that shaving cream will cause any measureable harm to a tombstone over the course of thousands of years. What there is, is a lot of OPINION and BELIEF that it will cause harm. Moreover, the fallacious nature of the arguments against using shaving cream undermine the prospect that there ever will be any evidence shown to support their illogical notions. Doing things like linking to the stearic acid material data safety sheet are rather sophomoric and transparent attempts to capitalize on the fear of the reader, rather than to try to persuade them using any kind of actual scientific data. And to represent a tombstone as the after-effects of shaving cream when it is really the after-effects of fire is really just fraud.

Last update: 09 JUN 2008