By Jason Church, NCPTT materials conservator

Here at NCPTT we get a lot of calls and e-mails concerning cemetery care and preservation. This question came in this week from Daniel Kester of Williamsville, N.Y. I decided to post his question and our response because lots of people may have the same question.

Question: I am interested in genealogy, and one ongoing discussion in the genealogical community is whether it is “okay” to use shaving cream on gravestones to read them easier (fill the writing with shaving cream, then squeegee it off, so that the writing is highlighted in white). Some say that there are chemicals in shaving cream that damage the stone; others say it won’t do any harm. My suspicion is that none of them (on either side of the argument) know what they are talking about; at best they are guessing at what they think might happen.

Biological growth flourishes on the remains of shaving cream used to read the epitaph.

Biological growth flourishes on the remains of shaving cream used to read the epitaph.

Answer: We do not advocate the use of shaving cream for investigating inscriptions on stone. The shaving cream has natural emollients for softening the skin. These emollients have oils and moisture holding agents that can have detrimental effects on the stone. The emollients can stain the stone by penetrating into the porous material. They are very appealing nutrients to bacteria, fungi, and mold, and because the oils stay on the surface, they attract dirt. This leads to biological deterioration over the long term.

Other ways to study hard-to-read inscriptions include the use of lighting and mirrors or water. A car sun shade or photographer’s reflector can be used to bounce light on to the stone from an angle. Raking light can assist in making a carving more legible. Also, simply wetting the stone with water from a spray bottle can change the reflectance of the stone surface enough to make out the inscription. Researchers funded by NCPTT are working on more high-tech methods, too. Cultural Heritage Imaging, a non-profit out of California, is using reflectance transformation imaging to study surfaces that are hard to read, like rock art.

NCPTT

NCPTT research assistant Curtis Desselles uses a reflector to photograph a worn inscription.

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12 Responses to Shaving Cream: Genealogist’s Friend or Cemetery Conservator’s Foe?

  1. JT Stone says:

    These are some excellent suggestions for reading inscriptions.

    Thanks for pulling the resources together.

  2. Jodi Albertini says:

    Thank you for your reply and discouarging the use of Shaving Cream. It would be a shame in a effort to preserve our ancestry, we do something that would negatively effect the preservation of grave stones!

  3. gary fletcher says:

    Check out http://www.shavinggraves.com for an experiment I did.

  4. RoseyGlow says:

    Gary Fletcher: At your website, you wrote:

    “5. What this experiment did not evaluate was the long-term effect of shaving cream on a gravestone. . .”

    But, isn’t that the whole point – the potential for long-term damage? As the article above states, there IS long-term damage in the form of biological agents (molds, bacterial colonies) that anchor into stone and cause fractures, like ivy on a brick wall. It obvious that the cream didn’t wash off. Even if the long-term effects weren’t damaging to the stone, those effects are very ugly. Would you want to see your ancestor’s gravemarkers looking like the one above? Unfortunately, they can look much worse than that one: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSvcid=252628&GRid=28139063&

    Regarding the link you cite to the “Shaving Cream on Tombstones”
    by Dr. Gregg Bonner (I doubt that he’s doctor of gravestone studies or preservation) page that complains about “stearic acid myths” (no sites I’ve read do that, by the way), that in turn cites Dick Eastman’s shaving cream support, read down to the bottom of Eastman’s blog comments on this topic and you’ll see how he suddenly back peddles after learning about NCPTT’s stand on the subject: http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2005/05/tombstones_and_.html

    As taxpayers, we pay the NCPPT to be the authority on all things preservationist. Why wouldn’t we follow their expert advice? With such easy, no mess techniques as spraying plain water (no cost!), lightly foiling (recyclable!), or using reflected sunlight (no cost!), why does anyone even consider buying and using a potentially damaging substance that was never designed to be used for this purpose?

    • janmy3rs says:

      It has been brought to my attention by another researcher that some of my photos have been the discussion of stone damage from using shaving cream.

      None of the stones have had any chemical applied to them as claimed! Get your facts straight before spreading rumors and lies.

      The photos were cleaned with plain water and a soft brush as shown to me by a local tombstone restoration company. The photo was taken as the water was drying which enhances the engraving to allow them to be legible because the water dries slower in the engraving and makes it darker and easier to read.

      Photo in you are referring to in your post:

      http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSvcid=252628&GRid=28139063&amp

  5. Bob Law says:

    I have read the article from NCPTT about shaving cream on tombstones and it seems to say the same thing I have read time and time again. They do not say that it WILL harm the tombstone they say it CAN. I guess only their opinion. I would like to see a study by a highly respected company that would answer this question on all types of stone that are used for grave markers. I have used shaving cream on tombstones and gone back 20 years later and there was no visiable damage to the stone. I recently read that granite is not effected by acid, I have read some think the stearic acid in shaving cream is what damages the stone.

    • There are many sources that discourage the use of shaving cream on gravestones in order to view/photograph inscriptions, such as http://www.genealogy.com/64_gravestones.html;
      Shaving cream includes Water, Stearic Acid, Isobutane, Laureth-23, Fragrance, Propane, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and other compounds intended to make your face feel smooth. Grave markers can be made from many types of stone. Marble, limestone, and sandstone are sensitive to acidic compounds, depending on the particular rock and mineral formation. Shaving cream has a pH of around 5, similar to acid rain. Other compounds in shaving cream do promote biological growth, depending on where the grave stone is located. Emollients are not as water soluble as other compounds, and weathered stones are often more porous than new stones. Dirt can be more attracted the ingredients in shaving cream, even on well-rinsed surfaces. The article is not intended to an in-depth research paper, but it does reflect current knowledge of chemical and physical interactions between materials and chemicals. It serves as a guide for commonly accepted best practice.

      More importantly, is it necessary to use shaving cream in order to see inscriptions? You may need to think through the pros and cons of using shaving cream with regard to potential impacts on the conditions of the markers versus easier, less intrusive methods to capture the same information. Photography offers distinct advantages. Photographs document the condition of the grave marker at a specific point in time. They serve as a reference point for the future. There are methods that can enhance the image in a photograph. An application of water onto a marker can often help reveal difficult to read inscriptions. Use of a simple light reflector on to a surface can make the inscriptions more legible. Light that is reflected at 45 degrees or greater from one side is often sufficient. Raking light can also help with the photography of the stones. A polarizing filter can limit reflections off a grave marker, making it easier to read. Use of image enhancing software, such as Adobe Photoshop can manipulate the contrast to making information more legible. This provides essentially a noncontact, least invasive method of capturing the information for the family, while protecting the marker. Why use shaving cream when other techniques are easier?

  6. Joseph Reinckens says:

    Regarding the top photo, how does the author know the biological growth was the result of shaving cream?

    1) Did they take an old stone, apply shaving cream, wash it off and then check about every 10 days until they got the green? Or are they just guessing that someone used shaving cream?

    2) Did they deliberately leave some sections without shaving cream, e.g., 3 inch band with cream, next 3 inches without, etc., to do a controlled experiment?

    3) Why is there a section of the inscription without green if shaving cream was used on the whole section and caused the problem?

    4) It’s clear the inscription starts several inches from the top of the stone. A VERY superficial exam of the stone makes it clear there is no reason to apply shaving cream above that point. If SHAVING CREAM caused the discoloration (by encouraging bacteria, or whatever) why is there discoloration above the inscription?

    5) If shaving cream caused the problem, why does the pattern match where rainwater would drip down that hits the top of the stone and slowly slides down the sides?

    If you look at the top of the main stone, the left top quarter has some stone loss almost its entire length. Below that there is virtually no bacterial/lichen/whatever growth. The right quarter has almost no loss except right in the middle. There is growth directly down from there except for the “trough” caused by the stone loss in the middle.

    I’m a lawyer, and every day we see so-called “experts” with degrees up the wazoo who offer their unsubstantiated guesses as scientific fact, often with the “caveat” “because of the time frames involved, we can’t actually give observed results. We have to base our opinions on extrapolations.” Those extrapolations routinely involve exposing the DUT (“device under test”) to extremely exaggerated conditions that would never occur in the real world. I could drop pebbles on you till the cows come home and it wouldn’t be a problem. Dumping a ton of pebbles on you all at once would not prove “a person can be killed by pebbles dropping on him”.

    As the Wikipedia article on Artificial Sweetners notes: “In the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sale of cyclamate in 1970 after lab tests in rats involving a 10:1 mixture of cyclamate and saccharin indicated that large amounts of cyclamates causes bladder cancer, a disease to which rats are particularly susceptible. Cyclamates are still used as sweeteners in many parts of the world, including Europe.” And yet cyclamates are still banned in the U.S. Critics of the research pointed out that to ingest the equivalent amount that caused cancer in rats, a human would have to drink EIGHT HUNDRED cans of soda PER DAY.

    Certainly, anyone from any field can say “such and such COULD CONCEIVABLY cause problems POSSIBLY INCLUDING .” But that’s a whole different thing from having ACTUAL EVIDENCE.

    6) Did anyone take and chemically analyze samples from where there is and isn’t the discoloration — including greater or lesser discoloration — and analyze them for the presence of shaving cream? If the theory that shaving cream is a significant cause of the problem is true, there should be shaving cream residue EVERYWHERE where is the substantial discoloration and NOWHERE else. And again, why is there the same amount of discoloration on the right side clearly ABOVE the inscription?

    7) Were corrections made for other causes? What other factors could have caused such discoloration? Obviously, the upper portion of the stone will routinely be exposed to sunlight much longer than the lower portion, and hence provide a better growth environment.

    =================================

    I am neither advocating nor criticizing use of shaving cream. I had never heard of it until just a few hours ago and I have no need for it. But I do object to people claiming to be experts or relying on people who claim to be experts who are offering unsubstantiated opinions based on “let’s just be cautious”. And good faith reliance on someone with a degree and no actual evidence just compounds problems, because all the person advocating the position can say is, “I don’t know personally, I’m just repeating what I was told.”

    • The mission of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training is to investigate and offer best practices and knowledge-based technology for preservation of the nation’s cultural heritage. Beginning in 2002, NCPTT developed an initiative in cemetery preservation. Since that time, our staff have undertaken a wide range of hands-on scientific research into causes of stone decay and ways to preserve grave markers. We have researched factors that cause biological growth on limestone and marble grave markers both in the laboratory and in the field. While we may not be the ultimate source for all research in cemetery preservation, our work speaks for itself.

  7. Debra says:

    Mary,

    What is the best way to stop the erosion if you just found out that an entire cemetery’s worth of headstones, dating back to the early 1700s, was subjected to shaving cream so that the inscriptions could be translated?

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