How to Use Aftershave: Steps and Tips
Welcome to Rough and Tumble Gentleman! In this post, we're going to give you the A to Z of aftershaves. We'll start off with a very basic definition, list the different types, provide some pros and cons, and then detail how to use aftershave. If you're in a rush, you can jump straight down to our "How to Section" using the Table of Contents. By the end, you'll know quite a bit about aftershave splashes, lotions, and balms.
What is Aftershave, and What Does It Do?
If you're a younger Gen X'er or older Millennial, the word "aftershave" may have a negative connotation to you. Basically there was only one type of aftershave that was sold, and it was a bracing liquid, full of alcohol, that smelled really strong. And for whatever reason, the men who wore it always wore too much of it. It was not a fantastic product, and to be honest, it was kind of a punchline.
It's amazing to see how things have changed. There are now dozens of different aftershaves, and they come in a variety of truly-appealing scents. They're no longer painful (although there are varieties that still contain alcohol, and those varieties are a lot more "balanced" than they used to be), and there are a lot of high-end, boutique aftershaves that are available. What used to be a joke has now become an integral part of the shaving routine, and an important part of men's grooming.
So we'll start from square one, and begin with a definition: aftershave is a liquid (sometimes called a "splash"), a lotion, or a balm that's applied to the face post-shave.
It's designed to do two things: 1) coat the skin with anti-bacterial agents that prevent any infections that may be caused by the shaving process (and if you've ever gotten cut while shaving, and had that cut get infected, you know how important that is!), and 2) provide moisture and soothing to just-shaved skin.
In other words, aftershave feels good, smells nice, and keeps your skin healthy.
Different Types of Aftershave
As we mentioned above, there are different varieties of aftershave. They're all designed to do the same thing, but they have different characteristics (ingredients, textures, etc.) that differentiate them.
Liquids, aka "Splashes"
Splashes have a high water content and actually have a "watery" feeling to them. They're the classic aftershave (the kind we mentioned in the first paragraph), but as we've mentioned, they've truly upped their game in recent years.
Usually, splashes contain a combination of the following:
Astringents. These are substances that bind together tissues, and in the case of aftershave splashes, bind together the tissue in your skin. If you've ever put an astringent on a cut, you've probably felt a sharp, stinging feeling—what you're feeling is the substance pulling the skin together. Astringents have incredible healing properties, and they're a great fit for a splash, because they help heal the little nicks and cuts you can get while shaving. In fact, alum is an astringent, and if you've ever used an alum block to close up a nick you got while shaving, you were using an astringent. As we mentioned above, many splashes include an astringent toner.
Toners. These are usually an extract from a plant, and they hydrate and cleanse your skin. In most cases, toners are alcohol-free, and there are usually alcohol-free toners in splashes. However, many splashes also include a toner that does contain alcohol, and those toners are called astringent toners. Astringent toners are known for their antiseptic properties, and they kill a lot of bacteria on your face. There are pros and cons to astringent toners, and we'll talk about those in a second.
Hydrosols. These are aromatic elements that are used to add scent to a splash. Essential oils can be used to add fragrance to grooming products—and if you buy high-end shaving products, you'll hear a lot about essential oils—but hydrosols can be applied directly to the skin, whereas essential oils need to be diluted before being applied to the skin. That makes hydrosols a great match for splashes. Common hydrosols include rosehip, lavender, sage, and lime.
These three ingredients combine to make a very effective aftershave splash. In one of the sections below, we'll go over how to use aftershave splash.
We mentioned above that many toners contain alcohol. In fact, that's usually the case, and most splashes contain alcohol (although you can find certain varieties that are alcohol-free). The alcohol definitely serves a purpose—it has anti-bacterial qualities that do a great job of cleaning the skin after a shave—but it can have some pretty harsh side effects for a lot of men. It can dry out the skin (and for some men, that drying can be pretty severe), and it can smart, so if you get a lot of nicks when you shave, or you suffer from razor burn, you may want to think twice about using an aftershave splash that contains alcohol.
Aftershave splashes and liquids are a good match for men with oilier skin (and as we'll discuss below, lotions and balms are a bad choice for men with oilier skin). The liquid quickly absorbs into the skin, and doesn't usually leave any sort of shine or layer after evaporating. Because it has that "light" feeling, it's a great choice for the summer months, and/or for men visiting / living in warm-to-hit climates.
In our experience, you either love aftershave splashes or you hate them. Guys seem to fall into of those two camps, with very few men having a "yeah, I guess they're fine" reaction to them. There are some guys who couldn't live without them, and some guys who try them once and never want to try them again. Lotions and balms, which we'll discuss in a minute, seem to have a "lower barrier to entry" and a wider acceptance among shavers.
Expert Tip: If you're looking for a splash, keep an eye out for witch hazel as an ingredient. Witch hazel is an amazing substance, and it's used to help heal sores, cuts, bruises, and swelling. Just make sure you're not allergic to it, as some guys are.
Balms and/or Serums
Balms are fairly new on the scene, and when you think about how grooming products evolve, they're the perfect end-result of aftershaves: they add some moisture to the skin after a shave, they heal nicks and cuts, and they smell fantastic, but they don't sting (usually). They're fulfill all the positives of splashes and don't have any of the negatives (namely, alcohol and the sting it comes with).
They have a thick consistency, and you can definitely feel them on your skin, but many have a soft, almost silky, feel when applied. They take a little more effort to apply than splashes, but they have a lot more "staying power" once you've applied them. They're usually made from the following ingredients:
A Conditioning Agent. These usually include natural oils and/or butters, and they moisturize the skin;
Humectants. These substances are used to attract and then retain moisture; glycerin is a very popular substance that's used in a lot of different shaving products, from aftershaves to shaving creams;
Antioxidants. Antioxidants are nutrients that can repair to body tissue, and help keep your skin from aging prematurely. Vitamins E is a very popular antioxidant, and it's used in many different shaving products; and
Essential Oils. These are liquids taken from plants for their aromatic qualities. The word "essential" means that it features the "essence" of the plant's scent. Sandalwood is a very popular essential oil used in aftershaves, as is tea tree oil and lavender.
Aftershave balms are a great option for men with sensitive and/or skin—they're designed to be soothing and moisturizing—and because they're thicker than most other aftershaves, they're a good option for colder climes or dryer areas. They're a fantastic fit if you get a lot of nicks and cuts when you shave.
Lotions / Gels / Creams
Aftershave lotions, gels, and creams are basically a thinner version of balms, and they share all the same qualities: they provide moisture, restoration, and antibacterial treatment to the skin, but they're a little bit easier to spread over the surface of your face. These are typically lotions, although you may find some in the form of a gel or a cream (although those are a little more rare than lotions—lotions are the most common).
They have a higher water content than balms, but just like balms, they're a great option if you've gotten a lot of nicks during your shave, or if you're suffering from razor burn. They're also a great match for men who have oily skin, but don't want to use a splash.
Next up, we'll go often how to select the right product for you, and then finally discuss how to use aftershave.
How to Choose an Aftershave
So now you know the basic types of aftershave that are out there. Let's take a look at the factors you'll want to keep in mind when buying one. First up:
Figure Out What Type of Skin You've Got
There are a lot of guys who think the most important aspect of an aftershave is its smell. That's important, but it's actually a secondary concern. The most important buying factor when considering an aftershave is how your skin is going to react to it. Below, we'll go through each skin type, and discuss what's usually considered the best product.
And, as we usually do, we'll provide a quick disclaimer before we get started: no one here at Rough and Tumble Gentleman, including the authors of this post, are doctors or medical professionals of any kind. Always consult your doctor or dermatologist for medical advice.
OK! Got that out of the way. Here are the best aftershaves...
For Men with Dry Skin
Dry skin is no fun: it can be rough and scaly, or it can be cracked and raw, or it can peel a little bit. As you'd might guess, you're going to want an aftershave with moisturizing properties, and a lotion—or more likely a balm, that won't evaporate as quickly—might be a good match.
Also, keep in mind that shaving during the winter months, when the air is cold and dry, your skin may be at a higher risk for dryness. During those times, a moisturizing lotion or balm might be a great option.
Here's the thing to remember: you'll want to stay away from products that contain alcohol. Alcohol does a fantastic job of killing bacteria, but it really does a number on dry skin (and, in fact, it can do a number on men with normal skin, too!). Most balms are alcohol-free (although there are a few that DO have them), and there are splashes that have no alcohol in them, and those may work for you, but proceed with caution. If you've got dry skin, a moisturizing aftershave lotion of balm that has no alcohol is usually your best bet.
For Men with Oily Skin
Congratulations! If you've got oily skin, you're in the small subset of people who seem to be immune to the dangers of aftershave splash that contains alcohol. There are a lot of men who can't use a splash that contains alcohol, so consider yourself lucky. The splash might actually help balance the oils on your skin, and diminish them a bit.
Keep in mind, if you're not into splashes, you've got other options: you can branch out and use lotions or balms, but just make sure they're not making your skin more oily, or giving your face too much "shine." That's an odd look for a man, and it might actually be uncomfortable, if it seems to sit on your skin.
For Men with Sensitive Skin
If you've got sensitive skin, we can empathize. It's no fun, and it seems like it's always on your mind. It may itch for no reason, break out in rashes, or even sting when it comes into contact with a substance it doesn't like. So you've got to be careful with the products you use.
As you probably know, it helps to buy products that are specifically designated as "For Sensitive Skin." Sadly, it's not a guarantee that your skin will be fine, but it does signal that the maker of the product made their best effort to exclude ingredients that are harmful to you.
As for specific aftershaves, you'll definitely want to stay away from aftershave splashes that contain alcohol, and veer towards lotions and balms—but just make sure those lotions and balms also have no alcohol in them (and most of the time, they don't, but you'll need to check). Keep an eye out for lotions and balms that have aloe vera and/or witch hazel (just make sure you're not allergic to either of those things—and trip to an allergist may be a good idea if you're not sure). Those two substances are kind of incredible: aloe vera is a substance that reduces skin inflammation—and that's something you want if you're a shaver with sensitive skin—and witch hazel can relieve itching and irritation. Both provide soothing for sensitive skin.
For Men Who Get Razor Burn
You could go with a splash that has alcohol, but that is going to sting like a bee. A lotion or balm with moisturizers and aloe vera or witch hazel can be a good option. They provide a cooling sensitive to you skin, along with some curative properties.
If you're regularly getting razor burn, though, we've got an additional bit of advice: it may make sense to ditch those disposable and/or cartridge razors and look at safety razors. The multiple blades on disposables and cartridges are widely touted as top-notch, but in reality, they cause a lot of irritation and razor burn on a lot of guys. For a lot of men, safety razors, which use a single, super-shape blade, are a remedy to consistence razor burn. Something to think about!
And last but not least...
For Men with Normal Skin
They don't get mentioned too much, but there are a lot of men—the majority, maybe—who really don't have any issues with their skin. It doesn't get too dry, it's not overly-oily, and they can shave and get minimal nicks. If that describes you, then congratulations! It's a safe bet that you can use whatever you want, you lucky dog.
So, figure out what kind of texture you like—maybe it's a light-liquid splash, or a denser balm—and explore different scents. The world's your oyster. Just be observant—there are a lot of men with normal, healthy skin who still can't use an aftershave splash with alcohol in it. Their skin starts off fine, but after a week or two, their skin is dry as a bone. So if you go the splash route, keep an eye out for how your skin reacts.
Summing All That Up
Basically, it goes like this: alcohol dries your skin. So...
If you have if oily skin, you may be able to use an aftershave splash with alcohol, and it may actually take care of some of that oiliness;
If you have normal skin, you can use anything, but be careful with aftershave splashes with alcohol, and make sure they don't dry you out;
If you have dry, sensitive, or combination skin, or are prone to razor burn, look for a lotion or balm with skin-soothing properties such as witch hazel and aloe.
Get Your Scent Right
So the most important aspect of selecting an aftershave is finding the type that's going to suit your skin. The second thing you want to be select is scent.
Above, we mentioned that aftershave balms feature essential oils such as sandalwood, tea tree, and lavender, but there are actually dozens of different scents and aromas available, including:
You'll even find some scents advertised that are a little non-descript, like "Wood and Spice." It's difficult to say what "Wood and Spice" would smell like, so we'll just say, "To a lot of men, 'Wood and Spice' smells good."
In fact, it's actually difficult to define any of the scents listed above, but that's one of the best things about finding your favorite aftershave: there are plenty of options available, and the search for what you like can be very enjoyable. If you like something that wakes you up and feels cool in an invigorating way, you may want to check out menthol, eucalyptus, or tea tree; if you like sweet aromas, try lemon, lime, or vanilla; if you like florals, look into lavender, rose, or jasmine; if you want a more "masculine" smell, check into sandalwood; if you're interested in something a little unknowable or mysterious, you may want to consider something with sage or cedar or oakmoss. Like we said, aftershaves have come a long way in recent years, and there are a lot of great options to choose from. (Oh, and one last thing—there are a few "unscented" options available, if you want to use an aftershave that doesn't have an aroma).
Before we finish up with a "Scents" section, there are two other things to keep in mind. First, the smell of some aftershaves can last a while, and the smell of others may dissipate quickly, so find out what you like. Second, if you wear cologne, you want to be sure that the smell of your aftershave doesn't clash with your cologne. Find something that compliments it, and maybe even look for an unscented aftershave. They're a little more rare, but they're out there—Lather and Wood makes an unscented aftershave balm that feels very nice.
Find Something You Like the Look Of
This may seem silly, but a lot of these items are really attractive. There's been a new wave of companies that make shaving products, and they've done a great job marketing their products—and making them look good in thematic ways. So go for a look you like! You can check out the more "classic" aftershaves (Proraso and Pinaud are examples), "American classic" aftershaves (Old Spice, despite its recent marketing campaigns, comes in a traditional cream-and-red bottle, and it looks stoic and handsome), as well as more conventionally masculine, "cowboy"-type aftershaves (and Leather and Wood is a good example of that, as is Rocky Mountain). There are plenty of other types of bottles even beyond those—Shaveology makes a stream-lined, modern line of aftershaves; Bay Rum makes a long line of products that they advertise as beach-friendly; and there are even more "elegant" aftershaves (like Calvin Klein's Obsession for Men).
Point is, there are some gorgeous models out there, and—let's be honest! The look of things informs our buying practices. It's nice to have a shaving kit made up of attractive items. If that's important to you, find an aftershave that's aesthetically pleasing and gives you a smile when you reach for it in the morning.
You Can Always Switch It Up
The best thing about shaving, and wet shaving in particular, is that there are so many incredible products to choose from, and you can personalize your experience any way you like. We find that a balm is great in the wintertime, and provides a lot of skin protection from the cold, whereas a splash (particularly a scented rum splash) is light and invigorating and perfect for the summer months. So, experiment! Like with all things related to shaving, most men have strong opinions about what they like when it comes to aftershave, so do a little research and you'll find what works for you.
How to Use Aftershave: Steps
Finally! How to actually use aftershave. We'll divide this section up into two parts: how to use a splash, and how to use a lotion or balm.
Before we get started, though, there's guiding principle to keep in mind when you use aftershave, and it is: "Use aftershave sparsely." Always err on the side of using too little. A little goes a long way, and you can always add more if you need to. Excess liquid or balm smells too strong, feels soppy and/or gloopy, and makes you run through the product sooner than you need to.
If You're Using a Splash...
After you've shaved, give your face a rinse with cold water, and remove any excess lather or soap from your skin. The cold water will close your pores after your shave, and you don't want any lather or soap sitting on your skin all day, as that can cause irritation. Pat the excess water away with a towel, so that your skin is mostly dry. It doesn't need to be bone dry—there can (and probably will be) a little bit of moisture there, and that's fine—but the less moisture, the better, because you don't want your aftershave splash to get too diluted by the water on your face.
Grab your aftershave splash and pour a little bit into the palm of your hand. The amount you'll want varies on your personal taste—for some guys, 2 to 3 drops is more than enough; for guys who want a stronger scent, pour a little puddle up to the size of a quarter (but, keep in mind, you'll probably waste some if you do that—if you want a stronger smell, you may want to simply apply and then re-apply).
Rub your hands together to distribute the splash evenly on both hands. Rubbing your hands together doesn't really activate anything in the product, as some men think it does—for the great majority of aftershave splashes, that's a myth—and if anything, it actually evaporates some of the alcohol in the splash, which can be a good thing.
After a few seconds of letting it sit in your hands, you're ready to massage the splash into your skin. Start at your cheeks and move downward toward your jawline, using your fingers to give the liquid a gentle rub into your skin. After you're done, you can give the skin at the back of your neck and underneath your jaw a slap or two.
There you go! Hopefully, you feel invigorated and awake, and the splash has provided a little protection to your skin.
If You're Using a Lotion or Balm
Just as with a splash, you'll want to give your face good solid rinse with cold water. That'll close up your pores, and it'll get rid of any extra soap or lather on your skin. You definitely want all those materials off your skin, as they can cause rashes or irritation.
After you've given yourself a good rinse, squeeze a dab of the lotion or balm into your palm. Something the size of a dime should do it, but if you've got an extremely large head, maybe a little more than that. This next step is important: you want to run your hands together—especially if you're using a balm—but the heat from your hands, along with the friction of your palms rubbing together, will warm the product and make it easier to spread over the areas of your face that you've shaved.
Once you've rubbed your hands together for a few seconds, rub the lotion or balm into your skin, starting your checks and working downwards, in a circular motion. Because lotions and balms have a thicker consistency, you'll need to work the product into your skin a little bit (but, obviously, take it easy—there's no reason to push the product in; you just want to guide it a little bit). After you've got your cheeks and jawline done, rub some of the lotion or balm into the area above and below your lips, and then underneath your chin.
If you feel that the lotion has run out, squeeze another small dollop onto your hand and repeat the process. Remember, it's always better to go easy on the lotion or balm, and add more later.
Wrapping Up Aftershave
There you go! You now know quite a bit about aftershave. Go forth and spread the good word.
Michael Morris is the head writer here at Rough and Tumble Gentleman. He's got a ducktail beard and loves Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He's married to the woman of his dreams and lives in Brooklyn, NY.