Witch Hazel vs. Alcohol: Does it Really Matter for Aftershave?

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Alcohol and witch hazel are used as the base ingredient for nearly all aftershaves.  If you shave frequently, you should be aware of these two ingredients and how they differ from one another.  

Here’s a summary of their core differences:

Witch Hazel

  • Doesn’t sting upon application
  • A natural and scientifically proven astringent (source)
  • Tones the skin with repeated use

Alcohol

  • Aftershaves use specially denatured alcohol 40 (denatured alcohol)
  • Stings on open wounds
  • High concentrations disinfect
  • Dries out the skin

A more detailed examination of alcohol and witch hazel is below:

Alcohol and Witch Hazel Have a Rich History

Shaving guides as early as 1905 have recommended that men apply either a bay rum (alcohol-based) aftershave or witch hazel once the shave is complete.  Witch hazel was cited that it is “soothing to the face and allays the burning.”

The earliest origins of bay rum, the alcohol-based aftershave, dates back to 1838 in Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.  The original formula was made from a mix of bay leaves and rum, simply known as bay rum.

Witch hazel, native to the eastern half of the United States, was initially used by the Native Americans to treat minor insect bites, cuts, inflammation, and other ailments (source).  The Puritans later learned of this plant and its medicinal properties from the Native Americans.

8 Key Properties of Alcohol in Aftershave

Here are a few important properties of alcohol-based aftershave:

  1. Disinfectant: Highly concentrated alcohol, between 60% and 90%, is suitable for disinfecting per the CDC.  Alcohol can (and should) be applied before a shaving cut is treated.
  2. Pain: Alcohol stings when in contact with an open wound.  Pain-adverse men should either use witch hazel or rinse their wound with lukewarm soapy water.
  3. Moisturizing: Alcohol will dry out your skin on contact.  Common side effects of dry skin include tightness, flaking, ashiness, or a burning sensation.  Some aftershave products may contain moisturizers to counteract the alcohol from drying your skin.
  4. Scent: Many alcohol-based aftershaves are strongly scented.  Some aftershaves are intended to be used in place of a cologne or body spray.  For unscented aftershave, consider just applying denatured alcohol.
  5. Skin Types: Alcohol-based aftershave should only be used on oily or normal skin types, or a combination of both.  Men with dry or sensitive skin should avoid alcohol-based aftershave.  
  6. Acne: Men with oily or acne-prone skin may be lured to apply alcohol due to the short-term benefits; alcohol reduces shine and kills acne-causing bacteria. However, some articles have suggested that long-term alcohol use on your skin may lead to dryness and irritation.  
  7. Frequency: Generally, alcohol-based aftershaves should be used sparingly. Long-term use may lead to dry skin and mild irritation.  Consider using only a few times per week.
  8. Intended Application: Alcohol should be used sparingly and is designed for face use only.  Overapplication of a strongly-scented aftershave may cause headaches or nausea.  

5 Key Properties of Witch Hazel in Aftershave

Here are a few important properties of witch hazel based aftershave:

  1. Astringent: Witch hazel is a natural astringent that will constrict or shrink body tissues.  When applied to a razor cut, witch hazel will stop the bleeding.  Astringents are also helpful in reducing the appearance of pores and toning skin.
  2. Scent: Witch hazel is naturally unscented, allowing it to be paired with other fragrances and grooming products.  
  3. Skin Types:  Witch hazel is compatible with all skin types, including those men with sensitive skin.
  4. Moisturizing: Witch hazel may cause dry skin with continued use.  The dryness will not be as severe as an alcohol-based aftershave.  Many witch hazel based aftershaves include glycerin or aloe to counteract dry skin.
  5. Intended Application: Witch hazel can be applied anywhere on the body after shaving, including the face, chest, pubic region, legs, etc.  

Does Your Razor Matter At All When Selecting Aftershave?

Generally, no.

The only argument to be made here would be with the aggressiveness of the shave.  If you are using an aggressive safety razor or make several passes with a cartridge razor, then your skin would benefit from a moisture-focused aftershave product.  This would likely be an aftershave balm that relies on witch hazel as the base.

How to Find The Right Aftershave for You?

Aftershaves are available in many different forms.  We go into greater detail in our aftershave overview article if you wish to learn more.  Here three types of aftershaves:

  • Aftershave Splashes: Can either be made from alcohol or witch hazel as they are both liquids.  Alcohol-based aftershaves are often strongly scented.  Well-known brands such as Old Spice, Brut, Clubman Pinaud rely on alcohol.  Aftershave splashes with witch hazel often have a vintage, medicinal, or natural appeal.  
  • Aftershave Lotions: Often alcohol-based, but this product category is not very well defined.  Some offerings may be 2-in-1 type products designed to be a face moisturizer and aftershave.  Always read the ingredients before purchasing.
  • Aftershave Balms: Nearly always relying on a witch hazel base. They are often marketed as being moisturizer-focused, non-stinging, and skin toning.  Aftershave balms include Nivea, Pre de Provence, Proraso, etc.

We wrote a comprehensive review of the best aftershave brands here.  The list is continuously updated to include any recent noteworthy brands to consider