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Why does aftershave sting?

Shaving was never as smooth for me as the commercials made it seem. Television advertisements featuring a man stroking his smooth, freshly shaved face was so different from my shaving experience, which used to leave me feeling dried out and uncomfortable.

I would use more and more moisturizing lotion to soothe my face. While some of these lotions helped for a few hours, I was itchy most of the time, scratching my face throughout the day.

Why did I suffer for so long? I was hesitant to add more creams to my routine, thinking they would further irritate my sensitive skin. The thought of using an aftershave, with its scream-inducing burn, was a no go!

Believe it or not, aftershaves do not have to burn! And, if you’re having trouble staying moisturized after shaving, an aftershave might just be what you’re looking for. I’ll explain why some aftershaves sting, why the best ones don’t have to, and why you should consider adding an aftershave to your shaving routine, regardless of whether or not you have sensitive skin.


What is Aftershave?

Aftershaves can moisturize, and a moisturizing lotion is good to use after shaving, but what exactly makes aftershave a skin care product worth buying?

Aftershaves tend to have moisturizing ingredients, but the focus is really on two key properties not found in a standard moisturizing lotion: its role as both an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory agent. Put simply, you use it to kill bacteria and fight razor burn and redness.

You shave with blades after all, and when those blades drag across your face you’re likely to catch some of your skin. Not enough skin to need a bandage (most of the time…), but enough to cause irritation. Unintended consequences so to speak.

You can get aftershave balm, after shave cream, lotions and liquids, and while some may focus foremost on killing bacteria, it’s really the producer’s choice as to what exactly their aftershave will do. The idea is to treat the skin at its most sensitive moment, and modern aftershaves will tend to include three things: an antiseptic, an anti-inflammatory and a moisturizer.

Some increasingly common, natural anti-inflammatories that will work well in aftershaves include turmeric root, Gotu Kola and Helichrysum, writes The American Botanical Council and WebMD.

Natural antiseptics include witch hazel, tea tree oil, grapefruit seed extract, thyme oil and lemon, Natural Therapy Pages writes. In fact, a lot of natural antiseptics have anti-inflammatory properties, and vice versa. Some of these natural products work better for skin care than others, which we’ll look into shortly.

The most notorious antiseptic used in aftershave, however, popularized in products like Aqua Velva and Bay Rum, is alcohol. There are other antiseptics out there as discussed above, but alcohol-based aftershaves caught on in the United States in the early 20th century.


Why does it burn after I shave?

Let’s learn a little more about two traditional aftershave ingredients, alcohol and menthol, and why they caught on in aftershave lotions.

In the same way that a common mouthwash burns and cools your mouth, classic aftershaves make it feel like the ingredients are attacking the bad stuff in your mouth and on your face. But as there are mouthwash alternatives out there that don’t actually sting or provide that icy finish, there are aftershaves that are also much more mellow.

The burning is caused by alcohol, and the blast of cool air is caused by menthol. Mentally, it’s really satisfying being able to feel the ingredients at work. So if you crave that burning feeling when using a mouthwash or shaving, then you should keep at it with products containing alcohol. And if you like that cooling sensation, you can thank menthol.

Alcohol was introduced to prevent infections in an era when razors were bound to create knicks and cuts every time you shaved, the trade-off being the pain of the alcohol on your freshly shaven face as it kills off bacteria. Since then, two things have happened:

  1. Modern razors are more consistently sharper than they used to be, notes Original Shave Company.
  2. Bacteria-killing ingredients have been more thoroughly researched and sourced from global supply chains.

Of course, alcohol will still do the trick in 2020. In fact, it may be useful for someone with oily skin, as the alcohol will reign in some of that oil. And if you enjoy the cool breeze of menthol, keep using it as long as it’s not causing irritation. (Check the Badger & Blade forums to learn about adding extra menthol to your aftershave, “to give it more kick in the nuts menthol feel!” one commenter writes.)

But both alcohol and menthol will be a problem for people with normal to sensitive skin, and there are equally effective products that don’t cause this discomfort, dry you out, or provide a minty cover-up for a product that may actually be irritating your skin.


What are some alcohol alternatives?

So, there are ingredients out there that provide the same benefit as alcohol, without the sting.

To kill bacteria without burning, you should look for an aftershave that leaves out alcohol but includes some antiseptic ingredient. Our Scapicchio Anti Aging After Shave Serum uses Tea Tree extract, an oil that has been used for about a century in Australia for its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory benefits.

Calendula extract gets the job done, and you may notice Witch Hazel, too, in a lot of aftershave products. That’s because Witch Hazel is also an anti-inflammatory, which can help treat razor burn and razor bumps, and can help to reduce irritated skin redness.

It’s ok to not know exactly what fruit or plant extracts to look for. Keep an eye out for ingredients you cook with (“good enough to eat”) like ginger, turmeric, rosemary or olive oil.



  • Why is alcohol in aftershave?
    • Alcohol is in some aftershaves to kill bacteria, but it can cause a burning or stinging sensation. Use a natural antiseptic like Tea Tree oil to prevent knicks from becoming infected without the burn.
  • What does menthol do?
    • Menthol provides a minty cool feeling, but it too can cause irritation to sensitive skin.
  • Why use an aftershave?
    • Aftershaves can soothe your irritated skin, kill any bacteria from getting into knicks and cuts, and reduce redness.
  • What aftershave should someone with a sensitive skin condition like acne use?
    • WebMD says to stay away from any product with alcohol or cologne in it and to look for something moisturizing.


What smells…good?

Something we haven’t yet discussed are fragrances. You do want to smell good, right? 

Most aftershaves will use lab-created, chemical smells.

You don’t need to settle for fake smells when the real deal is just as easy to get. Nature is filled with sweet, savory, smelling aromas, like bergamot oil, lavender and rosemary leaf extract, and you can find aftershaves that use these ingredients to their full effect! 

And, not to sound like a broken record, but chemical smells may…irritate sensitive skin. If your skin is still irritated after taking the alcohol and menthol out of your shave, opt for something with only natural ingredients, and no chemical preservatives like Scapicchio After Shave Serum.


The bottom line

To get the most comfortable shave possible, you need a sharp razor, thick shaving cream and a hydrating aftershave. If you don’t have much experience shaving, or you’ve had a lot of horrible shaving experiences, you may be missing one of these elements. Personally, a new razor only does so much for me; finding an effective aftershave was the game changer.

A good aftershave will soothe the skin you’ve just nicked up, kill any bacteria from entering those nicks, reduce visible skin irritation, and make you smell fresh! 

Alas, it is still hard to find aftershaves that are good for your body, made with natural, non-irritating ingredients like tea tree oil and turmeric root. That is why I created Scapicchio’s all-natural aftershave without chemicals or chemical preservatives and other ingredients commonly found to cause irritation. I used to dread shaving, but a solid after shave lotion changed all that.

Dr. Robert Cutler, Head of Product Development at Scapicchio Barbershop Products

About Robert Cutler, D.O.

Dr. Robert Cutler is a board certified physician and has spent more than 30 years practicing in New Jersey and Florida. He has had great success integrating patient care from an efficiency standpoint and as a practical approach to holistic and preventative medicine. Dr. Cutler has also performed FDA approved Clinical Trials and has had formal research training. 

He teamed up with Scapicchio Barbershop, based in Bovino, Italy, in 2019 to create high-grade grooming products. Dr. Cutler’s in-laws, the Scapicchios, are a line of professional barbers who have been studying the craft since 1820. Inspired by generations of barbers, formulated by Dr. Cutler to be effective, natural and hypo-allergenic, Scapicchio Barbershop products carry on a two-century long legacy of superior shaving.