Imagine a scenario of waking up and going through the normal morning routine.

Usually, this process includes: grabbing breakfast, taking a shower, and a thorough shave of the face. If at all possible, it is recommended to shave after showering. This is done for two reasons. First, hair follicles recently absorbed a heavy dose of water and will be thicker and easier to shave. As a result of thicker stubble, the pores naturally expand creating an environment better suited for shaving.

Back to the story, while shaving, the realization that a new razor blade must be purchased becomes ever so clear. The process of shaving feels more like rubbing sandpaper on the face, due to an overly dull blade, than actually shaving.

After powering through, one thing is apparent, aftershave is a must. Aftershave will reduce the irritation of the skin and any razor burns you might have caused from shaving inexperience or even poorly maintained wet shaving tools.

As one quickly reaches for the bottle of aftershave, a flood of disappointment over takes as unwelcome news hits, the bottle is empty. In a quick panic, there’s a survey for alternatives. The only things that seem like they may work are the bottle of cologne and another bottle containing Eau de Toilette.

Here lies the question in this scenario, will one of those work? Are they essentially the same thing? What’s the difference between cologne, eau de toilette and aftershave, if there’s any really?

If one finds himself in a, similar, tight spot. It is best to understand what each of these products are, exactly, and what they are intended to do.

What is an Aftershave?

What is aftershave balm

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Aftershave is, as the name perfectly clarifies, a product intended to be placed on the skin after the shave.

Think about the act of shaving the face, in crude terms, it is the act of dragging sharpened metal across one of the most sensitive and thinnest areas of skin on the body. It works by ripping out or cutting tiny hairs all while opening up the pores. When the skin has lost much of its moisture content or the razor blade has dulled down, small red bumps, cuts, and nicks appear. This also happens when one is not focusing on the task. As a further form of validation, bacteria is all over the used razor blade and makes direct contact with wide open pores.

Aftershaves serve by cleaning out and closing the pores, recently opened from shaving, fighting infection from cuts and nicks as well as treating razor burns and razor bumps.

It is common for good aftershaves to contain a form of face moisturizer to replace the natural oils of the skin lost during the shave.

Aftershaves come in a variety of forms. Some may be pure liquids, while others may be more of a gel or lotion consistency.

While many men believe aftershave, truly, serves no purpose than making one smell good. This is not the case. They have far fewer scented oils within them compared with colognes because the scent is not designed to sustain throughout the day.

After shave became popular in the early 1900s as men and barber shops began to frequently use the liquid post shave.

That aftershave was very different to what is used today. That liquid contained a lot more alcohol than commonly used today (more that 70% alcohol back then). This alcohol level was so high to fend of the bacteria that penetrated open pores after shaving. This was important as most barbershops used the same razor without proper cleaning from customer to customer.

What is in Aftershave?

The core ingredients in aftershave can be broken into two main families: alcohol and witch hazel based which is also a difference found between aftershave balms, splashes and lotions. More info to follow.


Alcohol serves as a powerful astringent. It cleans and seals pores for quick relief from the trauma the skin feels from shaving. It creates that sting felt when placed on the skin often associated with aftershave.

There has been a recent trend to move away from alcohol in the aftershave market as it been discovered that it tightens and dries out the skin considerably. Some who have naturally dry skin have experienced peeling of the skin following use.

Witch hazel

This is the main ingredient in most natural aftershaves. It is effective due to its ability to effectively constrict the pores of the face. It is not simply a replacement for alcohol as it is a natural astringent that does not work by drying out the skin like alcohol.

While witch hazel is a powerful astringent, it also works as a wonderful anti-inflammatory remedy that quickly soothes inflamed skin.

Some men don’t use products with witch hazel because it doesn’t give the normal sting or burn associated with alcohol based aftershaves. They are so accustomed to that burn that they only believe the product is effective if felt. Witch hazel does not burn and quickly soothes the skin.

While one may not feel the sting that allows the brain to think it’s working, it is and the face is clean and protected afterwards.

Other common ingredients in aftershave (natural and not)

Tea Tree Oil

It is a natural antiseptic that flushes out the pores and prevents skin infections.

Aloe Vera

This provides soothing relief when applied to irritated skin (think back to the last sunburn).

Stearate Citrate

It is another astringent used to reduce skin irritation.


It serves well to numb damaged skin.

Essential Oils and other Fragrances

These are used to provide a pleasant odor to the product limiting the smell of other off putting ingredients.

How to use aftershave

How to use aftershave

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It is recommended that aftershave is used following every shave but more importantly if a cut occurs during shaving. Those with oily, clogged pore filled, dry, and sensitive skin should use frequently as well.

It is worth noting that aftershave should be chosen based on skin type.

  • If the skin is normal, a liquid or gel aftershave will serve well.
  • If the skin is oily, look for a liquid, gel, or lotion containing moisturizer.
  • If the skin is really dry or the air is cold and dry where one lives, look for more of a balm that contains a moisturizer as it will hold on the face longer and continue to moisturize.

Make sure the balm is alcohol free to prevent further drying out. For those with sensitive skin look for an unscented, alcohol free product.

When putting on aftershave, the process is rather straightforward.

  1. After shaving, dry your face thoroughly with a clean and dry towel. Excess water doesn’t allow the skin to absorb the aftershave balm
  2. Place about a dime sized amount in the palm of the hand.
  3. Mix it together, using both hands, and spread it evenly across the face and neck until you cover the entire are you just shaved.

What is Cologne?

What is cologne

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The purpose of this product is to provide one with a lingering, preferred fragrance.

Cologne is the oldest term for perfume, used in places like North America, referring to specifically masculine scents.

It’s different from perfume as it is typically more water down and, consequently, less strong than perfume. As for the name, the word is short for Eau de Cologne, which is a perfume developed in Cologne, Germany in 1709.

No matter if it’s a spray or solid fragrance, colognes are actually activated as the body heats up. This is why it is recommended to apply cologne directly to the skin and various pulse points rather than the clothes.

Since cologne is only made to enhance one’s smell, it does not serve as a substitution for aftershave as it does not have the same astringent, antibacterial properties. While it does deodorize, it doesn’t not have any capability of serving as a men’s deodorant and should not be worn in replace of deodorant or antiperspirant.

Common ingredients found in cologne


Similar to aftershave, many colognes contain alcohol. Alcohol is normally used when distilling the aroma producing compounds.

Distillation, in cologne making, refers to the heating up of the materials used for aroma with alcohol. This causes the fragrance compounds to release from the material. It is then, similar to drinking alcohol, put through a coil condenser where it can cool and be collected.

Cologne contains much less alcohol than aftershave containing alcohol and does not disinfect the same way.


Water serves as a carrier solvent while distilling.

In laymen’s terms, it captures and transports the fragrance released during the prior mentioned heating process. Steam from heating alcohol and aromatic materials merge with water where volatile oils are released into the steam. It then cools and drips into a bottle.

Fragrance or Essential Oils

The smell is created from either, essential oils in plants or synthetic materials.

The more expensive and exclusive a cologne is, usually, the more essential oils and rarer essential oils it contains. Chanel No. 5 is believed to be the first perfume or cologne to contain synthetic fragrances. These were made in a lab and did not have natural origins.

Most cheap colognes have transitioned to synthetics due to the lower cost from production.

Fragrances like cologne are often thought to have a three-part life cycle. These three sections often contain individual scents that merge together into the scent smelt. More specifically, these are usually identifies as a top, medium and base note.

  • Top note: this is a initial, lighter smell that hits the nose almost instantly. It usually last the shortest amount of time from 15 minutes to a little over an hour. This tends to be floral, citrus or fruity, or aquatic odors and spices like cinnamon.
  • Medium note: this, as implied, is the middle or heart of the fragrance. It is the note that showcases the main element of the fragrance. It can linger on the skin for 2-3 hours after application. It often contains grass and stone scents often called green scents, as well as heavier amounts of spice and fruity scents.
  • Base notes: these lay the base and determine the length of scent on the skin. They are usually long lasting from 4-8 hours or longer. They include more, commonly thought of as masculine scents like leather, smoke, musk, tobacco, and sandalwood.

If while wearing cologne the scent seems to change, it is because as notes dry up the scent does change. It often evolves into a more interesting odor the longer it is used. The lower quality the cologne, the more one note it tends to be.

Contrary to popular belief, colognes do not last forever. As heat fluctuates, in areas like the bathroom, the molecules in the liquid begin to break apart. To prolong lifespan of cologne, they should be stored in cool, dark, dry environments.

How to apply cologne?

How to use cologne

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Don’t be the guy who smells as if they have bathed in cologne. It is overwhelming when this guy enters the room and off putting.

The time to apply is preferably right after drying off after a shower.

It should be sprayed or applied directly to dry skin.

Now, if in is applied via spray, hold the bottle 3-6 inches from the skin.

A good rule of thumb when beginning with a new scent is begin with a single spray or drop on the bare chest. As comfort level and understanding evolves, begin to apply to other areas.

Try to apply to warm parts of the body since heat activates the scent throughout the day. These areas include the chest, neck, wrist, forearm, inner elbow, shoulder, and behind the ear.

While it is a warm area, the crotch is not recommended as it can cause harmful irritations and bacterial growth.

Remember, to work properly the cologne needs to make contact with the skin so spraying and walking through is not the proper technique for application.

What is Eau de toilette?

Eau de toilette, while it sounds fancy, is also referred to as toilet water. It serves as a less strong version of perfume or cologne.

Eau de toilette is normally weaker than Eau de parfum but stronger than Eau de cologne.

While this is technically true, many men use Eau de toilette and Eau de cologne are usually used to represent the same thing for men. In the 14th century, the product Eau de toilette was produced in Hungary. Queen Elisabeth of Hungary (1305-1380) mixed alcohol and fragrant oil to slow down the rate of evaporation on the skin. This was called Hungary Water. King Louis XIV notoriously created something to perfume his shirts called “heavenly water.” It has ingredients such as aloe wood, musk, orange flowers, and rose water.

The scents typically fall in this pyramid of aromatic compounds:

  • Aftershave 1-3% aromatic compounds
  • Eau de toilette 5-15%, and
  • Cologne +15%.

Eau de toilette contains similar ingredients to cologne but with far less fragrance ingredients in the water and alcohol base. Due to this, it has far less odor and sustains less time after application. Two to three hours of wear is all that can usually be expected before the scent, seemingly, drifts away.

Still, because of ease of use and the less intimidating odor, it is the best selling scent strength in the UK and many other countries.

How to apply Eau de toilette?

How to use Eau de toilette

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Always spray Eau de toilette at least six inches from the skin so that it doesn’t puddle on the skin.

Recommended areas for longer lasting effect are chest and biceps because they remained trapped between skin and clothing.

Do not over do it. Start light and increase as understanding and comfort with the fragrance increases.

And by the way, this is another product that is to be applied directly to the skin rather than clothing.

So, when stuck with the situation listened in the opening paragraph, one should remember that neither cologne nor Eau de toilette gives near the desired effect of aftershave. Rather than using cologne and Eau de toilette, one should look for these common household ingredients:


As stated above, it cools and soothes the skin. It does not contain alcohol and works well with the most sensitive skin.

Apple Cider Vinegar

This serves well because its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. It isn’t overly drying but can be harsh for those with sensitive skin. For those with sensitive skin, dilute heavily with water.

Really Cold Water

While this doesn’t give the skin and odor, it will smooth the skin a little. It closes the pores opened during shaving. It restricts irritation and works well in a pinch.


Many aftershaves have this included in them. It is an astringent and closes pores. While it is recommended to use rubbing alcohol, drinking alcohol such as vodka and rum would also work. Remember to be careful, as pure alcohol can really dry out the skin.

Understanding the difference between these three bathroom staples, here are the recommended products in each three classifications.

After Shave Recommendations

For a more natural, simplistic approach product try, Proraso Liquid Aftershave Lotion.

Truly one of the best aftershave balms at this price level.

Proraso’s balm contains ingredients such as glycerin for added moisture infusion in the face. It includes witch hazel for a quick, lingering reduction in skin irritation. Eucalyptus oil tones and cools the skin.

It contains a small hint of alcohol for that tradition, but light, aftershave bit. This product resembles an old-school barbershop feel when applied to the face. Its scent is pleasant and not off putting.

Everyone, most sensitive face to normal, love this for a no fuss, natural ingredient, quality aftershave. It does everything one could look for in an aftershave and leaves the face feeling refreshed and smooth.

For a more involved approach try, Lab Series 3-In-1 Post-Shave.

This product covers all aftershave needs. It treats ingrown hairs, it soothes, and prevents razor burn, and slows down the appearance of 5 o’clock shadow with plant based ingredients that work to soften beard hair through continued use. It absorbs quickly into the skin.

It has a cooling (menthol) gel It can be applied in the morning after a shave and again before bed.

Ingredients in this product include glycerin, saw palmetto fruit extract, menthol, sea whip extract. It serves as a light exfoliator while even the skin with a light peppermint scent.

Cologne Recommendations

For those that want a classic, high quality smell, try Amazingreen by Comme des Garcons.

This product was made in France. It contains fresh notes of palm tree leaves and green pepper. It gives a heavy “old school” masculine odor with a rich, smoky base of gunpowder and white musk. Other ingredients include orris roots, coriander, and silex.

Recommended to those who like the ocean and love to be around the scents associated with grandfathers and dads.

For a great summer or spring option, try Jo Malone ‘Lime, Basil & Mandarin’ Cologne for Men.

It reminds of limes and tropical island breezes. It contains bergamont, grapefruit, lime, mandarin, orange, iris, lilac, basil and thyme. This hints many of the notes popular with men and women a like.

It can be used for nice occasions or everyday. It last longer than many colognes and will not cause a skin reaction.

Eau de Toilette Recommendations

For a nice masculine scent try, Versace Eros Eau de Toilette Spray for Men.

It contains in very nice masculine aroma that smells fresh and clean. It contains mint leaves, Italian lemon zest, and, green apple. The scent is a mix of nautical hints with equal parts of an almost sunny warmth.

Most men say their significant others love the scent when they walk into the room. It also contains tonka bean, amber, vanilla, cedarwood, vetiver, and oak moss. It is intense for an Eau de Toilette but the wearer won’t mind.

Another option is, Viktor and Rolf Spicebomb Eau de Toilette Spray for Men.

It is the male version of the popular Viktor and Rolf’s famous perfume, Flowerbomb. This is a rather aggressive but nice odor. If leaves the wearer feeling powerful and authoritative. It comes in very distinguishable bottle that looks grenade-like.

It has two unique but complementary scents. The first hits the nose hard with chili, saffron, leather, tobacco, and vetiver for a fiery scent. The back end then comes in with a contrast of cooler smell with bergamot, grapefruit, elemi, and pink pepper. It will not disappoint if looking for a spray with depth and duality.

Closing thoughts

When out at the store making purchase of one of the three described items, knowledge is 90% of the battle.

Once one understands the desired effect of a product and understands the distinguishing qualities of each they can make a purchase perfectly suited for them.

Let this serve as a guide and test out a few of the recommendations. The desire is that this article grants the expertise help in the pursuit to look good and smell.


Main image courtesy: Tony Miroballo/