I’ve said it many times: the most important parts of your shave are done before you make your first stroke. Washing your face in a warm, steamy environment, proper application of pre-shave oil and shaving cream / soap, and using the right brush and lather techniques are all critical for a nick-free, daresay fun shaving experience.
To take it one step further, I consider the typical “post-shave” activities such as applying a face moisturizer, to also be pre-shave. Just way, way in the future pre-shave. I believe in this concept so much that I often apply my “after shave” lotion on my face before bed if I did not shave that day. This keeps my skin and my stubble a little moisturized before I shave the next morning.
One key aspect of my pre-shave is tightening my skin with an astringent. Two of the more popular astringents are Witch-hazel and the alum block. I usually use Witch-hazel, but I was given a block of alum by a friend and I tried it over the span of six months off and on.
How to use it
Rinse your face with cold water after finishing your shave. Do not dry your face. Grab your alum bar and run the block under the cold water. Rub the block on your face and throat. Let the alum stay on your skin for about a minute or so (your time will greatly vary; more on that in a bit) and then rinse with cold water. Pat your face dry.
I apply the block and then clean all of my shaving equipment. Once I’m done with cleanup I rinse my face again. I can feel a huge difference between using the alum block versus Witch-hazel. Witch-hazel can mend little cuts, but alum definitely shines in the “oh shit I cut myself” department.
Alum works so well that I don’t have to use a styptic pencil at all. I can feel the alum seal not only the nicks I can see, but a lot of minor abrasions I can’t see. In fact, alum works a little too well in the astringent / coagulant department.
My skin reacts to the alum almost instantly. The first few days I used the alum block my skin was blotchy, red, and slightly raised. This wasn’t due to razor burn, but due to the alum itself. I don’t get the same reaction when using Witch-hazel.
After a few days of usage my skin settled down a little. I didn’t suffer any blotchy skin and the redness faded more quickly. However, I do notice that the block still irritates my skin and diminishes the enjoyment of my shave.
Shaving is part skill, part performance, and part recreation. I feel that alum helps the second attribute at the expense of the latter.
I’ve personally switched back to Witch-hazel, but if you have tougher skin than mine you may do better with alum. For between $5 and $15 a bar it’s inexpensive enough to give it a try.