What is witch hazel?
“Witch hazel is a botanical extract derived from a flowering plant. Preparations have been made from its leaves and bark for ages,” said Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in medical and cosmetic dermatology.
The whole plant (Hamamelis virginiana) is processed to create the clear liquid we regularly see in popular products. The plant can be found primarily in North America, dating back to the Native Americans who used it as a remedy for reducing inflammation and irritation. Now, the ingredient can be found in just about every drugstore or beauty aisle.
And why is it called witch hazel? No, it has nothing to do with magic. The word “witch” comes from the Old English wiche that means it’s bendable—kind of a nod to how its processed. The more you know.
So, what are the benefits of witch hazel?
The ingredient has anti-inflammatory, antioxidants and astringent properties. They work together to reduce inflammation, improve the skin’s appearance and remove oils. Here are three of the ways it’s most commonly used:
- To soothe irritation. Witch hazel can reduce inflammation and minimize irritation for minor skin injuries (aka cuts, scrapes and/or rashes), bug bites, poison ivy or hemorrhoids. It’s important to emphasize that it works on small areas and should not be used as a solution for skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema. There’s little to no research that the ingredient can improve these specific conditions.
- To improve the appearance of large pores. This is why it’s commonly classified as a toner. “Witch hazel is a natural astringent, so it is often used to remove excess sebum and temporarily decrease the appearance of pores,” said Dr. King. The ingredient has a host of antioxidants—a big one being tannins. Tannins have a drying and tightening effect that appears to minimize large, oily pores.
- To treat sunburns and razor burn. As mentioned before, the anti-inflammatory properties can help reduce surface-level discomfort. Laid out in the sun too long? Weren’t careful enough with your razor? Apply a soft cloth or cotton pad onto the affected area to soothe the pain. (Note: Press, don’t rub the product onto the skin to limit further irritation.) And no, this shouldn’t replace your sunscreen.
OK, so is witch hazel bad for your skin?
Uh...it depends. “Witch hazel can cause skin issues but only if used too frequently. You should only be using witch hazel a few times a week to avoid over-drying or stripping away the skin's natural protective barrier,” said Nicole Hatfield, certified esthetician for Pomp & Founder of Radiant Beings Wellness & Beauty Coaching.
Aside from the key substance (tannins), many witch hazel products contain alcohol ingredients (like ethanol) that over-dry the skin and sometimes do more harm than good. Some variations can have up to 15 percent alcohol, which might be irritating to certain skin types like people with dry, acne-prone or sensitive skin.
Can witch hazel help with acne?
Again, it depends. “Witch hazel is an astringent that can help to fight acne bacteria. It is also anti-inflammatory which can help alleviate redness, pain, and swelling related to inflamed acne,” said Hatfield. But while it can remove excess sebum, decrease the appearance of pores and soothe the skin, it could also make blemishes worse and cause more irritation, depending on your skin type. It might work for small acne areas (aka blackheads or whiteheads), but if you’re looking for a solution to minimize cysts or pustules, then you should consider something else.
Got it. So, what skin type is witch hazel best for?
One of the benefits of witch hazel is removing excess oil, so the ingredient is best for people with oily, acne-prone skin. “Oily and acne-prone skin may particularly benefit from adding a toner, because it provides another way to add active ingredients like salicylic acid and witch hazel to the skincare routine to remove excess oil, unclog pores and temporarily shrink the appearance of the pores,” said Dr. King.
But reminder: If your skin is sensitive or dry, stay away. The ingredient can dry out the skin further and sometimes make problematic areas worst. But regardless of skin type, it’s important to look at a product’s ingredients carefully especially when alcohol, fragrance and witch hazel are involved. It pays to get to know what your specific skin can tolerate and what it can’t.
Where should witch hazel fall in your skincare routine?
Witch hazel can come in liquid, cream or gel form. For many bruises or rashes, people should reach for an ointment and simply use as needed. However, the most popular witch hazel products are toners. Both professionals recommend applying after cleansing and before any moisturizer, makeup, SPF or acne treatments.
As mentioned before, the ingredient can be very drying, so make sure it’s only present in one or two (not all) of your skincare products. It should primarily be in your toner, but if it is included in anything else, make sure it’s accompanied by more gentle ingredients like glycerin, hyaluronic acid or niacinamide.
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