Witch hazel is a natural remedy made from the bark and leaves of a plant called Hamamelis virginiana. Long used in traditional medicine, witch hazel is usually applied topically in order to treat certain skin conditions. With brands like Thayers creating whole brands around this ingredient the big questions is, does it actually work?
It’s actually indigenous to the United States and has been used for centuries by Native Americans as a remedy for a variety of skin ailments related to irritation and inflammation. Nowadays it is touted as a way to treat skin conditions that affect the face in lieu of a traditional astringent or toner.
Proponents claim that witch hazel can heal a wide range of skin troubles, such as acne, bruises, burns, hemorrhoids, inflammation, insect bites, itching, pain, and varicose veins. And some people use the toner to cleanse and tighten the skin and as an antioxidant.
The real issue with witch hazel is that there isn’t that much research on how it works and the research that has been done is mixed. This will always lead to articles and products being pushed without complete consideration for what it helps in your skin.
So, what do we know?
Like many plant-derived substances, witch hazel is a source of several antioxidants, many of which benefit skin; however, one main antioxidant is a group of chemicals known as tannins. Applied to skin, tannins have a constricting and drying effect. They compress proteins in skin, creating an invisible “film” that can, to a minor degree, temporarily de-grease skin and minimize the look of enlarged pores.
The tannins in witch hazel are sensitizing, which literally means your skin becomes more sensitive to stressors. Depending on the part of the witch hazel plant used to make it, witch hazel naturally contains between 8% and 12% tannins. In addition to the tannins, almost all types of witch hazel are distilled using denatured alcohol (ethanol), with the extract containing about 14% to 15% alcohol. Although the distillation process destroys some of the tannins (which ironically is a good thing, given that the tannins are irritants), applying alcohol to your skin can be deemed a bad thing because some research has shown it impairs the skin’s surface in very high concentrations. Although, generally alcohol is considered safe in skincare if you have sensitive skin this combination of witch hazel and alcohol can induce irritation.
Another interesting characteristic of toning with witch hazel is that because it is an astringent that removes dirt, debris and oil from the skin, it will actually make the skin more oily. The oil that you’re removing sends a signal to your skin to once again give the skin more oil. Always remember, oily skin is dehydrated. You don’t need to remove the oil, you need to add water.
Witch Hazel for Acne and Blemishes
It it thought witch hazel can help to clear up acne on the face or body. This again because of it’s “astringent” properties, it can “dry up” acne. However, acne isn’t about skin being wet, so drying it with astringent ingredients won’t help. In truth, the irritation caused by the witch hazel can make blemishes worse.
You may have also read that witch hazel’s astringent action can help control the microbes on skin that play a role in causing acne, but research hasn’t shown that to be true. For certain, witch hazel is not a replacement for benzoyl peroxide, one of the gold standard anti-acne ingredients.
There isn’t a tonne of information available about the key benefits of using Witch Hazel as apart of a skincare regiment but a general consensus will tell us that it probably does your more bad than good. The presence of tannins means using witch hazel will result in dry and irritated skin. Stick with a hydrating toners.