Witch Hazel. With its long history of medicinal use in promoting skin health, this ubiquitous staple in beauty aisles is surprisingly mired in controversy. While some revere the Witch Hazel as “The One True Toner”, others claim that the botanical extract strips away the skin’s natural protective barrier – both over-drying and irritating the skin: ultimately doing more harm than good. So, who’s right?
This article aims to clear the air of confusion once and for all. Here, we dive deep into everything you need to know about Witch Hazel, including what it is, its benefits for the skin, and the things to consider before building it into your skincare routine.
What is Witch Hazel?
Don’t be fooled by its name; entertaining as they may be, dispel all thoughts about Witch Hazel being concocted in a bubbling cauldron. Instead, Witch Hazel is naturally derived from the bark and leaves of a plant called Hamamelis Virginia (i.e., the witch hazel plant). The plant is native to North America – where it’s been used as a natural remedy for repairing broken skin and soothing inflammation for centuries.
Benefits of Witch Hazel for Skin
Okay, so it's an ancient beauty remedy. But does modern science lend support to its benefits? Good news: it does! Studies have, time and again, highlighted Witch Hazel’s antioxidant, antimicrobial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties (1). And now, it’s time to get into the exciting bit. How do Witch Hazel’s properties translate into actual benefits for the skin when applied topically? Let’s explore.
#1: Mitigates free radical damage to the skin
Like many plant-derived skincare actives, Witch Hazel is a rich source of polyphenols – potent antioxidants able to scavenge and intercept free radicals. Wait … free radicals?
Free radicals are highly reactive compounds with one or more unpaired electrons. Unfortunately, unpaired electrons don’t like being alone – so free radicals are constantly trying to “rob” other molecules of their electrons. Yes, the successful theft of electrons inactivates the free radical itself. But let’s not forget about the “victim” in this exchange. It becomes a free radical!
In the context of your skin, this “domino effect” could damage not only healthy skin cells on the outer layer of your skin (i.e., stratum corneum) but also deeper within, where collagen-producing cells are found. Free radical damage – also known as oxidative damage – thus leaves your skin vulnerable to premature aging, manifesting as fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and loss of elasticity (2).
As shocking as this may be to hear, these highly reactive molecules can be a natural byproduct of the body’s metabolic functions (e.g., digestion). But you needn’t worry about those.
What you should be worried about is the free radicals that are formed when you’re exposed to excess UV rays, pollutants, and blue light – all of which throw off the delicate balance between free radicals and antioxidants naturally made in your skin. Which, as explained earlier, results in oxidative stress.
So, how do you restore balance in the skin? Answer: shore up on antioxidants. And that’s where Witch Hazel – with its rich polyphenol content – comes in. Amongst its polyphenols, there’s one of particular interest: catechins, which have been clinically shown to fight premature signs of aging in the skin (3). This 2010 study, for instance, found that catechins can help repair the oxidative damage caused by UV exposure (4).
In short? By combating free radical damage, Witch Hazel could reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, even out skin tone; and promote a more youthful-looking complexion overall.
#2: Acts as an astringent
Witch Hazel stars as a key ingredient in many toners for a good reason. It’s an astringent that excels at its job thanks to a particular type of polyphenols: tannins.
When applied topically, tannins have a constricting and drying effect on the skin. They “compress” proteins in the skin, creating an invisible “film” (somewhat like an external barrier) that can, to a small degree, temporarily minimize the look of enlarged pores (5, 6). And, in turn, control excess oil production.
So, to summarize, Witch Hazel’s astringent properties can help “smoothen” out your complexion and combat that annoying mid-day shine. Talk about a multitasker.
#3: Calms inflammation and relieves irritation
Do you often deal with red, irritated, or blotchy skin? Yes? Then you’ll want to keep Witch Hazel on close hand. Once again, its polyphenol content (gallic acid, in particular) exerts potent antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects that could calm even the itchiest, angriest skin conditions – from sun-induced redness to eczema to acne.
Take, for instance, this 2002 study published in the Skin Pharmacology and Applied Skin Physiology (7). Researchers found a Witch Hazel preparation superior even to a hydrocortisone 1% cream in exerting an anti-inflammatory effect on sun-induced redness after participants were exposed to different doses of UV light. Numerous studies have also shown gallic acid (one of the main constituents of tannins) to be a viable alternative topical treatment for inflammatory acne (8, 9).
As for eczema: health experts believe that the botanical extract can help relieve itching associated with the condition. Better still, it’s suggested that liquid Witch Hazel can help with “weeping” or oozing eczema (10).
Side Effects of Witch Hazel
Studies show that allergic reactions to Witch Hazel are rare (11).
So, what’s up with all the claims about Witch Hazel being overly irritating and drying? Well, that can be traced back to beauty brands' tendency to formulate Witch Hazel products with alcohol ingredients (e.g., ethanol) – which are known to be irritating to people with dry, acne-prone, or sensitive skin.
Here’s the good news: that’s why, here at Terrakai Skin, we insist on creating Witch Hazel products that are alcohol-free. This is in line with our Ingredient Philosophy, where we strive to exclude all sketchy skincare actives that could potentially harm the skin; instead, choosing only to include ones that nourish and respect the skin’s natural barrier.
That said, because of its slightly acidic pH, alcohol-free Witch Hazel could still irritate dry and sensitive skin. To tell if Witch Hazel is a good skincare ingredient for you, as with any new additions to your routine, spot test it on your arm. If you notice any stinging or burning, discontinue immediately.
How to Use Witch Hazel for Skin
Witch Hazel is now added to various skin care products – from cleansers to toners, from serums to moisturizers.
The amount of Witch Hazel you incorporate into your regimen depends on your skin type. If your skin is on the drier side, you typically wouldn't need Witch Hazel present in more than one of your skincare products. But if you’re slightly more blessed in the sebum production department? Then you could do with more. Regardless, you should always ensure your skin’s responding well before slathering on more Witch Hazel.
Oh, and try not to combine it with AHAs and BHAs – especially if you have sensitive skin. These exfoliants can further increase your skin’s, well, sensitivity to Witch Hazel, potentially causing irritation and redness. Instead, pair Witch Hazel with nourishing and hydrating skincare actives, including Hyaluronic Acid, Peptides, and Collagen. Antioxidants like Vitamin E and CoQ10 are also great additions. And, of course, Niacinamide: for that boost in sebum-regulation and skin clarity.
Can’t wait to add Witch Hazel into your regimen? Terrakai Skin’s got you covered:
- Cleanser: Remove your makeup and wash your face with a non-stripping cleanser, like our Witch Hazel infused Snowflower + Niacinamide Gel Cleanser.
- Toner: Spritz on your toner of choice after cleansing. For a refreshing, hydrating skin boost, give our Rebalancing Snowflower + Niacinamide Toning Mist (formulated with Witch Hazel!) a go.
- Serum: Massage a few drops of serum into your face. If you’re on the hunt for one that contains Witch Hazel, try our Balance Snowflower + Turmeric Serum.
- Eye cream: Apply your eye cream before you slather on your choice of creams and oils. By the way: looking for an eye cream that’ll nourish and brighten the delicate under-eye areas? Our Age Defying Lemon Aspen Botanical Eye Cream won’t disappoint.
- Moisturizer: Use Daily Balancing Act Snowflower + Witch Hazel Moisturizer during the daytime, then pamper your skin with our Lipid-Balance Snowflower + Niacinamide Night Cream as you catch your beauty sleep. The latter is formulated with Witch Hazel too.
- Sunscreen (daytime): Sunscreen acts as a shield against the outside world (so you don’t end up applying all those products on your face for nothing).
Witch Hazel for Skin FAQ’s
What does Witch Hazel do for the skin?
Rich in various polyphenols, Witch Hazel counters oxidative damage – reducing the appearance of fine lines and fading hyperpigmentation. It also acts as an astringent that minimizes the appearance of pores; and, in doing so, temporarily “de-greases” the face. Lastly, Witch Hazel also calms skin inflammation and irritation.
Is Witch Hazel bad for the skin?
Many people believe that Witch Hazel is bad for the skin. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. When present in an alcohol-free skincare product formula, Witch Hazel can be extremely beneficial for skin health – especially for those with oily, acne-prone skin. Dermatologists do also recommend the Witch Hazel for those with skin conditions like eczema.
Can Witch Hazel be used as a toner?
Of course, it can! How you use it – along with how often you use it – primarily depends on your skin’s tolerance for Witch Hazel.
What skin type is Witch Hazel good for?
Witch Hazel could be particularly beneficial for individuals with oily and acne-prone skin.