“Did you hear? Witch hazel is super irritating. Like, worse than alcohol!”
“What are you talking about? Everyone knows that witch hazel soothes irritations! It cant’t be bad.”
“Enough you two! Can’t someone just take us out of our misery and tell us if witch hazel for skin is a good idea or not?”
I’ll try, but it ain’t easy. Truth is, there are as many reasons to love witch hazel as there are to hate it. Here’s what I mean:
What The Heck Is Witch Hazel?
Witch hazel is the nickname for Hamamelis Virginiana, a flowering shrub that grows in North America, China and Japan. The extract used in skincare comes from its leaves and bark.
For centuries, Native Americans used witch hazel for its soothing properties. Now, rumour has it can fix any skincare woe, from acne and oily skin to sunburns and even varicose veins.
Can it really do all that – without side effects? Let’s find out:
Witch Hazel For Skin: The Case For It
Fans of witch hazel for skin like to point out it has superpowers:
1. Witch Hazel Is Anti-Inflammatory
Witch hazel is famous for its anti-inflammatory properties.
Studies show that 10% distilled witch hazel helps treat inflammation from excessive sun exposure (but it doesn’t work as well as 1% hydrocortisone).
It works thanks to Proanthocyanidins, a group of antioxidants with soothing abilities.
FYI, witch hazel also contains tannins, a family of astringents that soothe skin too. BUT, they’re usually removed during the distillation process.
Related: 9 Soothing Ingredients That Calm Down Inflammation
2. Witch Hazel Is An Astringent
Witch hazel is an astringent. That’s a fancy way of saying it can dry and constrict skin.
Here’s how it works: the tannins in witch hazel compress proteins in your skin, causing it to shrink. They do this either by drying or irritating the skin.
That’s why oily skin loves astringents. By constricting the skin, they dry up oil production. No excess sebum = no shine. Plus, the skin around the pores squeezes them shut, making them look smaller. Goodbye large pores!
But wait, didn’t you say that tannins are removed during the distillation process, Gio? I said USUALLY. Some types of witch hazels are not distilled so you still get your fair share of tannins. But, unless the brand tells you, how do you know how, or even if, witch hazel was distilled?
Either way, I’m not a fan of astringents. I don’t think drying out skin is ever a good idea. Plus, the effects are only temporary, anyway.
3. Witch Hazel Is An Antioxidant
Between proanthocyanidins and tannins, witch hazel has its fair share of antioxidants.
Antioxidants patrol your skin looking for free radicals, the “criminals” that give you wrinkles and dark spots. When they spot on, they immediately destroy it, keeping your skin safe from harm.
That’s cool. But it doesn’t mean witch hazel is best thing to prevent wrinkles. Studies shows that green tea is a more powerful antioxidant than witch hazel.
Having said that, you know my stance on antioxidants: the more, the merrier.
Related: What The Heck Are Antioxidants And How Do They Work?
Witch Hazel For Skin: The Case Against It
Detractors of witch hazel for skin have their good points too:
1. Witch Hazel Is Loaded With Alcohol
The “natural is better” brigade always forgets one thing: you don’t put the whole plant in a serum or moisturiser. Nope, you must extract, distill and/or process it.
Talking about witch hazel, the extract is ALMOST ALWAYS distilled with alcohol.
You see, alcohol is very good at soaking stuff up. It drinks up all the goodies from the plant and carries it into your skincare products. Problem is, a lot of this alcohol remains there, too.
The witch hazel extract sold by Bulk Apothecary, for example, contains 14% alcohol, a concentration they claim is “the typical concentration for premium Witch Hazel.”
14% may sound tiny to you but it’s not. It’s high enough to disrupt the skin’s protective barrier and cause dryness and irritation.
If you’re the kind of skincare fanatic who wouldn’t touch anything with a drop of alcohol in it, witch hazel is off-limits too.
Related: What Does Alcohol-Free Really Mean?
2. Witch Hazel Contains Eugenol, An Irritant
Again, the “natural is better” brigade believes that plants only contain antioxidants and all that good stuff.
I wish! Truth is, plants are complex living beings with both good and bad qualities. They have antioxidants to protect themselves from the environment. But they also have toxic compounds to keep predators away.
Often, they have a scent, too. The stuff that makes them smell so good – like eugenol – is usually irritating for skin.
If you find that anything scented – be it a moisturiser, laundry detergent or perfume – gives you a rash, you’d better stay away from witch hazel, too.
Related: Why I Think Fragrance Has No Place In Skincare
Witch Hazel For Skin: The Verdict
Wouldn’t it be easier if everything was black and white? This is good, use it. That’s bad, avoid it.
But if you’re older than 5, you’ve probably figured out that life doesn’t work that way. There are many shades of grey.
Witch hazel falls in this grey area. It does have soothing and antioxidant properties that help skin heal faster, reduce irritation and prevent wrinkles. BUT, it also has its fair share of irritants – especially when distilled with alcohol.
The real question here is: does the good outweighs the bad? It depends on what witch hazel plays with. Here’s what I mean:
Take the majority of Western toners for oily skin. They have a huge dollop of witch hazel, plenty of alcohol and little else. That’s asking for dryness, irritation and all kinds of skin troubles.
But when witch hazel is a small part of a cream that has its fair share of moisturising oils and soothing antioxidants? That’s when witch hazel shines. It can do its job without drying out your skin.
In other words, judge the formula, not the ingredient.
FYI, it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that if you’re allergic to witch hazel, you should avoid it completely.
What are your thoughts on witch hazel for skin? Share them in the comments below.
Thanks for this clarifying post! I still hace doubts about the pixi glow toner because it contains witch hazel but i think i will give it a try. Have you tried it?
Lucila, yes I have tried it and it works fine for me. But everyone’s skin is different so there’s no way of knowing how you will react to witch hazel until you try it.
I’ve struggled with this one. I like your advice to judge the formula and not the ingredient. I’ll do that.
Thanks, I’ve been struggling with this one, too. When I tried Thayer’s alcohol-free toner, that still ended up irritating my skin, and I suspect it’s because witch hazel extract was the second ingredient. There’s another toner (Nourish Organic’s Dewy Toner) that I’m debating about whether I should try. Witch hazel water (is that different from extract?) is pretty far down the list, and it seems as though there are a lot of good ingredients ahead of it. I’m thinking it might be worth a shot; do you agree?
Here are the ingredients:
Purified Water, Glycerin, Tremella Fuciformis (Mushroom) Extract, Gluconolactone, Allantoin, Panthenol, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice*, Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Seed Extract*, Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea)*, Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root*, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower*, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel) Leaf Water*, Betaine, Hibiscus Sabdariffa Flower Extract*, Sodium Hyaluronate, Brassica Sophorolipid*, Sorbitan Oleate Decylglucoside Crosspolymer, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil*, Nasturtium Officinale Flower/Leaf Extract*, Sodium Benzoate, Ascorbic Acid, Ethylhexylglycerin, Phenoxyethanol, Fragrance
A-L, this toner does seem much gentler, so it should not cause any problems for your skin.