Should You Be Using Witch Hazel? Experts Break Down the Benefits

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PSA: Witch hazel is not synonymous with your old Sea Breeze Astringent. 

The harsh, alcohol-filled toner options of the past have, almost entirely, been replaced with kind-to-skin offerings that are spiked with nourishing ingredients instead of stripping ones. To dispel the many myths surrounding witch hazel—and to find out who should be using it—we tapped skin experts for a quick Ingredient 101. 

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What is witch hazel?
Perhaps the brand most familiar with witch hazel is Thayers, the beloved skin-care brand founded in 1847 that counts witch hazel as a main ingredient in every one of their products. (More than 10 million bottles of the 12-ounce toners have been sold since!) Andrea Gity, marketing manager for Thayers, says witch hazel is a deciduous shrub that grows in the Eastern part of the United States; the extract is then taken from the shrub's leaves, bark and twigs. When not used for medicine, the extract is often combined with alcohol and water to create toners and similar products, but alcohol-free, water-based solutions have also become available. (More on this later.)

What can witch hazel treat?
While applying an astringent ingredient to red, itchy skin may seem like a bad idea, Florham Park, NJ dermatologist Dr. Shari Sperling says witch hazel can actually help with a number of skin ailments. Among the long list of benefits? Relieving inflammation and redness, calming eczema, acne and psoriasis, assisting in shrinking pores, and even reducing puffiness and brightening skin.

Can witch hazel treat acne-prone skin?
The tannins (a type of astringent-meets-antioxidant molecule) found in witch hazel have long been thought to help inflamed skin—Dr. Sperling contends the ingredient effectively fights bacteria, relieves inflammation and repairs broken skin, all musts for acne-prone skin. However, similar to many other acne-fighting ingredients, witch hazel can be drying to the skin if used too much, so be cautious.

Can witch hazel cause negative effects on the skin?
Short answer: It depends on the product. Long answer: "Witch hazel is usually combined with anywhere from 10-20 percent SD alcohol [a mixture containing ethanol]," explains celebrity aesthetician Joshua Ross, who is skeptical of the ingredient when it comes to skin care. "Alcohol in any form can be an irritant to the skin." And Dr. Sperling agrees: "If your skin is dry, the alcohol content can cause irritation." The same goes with pure witch hazel: "If someone were to purchase a jug of undiluted, pure witch hazel extract and apply it to their skin, it may be a bit irritating," says Gity.

However, it's important to note that in recent years, these harsh, alcohol- and ethanol-spiked toners have been met with their ultimate matches. Brands such as Thayers, whose toners are "alcohol-free and also contain aloe vera, which make them very gentle, healing, and hydrating," according to Gity, are safe for even sensitive skin. Our go-to for easily stressed-out skin: Thayers Rose Petal Toner ($11) that's equal parts refreshing and soothing. 

More favorites: Sunday Riley Martian ($55), a water-gel toner that's combined with bentonite clay, witch hazel extracts and marshmallow to de-slick oily skin (contains alcohol); Dickinson's Original Witch Hazel Pore Perfecting Toner ($4), a 100-percent natural, pore-perfecting elixir that costs less than a green juice; and First Aid Beauty Skin Rescue Blemish Patrol Pads ($30), a quick swipe-and-go solution to end blemishes and an oily T-zone.