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.
“Witch hazel contains tannins, which have a tightening effect on the skin and help pores appear smaller after being applied to the skin,” says Miami dermatologist Annie Gonzalez, MD. “This tightening effect also can result in the skin looking younger, so witch hazel can also be used as an anti-aging agent.” But the benefits don’t stop there. Dr. Gonzalez continues: “Witch hazel can also treat inflammatory diseases such as psoriasis and eczema, and can also provide some sunburn relief. You should not use witch hazel as sunscreen, but it can relieve symptoms of the burn, such as irritation and inflammation.”
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.
“Witch hazel can help treat acne by drying out the blemishes by eliminating oil, so I recommend it for acne patients,” Dr. Gonzalez says. “It is an astringent, so it contracts the skin cells and cleans oil out of the pores, preventing and removing blemishes,” says the doctor. 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 treat eczema?
Although the ingredient has been shown to treat the inflammation that comes with eczema, Dr. Gonzalez notes it might not help reduce the itch factor. “Witch hazel has only been shown to help topical issues; no research has suggested that it helps treat anything internal,” the doctor cautions. “In addition, some people have developed an allergic reaction to witch hazel, so it would be wise to apply it only to a small area of the skin before applying a large amount.”
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.
“When used in higher concentrations and on its own, witch hazel can cause irritation to more sensitive skin types and can strip the skins acid mantle which is imperative to maintaining skin health,” adds celebrity aesthetician Savanna Boda, who notes the ingredient is great for those with oily skin types.
However, it’s important to note that in recent years, these harsh, alcohol- and ethanol-spiked toners of the past 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.
Which products are best?
Favorite witch hazel–spiked products include: 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 alcohol-free First Aid Beauty Oil-Minimizing Toner with Salicylic Acid ($24) to treat blemishes and an oily T-zone. To infuse the ingredient into your makeup routine, try your hand at the oil-fighting, witch hazel–infused Smashbox Photo Finish Oil & Shine Control Primer ($39) also packed with salicylic acid and zinc.
The bottom line, according to Dr. Gonzalez: “Witch hazel can be a great addition to your skin-care routine, but in moderation, not necessarily for long periods. If someone is struggling with inflammation in the skin, it could be wise to test out witch hazel to see if it alleviates some of the discomforts—however, a great deal is still unknown about this ingredient.”
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