Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist - Written by Shreya Singh (Pharmacist) on 28th Sep 2020
Witch Hazel For Skin: Benefits, Uses And Risks
Witch Hazel has been used as a heal-all elixir for centuries and has gained a long-standing status in the world of natural ingredients. It has been touted as the most versatile component in skincare, which can settle everything from excessive oily, greasy to inflamed and irritated skin.
Every other beauty formulation in the market lists it as a chief ingredient that claims to be the one-stop solution for all your skin needs.
But what exactly is witch hazel, and more importantly, should you accommodate it in your skincare arsenal?
To answer all your questions about this notorious beauty ingredient, let’s deep dive into it and break down all the facts to tell you about the benefits, uses, and potential risks related to it.
What Is Witch hazel?
Witch hazel is a natural astringent often considered to be the “golden treasure” in skincare.
It is a herbal extract derived from the leaves, twigs, and barks of a flowering shrub called Hamamelis Virginiana, most prevalent in the eastern and midwestern regions of North America and Asia.
It is elicited through the process of alcohol distillation to yield a clear, transparent liquid. This distillate is then put into a plethora of cosmetic products: moisturizers, toners, ointments and cleansers.
In the past couple of years, it was typically used in conjunction with other alcohols like ethanol in toners and astringents. Due to the harmful impact drying toner used to have on the skin, modern-day witch hazel is infused with milder and hydrating ingredients such as aloe vera gel and rose water to soothe and calm the inflammation without drying your skin out.
What Are The Benefits Of Witch Hazel For Skin?
The topical application of witch hazel has been widely believed to be anecdotally advantageous for treating a myriad of skin concerns such as oily skin, acne, inflammation, skin irritation, itching, swelling, skin injury, insect bites, diaper rash, hemorrhoids, minor cuts & burns and much more.
When taken orally, it is thought to provide umpteen benefits for relieving conditions like diarrhea, cold, fever, tuberculosis, vomiting blood and coughing up blood.
But unfortunately, like many other plant-based natural remedies, there is hardly any conclusive scientific research demonstrating the efficacy of witch hazel in skincare.
Here are some of the top benefits of using witch hazel on the skin:
1. Protects the skin from environmental aggressors:
Witch hazel is a rich source of several antioxidants, especially a particular type called, Tannins. Antioxidants assist the skin by scavenging and mitigating free radicals generated from environmental assaults like UV radiation, pollution and smoking.
2. Retains youthfulness of your skin:
Antioxidants naturally keep the signs of aging at bay by rendering the destructive free radicals neutral that can wreck your skin’s DNA and lead to premature aging of the skin.
A test-tube study dated back to 2008 demonstrated witch hazel to be efficient in neutralizing harmful free radicals and preventing the propagation of cancerous cells in the skin.
3. Relieves inflammation:
The natural Tannins and gallic acid present in witch hazel have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, instantly calming down the redness, pain and irritability on the skin. It has found its widespread use as an aftershave lotion to soothe the symptoms from razor burns.
It is also used as a go-to product to ward off inflammatory-related conditions such as sunburn, insect bites, acne, eczema, and psoriasis coming along the way of your skin.
Studies suggest that topical application of witch hazel can effectively alleviate inflammation and help soothe your skin.
Similarly, a comparative study conducted in 2002 on 40 people discovered the efficacy of using a lotion with as little as 10% of witch hazel extract was efficient in providing relief for irritated skin and treating erythema.
4. Tightens pores:
Witch hazel comes loaded with constricting compounds that bind the proteins within skin cells closer. As a result, it temporarily minimizes the appearance of enlarged pores. And thanks to its astringent properties, which causes your skin tissues to contract to help shrink your pores.
5. Soak up excess oil and degrease the skin:
The astringent properties of witch hazel dry up your skin to draw out the extra oil and degrease the oily skin by removing the sebum on the topmost layer. This is the sole reason why it is a popular ingredient in toners and mattifying products.
6. Fights acne:
Witch hazel could benefit oily skinned people by keeping random breakouts and acne at bay. Furthermore, the tannins present exhibit anti-microbial properties that curb any acne-causing bacterial growth infecting your skin. So, not only can it keep acne-causing bacteria in check but also suppress any inflammation that can strike your skin and result in a potential breakout.
7. Soothes puffy eyes:
The cooling and astringent properties of witch hazel are beneficial in soothing the under-eye area and reducing puffiness.
8. Acts as a vasoconstrictor:
Tannins, in particular, has a unique property of behaving as a vasoconstrictor. The itsy-bitsy blood vessels that course through your skin, when dilated and leaky, leads to redness, swelling and puffiness.
Therefore, applying an ingredient with vasoconstrictive properties on your skin helps to clamp down those blood vessels and alleviate the symptoms mentioned above.
Potential Risks And Side Effects Of Witch Hazel
Witch hazel is likely safe and harmless for most people when applied in the right concentrations containing strait-laced formulation.
However, this ingredient has gained a bad rep over recent years for being overly drying and irritating to the skin due to the following reasons:
- The natural Tannins present in witch hazel could be immensely sensitizing to your skin. It could tickle your immune system and command it to come into play and generate an inflammatory response against either the sensitizing ingredient alone or along with other compounds present in the product. It makes your skin likely more susceptible to reacting against the components, which might not have been such a problem when present alone.
- Although products containing witch hazel might be a smart choice for oily skinned people, people with dry or sensitive skin should consider shying away from this ingredient. Its astringent properties can excessively dry out the skin, agitate the natural moisture barrier and lead to aggressive irritation.
- Moreover, most of the formulations containing witch hazel as the prime ingredient contain other denatured alcohol like ethanol. This duo is proven to be remarkably toxic to the skin, resulting in disruption of the natural acid mantle and exaggerated responses causing your skin to scream for help. Therefore, avoid using products with two of these ingredients paired together.
- Also, many people with acne seem pleased by the idea of putting astringent on the face, attempting to dry out the acne, but that’s the worst thing you could do to your skin.
When you dry out the skin's top layer, your skin barrier suffers, causing water and moisture content to evaporate out. This then generates an inflammatory response that can exacerbate the acne by driving more sebum production to compensate for the increased dryness.
Alcohols and astringents generally have a bad reputation in the skincare world, and they are mostly viewed as a notorious ingredient that can strip away the moisture from the skin. This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions as all alcohol and astringents used in beauty products can not necessarily be drying for your skin.
It has far-reaching benefits for your skin, which could enhance your skin's overall look and feel, provided it is formulated along with other moisturizing ingredients like aloe, hyaluronic acid, and rose water.
As there is limited scientific evidence, pregnant or lactating mothers should halt from using skincare products containing witch hazel in it.
If you have extremely dry or sensitive skin, this ingredient might not be the right choice for you, but there’s a definite place for witch hazel in skincare concerning oily, combination to normal skin type.
Performing a patch test before starting with this ingredient is highly recommended before its generalized use.