A longtime staple of the beauty industry, witch hazel has gone in and out of favour with the experts, volleying between being thought of as too harsh and drying or a holy grail acne-busting toner. But if the ingredient isn’t consistently looked at favorably, is it even safe?
Cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Mariana Vergara, NP-C, has no qualms over using witch hazel as a toner. “It is very safe for the skin,” she tells Bustle. “It cleans the skin and removes the excess oil without drying the skin. It is an astringent solution that tones and constricts the pores on the skin, removes makeup leftovers ... It has antibacterial activity, decreasing staphylococcus bacteria, candida, and antiviral activity.”
For all the fuss over one little botanical, it makes sense that it’s been around for quite a while. Nope, this is certainly not your latest buzzy skin care discovery still in its infancy on the market (looking at you, never-ending list of skin acids). In fact, witch hazel has been used both medicinally and to treat an assortment of skin ailments for centuries. Here's everything you need to know about the all-natural ingredient, how it works, and how to use witch hazel as a toner in your beauty routine.
What Is Witch Hazel?
Witch hazel is derived from a flowering plant (Latin name Hammamelis virginiana) native to North America and Japan. The leaves, bark, and twigs of the shrub are used to create a liquid that is marketed as witch hazel in medicine and skincare. The benefits are pretty numerous, too. “The Osage used it to treat skin ulcers and sores, the Potawatomi for soothing sore muscles, the Iroquois to treat dysentery, colds and coughs, and in more recent times, for many skin concerns,” says Stephanie Taylor, a health and wellbeing expert at StressNoMore. “It is now a mass-marketed product regularly used in toiletries such as cleansers and toners and is one of the only medicinal plants that is FDA-approved.”
Its soothing powers make the ingredient a versatile treatment for various other afflictions. “Witch hazel can also relieve sunburn, soothe bug bites, and calm inflammation from poison ivy,” says Taylor. “It can also rid your hair of dandruff, working to relieve scalp sensitivity and provide relief for itchiness or tenderness.”
Other uses include soothing infections and healing cuts and bruises, due to witch hazel’s “indirect antibacterial effect,” according to a 2020 study by Annals of Tropical Medicine and Public Health. “It’s been used for treatment of ulcers, itching, burns, and even bleeding,” board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D, tells Bustle.
What Are The Benefits Of Witch Hazel For The Skin?
In terms of skin care, witch hazel can help with everything from tightening pores to firming the skin (in higher concentrations) thanks to its astringent nature. “Topical witch hazel is an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory, and because many acne lesions are inflammatory, witch hazel has been used to decrease the redness and inflammation on the skin of people suffering from acne,” Nazarian says. Witch hazel is also commonly used in skin care products targeting oily or combination skin, as it can help to balance and manage oil.
Skin-clearing benefits aside, witch hazel also has anti-aging properties “due to inhibition of collagenase and elastase,” says Vergara. “It contains polyphenolic compounds that may protect the skin from photoaging and sunburns.”
How Do You Use Witch Hazel Toner?
The ingredient has been known to be a brilliant toner, especially for skin on the oily side, and it may even help other products absorb deeper in the skin, according to Veragra. It’s also such an effective antibacterial that she uses it as a disinfectant for patients. “In my practice I used it before performing Botox injections as an antiseptic,” Vergara says. “It is amazing since it doesn’t dry your skin like alcohol does.” Witch hazel is also high in a known astringent called tannin, which likely contributes to its incredible toning capabilities. So, basically, acne-causing bacteria stands no chance.
Formulas containing witch hazel can be applied to skin following cleansing and before serums and moisturisers. “I recommend the use of witch hazel to be done by saturating a cotton ball and applying very gently to the acne lesions,” Nazarian says.
However, witch hazel can be drying, so it's important to be careful at first. “It has a slightly acidic pH, and it’s important not to irritate sensitive skin too much,” Nazarian warns. “If you notice any stinging or burning, discontinue immediately.”
How Often Can You Use Witch Hazel Toner?
With this in mind, Nazarian suggests using witch hazel toner about once weekly rather than every day. “Many companies combine it with an astringent base, which may be a bit irritating for sensitive skin types if used too often,” she says. “But many formulations are gentle enough for daily use.” Nazarian also notes that witch hazel is safe for long-term use, so long as you’re doing so properly and your product isn’t also loaded with other astringents like alcohols.
“For products with high levels of alcohol, using it too much can disrupt your skin's natural pH levels and dry it out, causing an overproduction of oil,” says Taylor. If you are concerned about adverse skin reactions or have sensitive skin, be sure to do a patch test before using.
The Best Soothing Witch Hazel Toners
It might be a good idea to find a product that contains other soothing, moisturising ingredients so as not to dry out the skin. Instead of opting for a straight-up witch hazel formula, try one of the following, which feature things like rose, aloe vera, and tea tree.
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Abbas, T. F., Abbas, M. F., & Lafta, A. J. (2020). Antibacterial activity and medical properties of Witch hazel Hamamelis virginiana. Annals of Tropical Medicine and Public Health, 23(11). https://doi.org/10.36295/asro.2020.231146
Stephanie Taylor, health and wellbeing expert at StressNoMore
Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D, board-certified dermatologist
Dr. Mariana Vergara, NP-C, cosmetic dermatologist
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