Witch hazel has popped up everywhere lately. The funny thing is, it's nothing new. Witch hazel is actually a “vintage” ingredient making a huge comeback.
Many people view witch hazel as a wonderful natural ingredient that's inexpensive and readily available. But just because it's easy to find doesn't mean its benefits are perfect. In fact, it actually may not be as perfect as people say.
And admittedly, in my professional opinion as an esthetician, the danger is in the fact that it's not for all skin types - or even everyday use.
Okay but it sounds magical - why wouldn't I want to use witch hazel?
This flowering shrub plant is native to North America and Asia and is known for its anti-inflammatory, astringent (skin cell contraction), and antioxidant properties.
Older generations often used this botanical ingredient to treat bug bites, sunburns, bruises, and minor wounds. Nowadays, most people use it as a facial toner after cleansing and it's been said to balance oily skin and is often used as a treatment for acne.
That doesn't mean it's a cure-all for acne though
The biggest mistake I see when people use witch hazel to try to clear up acne is not taking into consideration their skin type. Because witch hazel is so astringent, it can make acne worse.
Dryness and irritation can affect the skin, along with increasing the chance of leaving post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) behind once the pimple heals.
Let's also remember that treating acne is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It's a skin condition that any skin type may experience. Causes and treatment will vary and are very individual.
So when you think acne = oily, you might reach for witch hazel because it can keep oily skin at bay. But if you don't have an oily skin type, you might be damaging your skin in the long-term.
While I find it fine as a short-term treatment, for once in a while use, I would be careful about long-term use because it may cause rebound oiliness and increased skin sensitivities.
If you ever noticed witch hazel no longer working for you, well it might be that witch hazel made it worse.
How witch hazel works and gets produced
Pure witch hazel extract is naturally high in tannins, which is classified as an antioxidant and also a blood vessel constrictor.
Most brands of witch hazel are produced by combining witch hazel extract and distilling it with denatured alcohol. Alcohol is easier (and cheaper) to blend with for extracts/oils than other liquids, which means… most commercial brands of witch hazel contain up to 15 percent of simple, drying alcohol. That's a lot!
The good news is that some of the tannins are destroyed when alcohol distillation is performed. However, using high amounts of drying alcohol on the skin isn't exactly skin-friendly.
As for the “alcohol-free” witch hazel you see on the market, it's the same type of witch hazel extract blended with water. This is definitely a better option than with alcohol, but it will contain a high amount of those sensitizing tannins.
In my opinion, it's sort of like picking the lesser of two evils.
So, does witch hazel have a place in my routine?
Yes, it's nice to keep on hand for short-term occasional issues like bug bites, bruises, etc. below your neck. It's also fine as an ingredient within another product at a low percentage - in combination with other skin-benefiting ingredients like humectants - instead of at full strength.
But if you're looking to it as a cure for acne, or an all-over skin booster, there are far better ingredients to rely on.
Dana Murray is a licensed aesthetician from Southern California with a passion for skin care science. She's been using her knowledge to blog about skin and bust skin myths on her Instagram since 2016.