Written by: Bryan Barron
Medically Reviewed by: Corey L. Hartman MD Board-Certified Dermatologist
In the world of natural ingredients, witch hazel has a somewhat exaggerated reputation as the solution to an endless list of problems. When applied to skin, it’s said to fix everything from acne to oily skin, puffy eyes, and sunburn. For the body, witch hazel is said to lessen varicose veins and reduce hemorrhoids. But just how effective is witch hazel for skin and other problems?
Aside from the anecdotal information you may have read, the research is mixed. Witch hazel can indeed help skin when used as a short-term remedy, but long-term use is a problem, no matter your skin type or concern. Here’s everything you need to know...
What is witch hazel?
The witch hazel plant, Latin name Hamamelis virginiana, is a flowering shrub that grows wild throughout a good portion of North America and Asia. The leaves, bark, and twigs are processed to create a clear liquid that’s sold commercially as witch hazel. The plant extract itself is also used in topical ointments, although the toner-like liquid form is far more common for skin care and home remedies.
What is witch hazel used for?
Witch hazel is commonly used as an astringent for skin due to its tannin content. Applied to skin, tannins have a constricting and drying effect. They compress proteins in skin, creating an invisible “film” that can, to a minor degree, temporarily de-grease skin and minimize the look of enlarged pores. While that’s good for the short term, the long-term effects of witch hazel usage is another story, and it doesn’t have a happy ending.
Is witch hazel good for skin?
Research indicates witch hazel has both good and bad properties for skin. While some of its antioxidant components are beneficial, specific tannins in witch hazel (such as hamamelitannin) are sensitizing and present in higher amounts than many other plants. Witch hazel naturally contains between 8% and 12% skin-constricting tannins, depending on which part of the plant is used to make the formulation.
What about witch hazel and anti-inflammatory properties? Research shows that witch hazel can soothe some forms of irritation and does have value in this application– but only for short term use. See our section below, “Witch hazel benefits” for the best ways to use witch hazel’s anti-inflammatory properties without long-term damage.
In addition to tannins, most types of witch hazel are distilled using denatured alcohol (ethanol), with the final extract for use on skin containing about 14% to 15% alcohol. Although the distillation process destroys some of the tannins (which ironically is a good thing, given that these tannins are irritants), applying this kind of alcohol to your skin is always a bad thing because it generates free-radical damage and impairs the skin’s surface.
By the way, while a 14% to 15% alcohol content might seem low, research has shown that even lower amounts of alcohol can damage skin. Why bother with that when there are irritant-free ways to reduce the appearance of pores and tackle oily skin?
Is there an alcohol-free witch hazel?
Alcohol-free witch hazel can be achieved through water-steam distillation of the recently cut and partially dried dormant twig and bark portion of the plant, but it comes with a tradeoff. The downside is that you don't get the complete spectrum of beneficial compounds that you would from alcohol-distilled versions of witch hazel. Simply put, the effort to minimize irritancy results in compromising efficacy.
Another concern related to long-term use of witch hazel relates to its volatile fragrant compounds that have sensitizing, barrier-weakening repercussions for skin.
Can witch hazel dry out skin?
Board-Certified Dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman warns that, “though witch hazel may initially improve oily skin, when used for long periods of time it can damage the barrier of the skin. Also, one of the antioxidant components of witch hazel, tannins, can be overly drying when used in excess. The tannins are sensitizing as well. The distillation process ironically destroys some of the tannins but incorporates alcohol and alcohol is always a bad idea for the skin because it generates free-radical damage and further destroys the skin barrier.”
Is witch hazel a good toner?
Using witch hazel as a facial toner is not recommended because of its potential to irritate and dehydrate skin. A well-formulated toner with research-backed ingredients such as niacinamide and ceramides should deliver replenishing substances that keep skin hydrated while reinforcing its barrier— the opposite of what witch hazel does.
Witch hazel for oily skin
Although tempting, using witch hazel to keep oily skin in check comes at a cost. While it’s true that a witch hazel toner can remove oil from skin due to the denatured alcohol (ethanol) it contains, it can also significantly irritate skin. Let’s not forget that most witch hazel preparations contain between 14% and 15% alcohol, an amount that research shows can irritate skin.
Even if you don’t see or feel the irritation happening, it’s still taking place below the surface. The worst part? This irritation can make oily skin worse despite its initial de-greasing effect.
Witch hazel as a makeup remover or cleanser
Should you use witch hazel as a makeup remover or cleanser? No, please don’t. The tannins and alcohol content pose a risk of sensitizing skin, especially delicate skin around the eye. In fact, one study found that after analyzing 178 different types of facial wipes, witch hazel ranked in the top potentially sensitizing ingredients.
There’s also the fact that witch hazel isn’t really that effective at removing most types of makeup, especially today’s long-wearing formulas. This poor performance might lead to you pull, scrub, and tug at your skin, which is quite unlike how a gentle, efficient makeup remover works. All that extra pulling can hasten skin sagging.
What about witch hazel as face wash? Well, it doesn’t have much cleansing ability for skin, not when compared to a well-formulated water-soluble cleanser. Using a witch hazel face wash shortchanges your skin of all the benefits a gentle facial cleanser can provide—and such products are much easier to use.
Does witch hazel get rid of puffy eyes?
If you’re curious about how to get rid of puffy eyes, there’s some truth to this recommendation if your undereye puffiness is due to fluid retention beneath the eyes. Witch hazel’s astringent properties can temporarily reduce this type of puffiness.
However, witch hazel cannot reduce or eliminate undereye puffiness that has occurred due to undereye fat pads shifting with age (what some refer to as undereye bags).
In either case, witch hazel isn’t something we recommend applying on a regular basis as the resulting daily irritation will be pro-aging. Remember, the tannins and alcohol in witch hazel can sensitize the eye area.
Is witch hazel good for acne?
A lot of people wonder if witch hazel can clear up acne on the face or body. It’s commonly thought that because witch hazel has “astringent” properties, it can “dry up” acne. However, acne isn’t about skin being wet, so drying it with astringent ingredients won’t help. In truth, the irritation caused by the witch hazel can make blemishes worse. Drying out skin with astringent ingredients, like witch hazel, can lead it to create more oil to compensate, triggering acne and leaving skin even oilier than before.
You may have also read that witch hazel’s astringent action can help control the microbes on skin that play a role in causing acne, but research hasn’t shown that to be conclusively true. For certain, witch hazel is not a replacement for benzoyl peroxide, one of the gold standard anti-acne ingredients. Stick with what years of research has shown really works to get acne under control.
Witch hazel benefits
Keeping a bottle of witch hazel around the house for occasional home remedy use for certain circumstances can make sense. Research has shown that witch hazel may reduce visible symptoms and skin discomfort from the following:
- Bug bites and stings
- Poison oak and poison ivy
Keep in mind: Just because something is good for acute short-term situations doesn’t necessarily make it good for long-term use. The claims for witch hazel’s skin care benefits are misleading; you might see short-term results, but ongoing use is likely to cause problems.
To sum up, witch hazel has its place (albeit in limited uses explained above), but it’s not the skin care solution it’s often touted to be.
Witch hazel and sensitive skin
As you can imagine, witch hazel is not recommended for those with sensitive skin. The tannins, fragrance components, and alcohol content all make this one to avoid for its potential to make sensitive skin concerns even more of a problem.
Worse yet, the chemical components of witch hazel could contribute to causing skin sensitivity even if you don’t have it. Research shows that repeatedly using irritating products can lead to sensitivity, which can trigger a cascade of other skin issues.
Learn more about skin care ingredients.
References for this information:
- Annals of Tropical Medicine and Public Health, July 2020, ePublication
- Cosmetic Ingredient Review, June 2018, pages 1-16
- Dermatitis, November-December 2017, pages 353–359
- The International Encyclopedia of Adverse Drug Reactions and Interactions, 2016, pages 501–522
- The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, May 2014, pages 36–44; and May 2008, pages 20–25
- Journal of Inflammation, October 2011, ePublication
- Journal of the German Society of Dermatology, October 2010, pages 788–796
- Chemical Research in Toxicology, March 2008, pages 696–704
- Pharmacognosy and Pharmacobiotechnology, Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins, 1996