In the beauty version of word association, “witch hazel” is synonymous with a refreshing post-cleanse ritual that typically involves a swipe of a cult status toner on a plush cotton pad. But, beyond its apothecary vibes and long-standing status among natural beauty aficionados, what even is witch hazel? And what are its skincare benefits? Here’s everything to know about witch hazel and how to incorporate it into your beauty routine.
What is witch hazel?
“Witch hazel is a flowering plant in the Hamamelidaceae family. Of the various species, four are found in North America,” says Dr. Monica Li, Cosmetic and Medical Dermatologist, and Clinical Instructor in the Department of Dermatology and Skin Science at the University of British Columbia. “The leaves and bark of the plant are often made into teas and ointments,” Dr. Li adds.
What are the benefits of witch hazel?
Witch hazel is widely believed to decrease inflammation and help soothe sensitive or irritated skin. “Witch hazel used on the skin is felt to reduce irritation as it contains a number of anti-inflammatory properties,” Dr. Li says. It’s bracing effect is apparent at first swipe, but it has also been linked to soothing benefits. “Limited studies have also shown its effect in improving redness on the skin as well as providing relief for sensitive skin,” she says. “It may also provide relief to minor skin irritations, such as after shaving,” Dr. Li explains. “But further research is needed to determine the effectiveness of the ingredient for its various claimed uses,” she cautions.
The leaves, twigs and bark of the witch hazel plant are also utilized for medicinal purposes in various parts of the world. “[Witch hazel] contains tannins, oils and other substances that work to decrease inflammation and slow bleeding,” says Lindsay Barras, Education Manager for Dermalogica Canada.
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Does witch hazel help treat acne?
Sort of—witch hazel is often found in acne treatment products because of its anti-inflammatory properties. “Because of its purported anti-inflammatory effects, witch hazel as a skincare ingredient can be found in some over-the-counter acne products. Specifically, witch hazel is used to remove excess oil that can be seen in acne-prone skin.” says Dr. Li.
How can you use witch hazel in your beauty routine?
Witch hazel is most widely known in North America in toner form. In a multi-step skincare routine or facial treatment, toner is the liquid product that is spritzed or swiped over skin with a cotton pad following the use of a cleanser and before serums and moisturizers. “The ingredient is a natural astringent, contracting the skin cells together and causing vasoconstriction of blood vessels. This will decrease flushing and inflammation,” says Barras. “It would be best to use after cleansing, to ensure that the skin is thoroughly cleansed and prepped for active ingredients to be applied afterwards.”
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Toner isn’t the only place where witch hazel can make an appearance. “It has become the ‘substitution’ for alcohol in products—offering astringent properties without the harsh stripping of alcohol,” says Barras. The ingredient is used by Dermalogica in a number of products formulated to address blemishes, in addition to its professional-use collection as a way to prep the skin before a chemical peel treatment because of its naturally astringent properties, helping to cleanse the skin and reduce inflammation. Such benefits explain why it might appear on an ingredient list for other types of products, including cleansers or scalp treatments, where inflammation is an issue.
Who should try witch hazel in their skincare routine?
As with any ingredient, if you’re considering integrating witch hazel into your skin routine, use a healthy dose of caution and common sense. “As it is most commonly used in acidic formulations, witch hazel may cause irritation for any sensitized or dry skin types,” says Barras. To yield ideal results, take baby steps when trying something new. “Keep in mind that witch hazel is a botanical source and may be a source of contact sensitivities and allergic dermatitis. Remember, natural ingredients are not all created equal or always safe for human use (e.g. poison ivy),” says Dr. Li. Translation: Don’t assume a plant-based ingredient will be 100% gentle on skin; any naturally-derived extract or oil has the potential to be irritating and everyone tolerates different ingredients differently. Allergic dermatitis, as mentioned by Dr. Li, includes the development of redness, itchiness, dryness and blisters—if anything unexpected and uncomfortable appears when trying a new product, your skin is sending you a signal that it’s not happy.
“When using any new skincare product, it is wise to apply it on a test spot first, on the wrist or behind the ear, for one week to determine tolerance of it prior to more generalized use,” says Dr Li. Ideal candidates are those that have healthy skin, free of any acute concerns or specific circumstances. “As there is limited scientific evidence, avoid using skincare products containing witch hazel if you are pregnant or are breastfeeding. To be safe, skincare products containing witch hazel should also only be used on intact skin with normal skin barrier function,” she says. Both experts stress that if you detect any adverse reaction, such as a rash, stop using the product and seek out professional advice ASAP.
Shop the best beauty products containing witch hazel:
The Cult Favourite
Thayers Facial Toner with Witch Hazel Unscented, $18, well.ca
From a company that was established in the 1800s, this is the OG of witch hazel toners—literally. This specific blend is also loved for what it doesn’t contain: no alcohol, fragrance and parabens.
The Dark Spot-Fader
Dermalogica AGE Bright Spot Fader, $62, dermalogica.ca
In this targeted treatment, witch hazel joins salicylic acid and niacinamide to reduce inflamed blemishes and diminish dark spots.
Bioré Pore Clarifying Cooling Cleanser, $9, walmart.ca
Refreshing without over-stripping, this oil-free cleanser is gentle enough for daily use.
The *Other* Toner
Mario Badescu Witch Hazel & Rose Water Toner, $18, sephora.com
Aloe vera, rosewater and rose oil intermingle with witch hazel to deliver a balanced post-cleanse experience. Think hydrating and invigorating.
The Irritated Scalp Reliever
Marc Anthony Hair & Scalp Detox Instant Cooling Scalp Treatment, $12, pharmaprix.ca
Blended with peppermint and castor oils, witch hazel helps provide relief to an irritated scalp. The rollerball scalp massage deserves an honourable mention, too.