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Witch Hazel - Skin's Friend or Foe?

witch hazel
July 4, 2013 Reviewed by Marta 17 Comments

Witch hazel seems to have its detractors amongst the normally sweet and generous Truth In Aging community. It has recently been accused of being a skin irritant, a red flag for rosacea, and just too mediocre to justify inclusion in expensive potions such as E’shee’s serum. I was beginning to wonder if witch hazel deserves such a bad rap.

Witch hazel is generally distilled from the bark and leaves of the eponymous tree (the posh botanical name is hamamelis virginiana). Its is primarily an astringent, a chemical compound that shrinks or constrict body tissues. Because it performs this action on blood vessels, it is used as the active ingredient in many hemorrhoid medications. My own experience with E’shee’s serum is that it does diminish thread veins and I attribute this to the high doses of witch hazel and horse chestnut.

Rosacea sufferers are routinely told to avoid astringents. Also the International Rosacea Foundations says that witch hazel could make matters worse, although its explanation – the pore closing action may result in oils being trapped under the skin – is a little lame. On a personal note, I have a tendency towards rosacea but have never traced it to the use of astringents. One of the issues with this skin condition is that the triggers are highly individual.

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As far as witch hazel being a skin irritant goes, the overwhelming evidence seems to be au contraire. A distinction should be made between the extract and a bottle of “witch hazel” that can be bought at any drugstore and used as a cheap toner. The latter is very likely to have been mixed with harsh alcohols that could indeed be irritating.

Witch hazel extract, on the other hand, is a skin soother. It was widely used by American Indians as a medicinal plant. The bark was used by to treat ulcers of the skin, sores, sore muscles, cuts, bruises, and insect bites. (source)

Even so, does it justify a place in my expensive potions and lotions? The best thing about witch hazel is that it has tannins and flavenols that recently started to attract the interest of scientists. These properties have confirmed witch hazel as an antioxidant (source). And there are components that make it a potent anti-inflammatory.

In a recent study, Japanese researchers sought plant compounds that protect cells in skin tissue from damage against harmful forms of oxygen. Witch hazel was found to have strong activity against reactive oxygen in skin tissue. The scientists proposed that witch hazel extracts should be further researched for their potential application in anti-aging or anti-wrinkling products to apply to the skin.

Rosacea sufferers should proceed with caution, but the rest of us can with confidence.

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  • May 2, 2017

    by Kim

    "As far as witch hazel being a skin irritant goes, the overwhelming evidence seems to be au contraire"
    Care to share the overwhelming evidence? I'm having trouble finding reliable studies on its use on skin particularly. Sounds like you've found way more than me, but you only linked to one study relevant to topical use of witch hazel. You didn't cite evidence supporting that it's non-irritating or anti-inflammatory. But, for some reason one of the sources you used is a study on the effects of witch hazel on colon cells, and although I could not access the article, this is an in vitro study, which makes your use of it a stretch. Basically, it's only relevant to nutritional supplements, not topical use. You're making a HUGE leap to go from in vitro colon cells to in vivo skin cells. So how do you know what you're saying is correct if you apparently have no sources to back it up? I'm not saying this because I have something against witch hazel, I'd just like to have accurate information on it because it's so commonly used in cosmetic formulations.

  • March 22, 2017

    by Diane

    I always thought the standard 14% alcohol content in the witch hazel on drugstore counters was merely for stabilization and was not the damaging kind.

  • May 7, 2016

    by Christa

    Try "Thayers" brand Witch Hazel extract. It is NOT distilled, so it maintains all the natural tannins (moisturizers). If you get the "Rose Petal" formula, it doesn't have any alcohol added. Rose Water is very calming to the skin. I was recommended this version at my local health food store, and I'm addicted! My skin feels so properly hydrated after applying this, that I don't even feel the need for moisturizer like I used to.

  • April 28, 2016

    by Stephanie

    I have perioral dermatitis / rosacea and I've found the use of witch hazel to be an extremely gentle cleanser and doesn't irritate me at all. But I ONLY use the fragrance free, alcohol free witch hazel from Thayers that's made with certified organic witch hazel (I get it on Amazon). My hunch is that those who say witch hazel irritates their rosacea are using a alcohol based, non-organic product from the drug store. But of course, I would also say if you feel like something is irritating than you should avoid it.

    I put up a little website about my timeline in figuring out who to naturally address my perioral dermatitis / rosacea if you'd like to take a look!
    http://peri-oralautoimmune.weebly.com/

  • February 18, 2016

    by Dionca

    FWIW, I just learned that I may have rosacea after using witch hazel for the first time in years again, and having a miserable reaction. I never realized that I've always had negative skin reactions to astringents, because I usually only use them when my skin is "acting up" to begin with.

    Good point on that, Marta--I just wish I could use this bottle of Dickinson's. So sad! :-(

  • January 28, 2016

    by Jessica

    I have been searching the web on information about a good witch hazel to purchase and I found this article informative. I too have a moderate, controllable case of rosacea but I would love to experiment with something natural. My biggest concern is finding a product that truly is all-natural and unrefined. Thanks for the information!

  • January 16, 2016

    by Cassandra

    My dear Anne, I have skin that has been diagnosed as tending toward rosacea. Rosacea is someething that can be controlled, especially if you get at it sooner rather than later. ust a question; are you a doctor? Dermatologist. No, I don't believe so. You are incredibly rude though, and Marta has done well addressing your illplaced and rather myopic opinion.

  • November 18, 2015

    by myranda

    I know Thayers produces an alcohol and fragrance free witch hazel that may be suitable for those with sensitive skin and eczema. Best regards!

  • October 23, 2015

    by Darren

    Hi Marta! I'm just commenting to say you go! You handled that comment very professionally and with great grace! You are awesome! Thanks so much for all your work!

  • June 7, 2015

    by Marta

    Hi Anne, I decided to publish your comment after carefully considering its tone and content. I am the founder of Truth In Aging as well as the writer of this article. We have a common sense policy when we publish comments - all views are welcome providing that are expressed politely and are authentic. Denigrating the writer because their experience differs from yours is, frankly, not on. Nonetheless, I decided to publish your comment for two reasons. First it gives me an opportunity to remind casual readers of the community's etiquette when it comes to joining in. Secondly, I want to explain my relationship with rosacea. We are all different and those of us who experience rosacea will do so differently. Some people - clearly you - have a severe and stubborn condition. I have had very bad bouts of rosacea in the past and was able with the help of a very good dermatologist to get my condition (which was horribly uncomfortable and distressing at the time) under control with Desonide cream amongst other things. This might not work for you, but over time, it did for me. Now I am able control fare ups, mostly with Exederm and by being careful about my skincare products. I am sorry that you think this is a "joke", but it is my experience. Finally, thank you for pointing out the broken link. When we link to an external website, we can't control if they keep the page we link to live. However, I was able to find the study I referred to on another website and updated the link accordingly.

  • June 5, 2015

    by Anne

    The writer claims to "have a tendency towards rosacea"...?? What!!?? You either have it or you don't. I have lived with rosacea for almost 20 years and it is not something that just pops up whenever, or rears its ugly head just because you use a certain product. Yes, certain products can aggravate or irritate, but rosacea is a skin condition with a long and varied life, and it has even progressed into my eye (ocular rosacea) after all these years, effecting my eyesight, with no way of knowing about the future.
    So, before you go writing halfcocked articles in a hurry to meet a deadline, I'm guessing because that's how it read, make sure you have some semblance of real knowing about the subject, or at least do some homework with some real rosacea sufferers or experts before posting.
    (And the Japanese article? The link is broken, no surprise. And the link for rosacea, titled "How to get rid of it.." including the part "how to prevent"....I can't explain, yell, or get angry enough!!! This "writer" does not know thing ONE about what she signed up to write about! You cannot prevent or get rid of rosacea! It is a skin disorder, you have it or you don't. PERIOD.) This entire article is a joke, plain and simple, and the "writer" would do well with sticking to make-up reviews, hairstyles, and fashion shows.

  • December 27, 2012

    by Tiffany Gaal

    I realize this thread is more than two years old, but I found it when I was browsing information on toners and I wanted to say, kannd86, that I have used Dickinson's rose and lavender toners (I do not use the astringents which contain alcohol), and I have been very pleased. The price cannot be beat and they are very calming and moisturizing, not to mention easy to get as I buy mine at Whole Foods. They also smell lovely, I highly recommend them.

  • October 31, 2010

    by kannd86

    How do you feel about Dickinson's witch hazel toner? I don't use it that often, but I figure it's much better than the stuff I used to use (Neutrogena or some other drugstore brand).

  • September 8, 2010

    by joann

    Would like to know more about witch hazel use for tiny veins in legs and possibly helping circulation?

  • September 8, 2010

    by VickyL

    Thank you Marta for this research. I admit that I always turned a blind eye (or deaf ear) to those that say witch hazel is harsh or drying. I haven't had problems with it and like Junko, I think it is much milder than the alcohol it often replaces in cosmetic potions.

    This is a good lesson that an ingredient can get a bad rap when people commonly use a cheap synthetic version or worse, don't notice other irritants in the mix and blame reactions on the main ingredient.
    I really appreciate the depth of information I find here about product ingredients and the product crafters.

  • September 7, 2010

    by Junko

    Great info Marta! I use Dickinson's witch hazel toner in DIY recipe's where alcohol/vodka is needed to dissolve. I think it's a safer option (cosmeticdatabase has it as a hazard 1 compared to alcohol/vodka's hazard 5 rating).

  • September 5, 2010

    by Ines

    Thank you Marta for your research. Sometimes we just blindly believe in everything we read.Rgrds,

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