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witch hazel

Witch Hazel - Skin's Friend or Foe?

Reviewed by Marta July 4, 2013 16 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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  • 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!

  • 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!

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