Witch Hazel is an Old-School Acne-Fighting Ingredient With Real Benefits

woman cleaning face

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If you're anything like us, when you think of witch hazel, you flashback to your pre-pubescent days and first forays into skincare. Perhaps images of a certain blue toner come to mind, and the tight, stripped skin feeling that came along with dousing your face in it. Witch hazel is most definitely not a new skincare ingredient; it's been around as a skincare staple forever. But it's fair to say that it's a bit misunderstood, often getting a bad rap for being harsh and drying, and falling much further down the totem pole of effective acne-fighters than the beloved salicylic acids and benzoyl peroxides of the world. But here's the thing: Witch hazel really can be an effective blemish buster, particularly when it comes to addressing blackheads and whiteheads. (And no, it's not going to make your skin feel tight and stingy.) Ahead, New York City dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum, MD, Rachel Nazarian, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City, and Deanne Robinson, MD, a dermatologist in Westport, CT, explain why you might want to consider incorporating this classic ingredient into your complexion clearing protocol.

Type of ingredient: Botanical extract

MAIN BENEFITS: Removes excess oil; tightens the skin to minimize the appearance of pores; decreases redness and inflammation

WHO SHOULD USE IT: Individuals with whiteheads, blackheads, and excess oily skin.

HOW OFTEN CAN YOU USE IT: Every other day to start, then increase to once daily.

WORKS WELL WITH: Most skincare products.

DON'T USE WITH: Especially drying or irritating formulas like acid exfoliators, retinol, and clay masks.

What Is Witch Hazel?

Witch hazel is a botanical extract, derived from the leaves and the bark of a flowering plant (Hamamelis virginiana, for those of you wondering), native to North America and Asia. And like we said, it's most definitely not the new kid on the block. "It's been used topically for centuries for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and calming properties," explains Nussbaum. That's right, we said anti-inflammatory. Despite the fact that it's so often associated with removing oil and drying out the skin, which yes, it can do too, it can actually be a skin soother.

Benefits of Witch Hazel for Acne

  • Minimizes oil: "Witch hazel removes excess oil that can clog pores, helping to fight acne," says Nussbaum.
  • Minimizes pores: "It also contains tannins, astringent molecules that can minimize pore size by tightening the skin," Nussbaum says, hence why it's so often found in—you guessed it—astringent toners made for oily skin (i.e. that one you drenched your face in back in middle school).
  • Anti-inflammatory: Various studies have shown that witch hazel is an effective anti-inflammatory. "Because many acne lesions are inflammatory, witch hazel has been used to decrease the redness and inflammation," notes Nazarian. However, it will not help reduce cystic acne, according to Nussbaum, who says it's better suited for open and closed comedones—AKA blackheads and whiteheads—as well as single pustules produced by excess sebum. "By removing the excess oils, you are wiping away the risk of pore congestion," she explains.
  • Antibacterial: Finally, witch hazel has antibacterial properties, though it's worth noting that none of the existing studies have proven that it has a direct affect on the specific bacteria that contributes to acne, adds Nazarian.

Other Skin Benefits

  • Antioxidant: Studies have also shown that it has antioxidant properties, which helps retain the health of the skin and reduces premature aging.
  • Burn-healer: According to Nussbaum, witch hazel's tannins help to decrease redness, swelling, and inflammation, making it a soothing remedy for minor skin irritations, including razor burn.

How to Apply Witch Hazel

Application is super important here. While yes, it can have great benefits for your skin, there's also a risk of irritation (more on that in a minute) so the product you choose and how you use it is crucial. First and foremost, follow the product directions to a tee, advises Nussbaum, who adds that it's also a good move to start by using it only every other day, gradually increasing to daily use, as long as your skin can tolerate it. And be strategic about where you put it. Rather than applying it all-over, Robinson suggests using a cotton swab for targeted application on just affected areas (i.e. spots with lots of blackheads or a big ol' whitehead). It's also a good move to seek out alcohol-free witch hazel products. "Many times witch hazel is combined with alcohol to remove even more surface oil," says Nazarian. But that can be a slippery slope, often resulting in over-drying the skin, and somewhat ironically triggering the production of even more oil, adds Robinson.

Side Effects

While yes, witch hazel does have anti-inflammatory properties, it also has a slightly acidic pH. And that means it can potentially irritate your skin, points out Nazarian. This likelihood increases if you have existing irritation, or any types of cuts or scrapes; pass on the ingredient in this case. "As with any kind of topical ingredient, there's always a risk of allergic reaction, and if you have super sensitive skin, it's a good idea to test it on a small area first," Robinson adds.

Best Products With Witch Hazel

Thayers
Thayers Alcohol-Free Witch Hazel Facial Toner $11
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It's unanimous—all three of the dermatologists we spoke with recommended this option. "It uses a high concentration of witch hazel, along with soothing rosewater and aloe," says Robinson. The doctors also like that it's alcohol-free, and has no added fragrance, which also minimizes the likelihood of any allergic reaction or irritation, points out Nazarian. Also worth noting: The witch hazel the brand uses isn't distilled, which means it contains more of those beneficial tannins than other kinds.

Boscia
Boscia Rosewater Mist with Witch Hazel $24
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You may not necessarily always equate 'witch hazel' with 'hydration,' but in this spritz it does just that. Credit an alcohol-free formula infused with rosewater and aloe for hydration, plus witch hazel to remove any excess oil. It also has a combination of other anti-inflammatory ingredients to calm the skin, points out Nazarian, who adds that it works nicely as a makeup prep-step. Or, try misting it over your complexion mid-day or whenever you're in need of a makeup refresh.

neutrogena
Neutrogena Pore Refining Toner $7
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Prone to pimples? Meet your new BFF. "This combines witch hazel along with salicylic and glycolic acids to remove excess oils and minimize pore congestion," explains Nussbaum. The only caveat: If your skin tends to be sensitive, be conservative with how often you use it in order to avoid over-drying and irritation, notes Nazarian.

dickinsons
Dickinson's Enhanced Witch Hazel Hydrating Toner $6
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This would be a great option for sensitive skin based on the fact that it's alcohol-free; the extra ingredients in the formula are just the proverbial icing on the cake. We're talking hyaluronic acid, rosewater, and vitamin E, all of which enhance the anti-inflammatory aspect, as well as hydrate, says Nazarian.

quinns
Quinn's Witch Hazel Rose Petal Toner $14
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Don't sleep on this lesser-known toner. No alcohol and added aloe increase the tolerability profile, says Nazarian. Bonus points for the subtle rose fragrance.

SundayRiley
Sunday Riley Martian Mattifying Melting Water Gel Toner $25
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"This is a great product that contains green tea and manuka oil, as well as witch hazel to purify and clarify pores, plus calm any inflammation," explains Nussbaum. It also touts bentonite clay, which is super effective at pulling out excess oil (hence the mattifying part). Application is super enjoyable and different than that of other toners, too. It transforms from a cooling gel into a fast-absorbing water and soaks into skin almost instantly.

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