Witch hazel is a natural ingredient that has made its way into the VIP arena of ‘front of pack’ skincare superstars. Those are the ones whose pretty faces stare back at you from the skincare aisles *winks*. These days it’s most common in your skincare for 2 purposes, helping to ‘tone’ skin and helping to fight spots and acne.
So how does witch hazel actually help your skin (and does it?). If you are reaching a hand for a witch hazel skincare product then this is the witch hazel ‘crash course’ for you my pal. All you need to know about how it works including one KEY watch out!
What Is Witch Hazel?
Witch hazel is a ‘midget tree’, it’s not quite a bush, but it’s also never going to be a towering oak *winks*. This midget tree grows wild in northern America, Japan and China. It’s a plant with some long standing heritage as it was used for healing ‘way, way’ back in the day.
It’s the leafs and bark (so pretty much every part of the plant *smiles*) that contain the ingredients that give witch hazel its skincare skills.
It’s got a pretty funky name for a skincare ingredient, but there’s no ‘black magic’ here my friends, instead the name actually comes from another tree, the ‘wych elm’. Over the years, it just got decided that ‘witch hazel’ had a better ring to it *winks*.
What Will Witch Hazel Skincare do For My Skin?
Back in the day if you’d had a ‘fight’ with a blackberry bush, or an argument over who was boss with your horse, then witch hazel would be on ‘tap’ to soothe away your bruises and help your skin to heal. Back then this was pretty much like, ‘magic’. We didn’t know why things worked, they just did.
Now, we can look at a skincare ingredient and strip it right back to its lego building blocks to find out just what ‘makes it tick’.
The witch hazels ‘magic’ lego blocks come from a family of ingredients called tannins.
Have you ever had that feeling on the top of your mouth… the one where it feels a bit like furry sandpaper? You might have gotten it from drinking wine or tea. That ‘furry sandpaper’ feeling is because of this family of ingredients called tannins.
Tannins are skin ‘astringents’.
All that means is they can shrink stuff up. It’s super useful if you’ve got a cut or even a nosebleed that just won’t quit. Pop some astringent on the attention seeker, and those tannins ‘shrink up’ the bleeder.
Astringents basically dry, toughen and harden skin. They do this by ‘getting it on’ with your skins proteins. When an astringent ‘gets it on’ with your skin proteins it’s kinda like staring Medusa in the face *winks*. Astringents turn the proteins in your skin into a semi-solid state, they ‘coagulate’ them.
This means witch hazel can be helpful for…
- Helping to manage an oily skin type, because witch hazel is an astringent it can help to manage your skins natural oiliness. Witch hazel will ‘dry’ up skins sebum production because the natural tannins cause ‘constriction’ within your skin. This is what helps to battle ‘that’ shine, (if you’re considering using witch hazel to manage your oily skin type, then make sure to read to the end of this, there is one thing to avoid!).
- Witch Hazel skincare can help to manage a spot prone skin type, excessive sebum production (aka an oily skin type *winks*) is a key ‘feature’ of skin that is prone to spots. If your skin is super oily, then that oil can make it a whole lot easier for a collection of dead skin & bacteria to form a blockage in your pore. Those blockages are 1 of the ‘3 main causes of spots’. An astringent like witch hazel will reduce your skins natural oiliness which makes it less likely for a ‘broth’ of dead skin and bacteria to collect.
- Witch Hazel can help to treat cuts & bruises & spots, this is the old school use of witch hazel. It’s why you’ll find ‘neat’ bottles of witch hazel down the first aid aisle ‘of all good pharmacies’! Witch hazel can speed up skins healing process, because its pretty good at getting skin to ‘pull itself together’… literally. That forms a nice little defence against the world which allows your skins healing forces to ‘do their thang’, uninterrupted.
The Pesky Witch Hazel Side Kick to Avoid
This is the thing you probably don’t know about witch hazel. It likes to have a drink or two… (or 3, or 4 *winks*). You’ll often find this skincare ingredient cosy-ing up with a hefty dose of alcohol.
Remember when I said that the actual witch hazel ‘magic’ gets extracted from the leaves and bark of a midget tree? Well the traditional way of doing this is to use alcohol. Alcohol is really good at ‘borrowing’ stuff from other things. It soaks it all up. Alcohol is the sponge that pulls out the witch hazel magic. That means alcohol is usually the ‘carrier’ of witch hazel extract.
— Cheryl Woodman (@HonestyForSkin) 2 June 2016
When it’s alcohol that’s the carrier the extract will usually get called a, ‘witch hazel distillate’. That means on an ingredients list it’ll be called ‘hamamelis virginiana (witch hazel) distillate’ instead of ‘hamamelis virginiana (witch hazel) extract’. That will also be followed up with a super hefty dose of alcohol on the list (usually the first or second ingredient), that’ll usually be called ‘alcohol denat.’ (the denat. bit means ‘denatured’ which means you can’t enjoy this one down the pub *winks*).
Take a look at the ingredients list of, ‘Boots – Tea Tree & Witch Hazel Cleansing & Toning Lotion’ for a super helpful example…
“Aqua (Water), Alcohol denat., Polysorbate 20, Alcohol, Hamamelis virginiana (Witch hazel) distillate, Parfum (Fragrance), Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea tree) leaf oil, Hexyl cinnamal, Limonene, Benzophenone-4, Alpha-isomethyl ionone, Linalool, CI 61570 (Green 5), CI 19140 (Yellow 5)”
Alcohol is also an astringent. It’s also a solvent, a penetration enhancer, an antiseptic (i.e. it kills stuff) and a viscosity regulator (it makes stuff thinner & easier to rub in). When you use alcohol on your skin, it strips skin of its natural oils, that’s because it’s a ‘darn good’ solvent. Think back to your most favourite cleaning fluid (random, I know!), the one that cuts through grease like it was a warmed knife cutting through butter. That my friend if the power of a solvent.
When it comes to skin, that means your natural sebum barrier is stripped away leaving a squeaky clean, but also tight, dry, irritated and unprotected layer of skin below.
Using a product with alcohol in when you have oily skin is a honey trap! At first it’s going to wave a magic wand that transforms your skin from oily to normal. It’s also going to help clear up any spots as it’s an antiseptic. Then my pal, it’s going to kill off all the good bacteria on your face and mess with your skins natural barrier protection which leaves you in a see-saw of oily but also dry and flaky irritated skin.
Alcohol is of the 4 key skincare ingredients to avoid.
A lot of ‘popular’ spot fighting skincare products that contain witch hazel, actually rely more heavily on this high alcohol content than the witch hazel extract!
Bottom line my friend, witch hazel can be a great natural for an oily and spot prone skin type (or even just a damaged skin ‘pick me up’), but always keep your eyes peeled for the alcohol:witch hazel honey trap.
Have you used any skincare products with witch hazel in ’em? Want a helping hand to tell if there’s a sneaky dose of alcohol in there (?) just let me know what you’ve used in the comment below…
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Cheryl Woodman is a scientist & award winning skincare formulator who’s more friend next door than bow tie wearing professor. As creator of Honesty For Your Skin her aim is to help you care for your skin in the best ways possible. She’s founder of the natural & fragrance free skincare brand Honesty while also hosting 1 to 1 skincare coaching to help you get your best skin yet. Find out more here.