Witch Hazel Is Mildly Antibacterial and Anti-inflammatory, But We Don’t Have Enough Evidence to Know if It Will Help with Acne
The Essential Info
Witch hazel is an astringent, which basically means it tightens and dries out the skin. Using witch hazel, particularly on oily skin, imparts a “fresh” and “clean” feeling. However, the activity of witch hazel is relatively weak, and evidence doesn’t point toward a major benefit for acne-prone skin.
Witch hazel can come in two forms:
- Witch hazel water, the type available at drugstores
- Witch hazel cream, which is in some medications
Researchers have never studied either form of witch hazel for treating acne, so we don’t know if they would help. Even if they did, it’s unlikely they would provide dramatic clearing of acne.
Witch hazel water shows the most promise for acne treatment because it may be:
- Mildly anti-inflammatory – acne is an inflammatory disease, so this could potentially help with acne
- Antimicrobial – acne is in part a bacterial disease, so this could also help
- Non-comedogenic (won’t clog pores) – this means it should be safe to try
Witch hazel cream might provide the same benefits of witch hazel water, and additionally may possess antioxidant properties, which could theoretically help with acne as well. On the other hand, some evidence points toward the possibility that witch hazel cream might be comedogenic (clogs pores), so it’s probably best not to use it.
The Bottom Line: Witch hazel is unlikely to dramatically clear the skin, but if you want to try witch hazel on acne, try witch hazel water, which is normally packaged in large bottles of clear watery liquid and is available at most drugstores. Make sure to stay realistic and don’t expect it to provide substantial improvement in acne.
Witch Hazel and Its Potential for Healing
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a shrub native to eastern North America. For centuries, Native Americans treated a variety of medical conditions with pastes and water that contained extracts of the bark and leaves of the witch hazel plant.
The pharmaceutical industry first commercialized witch hazel water in the late 1800s, and modern manufacturers of skin care products still use witch hazel in a variety of products designed to treat skin conditions like varicose veins, hemorrhoids, eczema, and psoriasis.1,2
Witch Hazel Water vs. Witch Hazel Cream
Witch hazel comes in two forms, (1) witch hazel water, and (2) witch hazel cream, and they differ in their chemical compositions and potential for acne treatment.
Witch hazel water is what you might commonly purchase at the drugstore and is the type of witch hazel you should opt for if you want to try witch hazel for acne. Manufacturers create witch hazel water by distilling witch hazel leaves and bark into a solution of 13 – 15% alcohol. The distillation process does not preserve compounds in witch hazel called tannins, which have antioxidant properties. However, it does still contain high levels of molecules called polysaccharides. Polysaccharides can be anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial, both of which may be beneficial to acne. Witch hazel water also most likely does not clog pores.
Witch hazel cream does not go through the process of distillation, and so it still contains the tannins from the leaves and bark of the witch hazel plant. Like witch hazel water, it may be anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial. The tannins in witch hazel cream may also have antioxidant properties that can theoretically help with acne, and may help improve the skin’s barrier function, which could also be beneficial for acne.1,3 All of this might make it seem like witch hazel cream would be superior, but the tannins in hazel cream might lead to clogged pores. Therefore, witch hazel cream should be avoided for people with acne-prone skin.
To date, there is no data from clinical trials that examine the role of any form of witch hazel in treating acne. However, witch hazel demonstrates properties that may affect acne in both positive and negative ways, depending on the form of witch hazel used.
Scientists generally study witch hazel in the two forms that we mentioned: witch hazel cream and witch hazel water. First, let’s look at the science regarding witch hazel water, which is the more common of the two.
Witch Hazel Water
Data from studies on witch hazel water shows that it may exhibit the following properties:
- Anti-inflammatory: There is a small amount of data suggesting that witch hazel water acts as an anti-inflammatory agent. This is relevant to acne since acne is at its core an inflammatory disease.
- Antimicrobial: Witch hazel water may be mildly antibiotic, and acne is made worse by bacteria, specifically a bacteria called C. acnes.
- Non-pore-clogging: Witch hazel water does not appear to promote pore clogging. This relates to acne since acne lesions begin from clogged pores.
Expand the drawer below to look at research on witch hazel water.
Expand to read details of studies
Witch Hazel Cream
Now let’s look at the science regarding witch hazel cream, which is less commonly available at drugstores.
Data from studies on witch hazel cream shows that it may exhibit the following properties:
- Anti-inflammatory: Some data suggest that witch hazel cream may act as an anti-inflammatory agent, but not all the data supports this claim.
- Antimicrobial: A very limited amount of data suggest that witch hazel cream might be mildly antimicrobial.
- Antioxidant: Witch hazel cream appears to have antioxidant properties, and this may help keep the skin healthy and potentially reduce acne.
- Skin Barrier Improvement: Witch hazel cream may strengthen the skin’s barrier. This is significant because people with acne tend to have an impaired skin barrier.
- Pore-clogging: Unlike witch hazel water, the tannins in witch hazel cream may promote pore clogging. This could potentially lead to more acne.
Expand the drawer below to look at research on witch hazel water.
Expand to read details of studies
The Bottom Line
Both witch hazel water and witch hazel cream may have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that could benefit acne. Witch hazel cream takes it a step further and may also have antioxidant properties and the ability to improve the skin’s barrier function. However, unlike witch hazel water, witch hazel cream may clog pores. This is a big problem, so until we see more data, it is safest to avoid witch hazel cream and opt instead for witch hazel water.
Alcohol – another concern: Products that contain witch hazel water usually contain alcohol, and the jury is still out on the safety of alcohol on human skin, particularly when used regularly.
How to Use It
Witch hazel can be applied 1 to 2 times per day, starting with once a day. After several days of use at once per day, you can increase to twice per day.
Witch hazel water works best on oily skin due to its astringent properties. Before applying witch hazel water to your entire face, do a spot test first, especially if you have sensitive or dry skin. Apply a small amount to an inconspicuous spot, like the jaw line. Wait 5 to 10 minutes to see if there is any reaction in the skin. If there is a reaction (such as redness, itchiness, or a rash), discontinue use and avoid using witch hazel on your face.
If there was no adverse skin reaction in your spot test, and you still want to try witch hazel as a toner, proceed with the following simple steps:
- Cleanse your skin using your bare hands and a mild facial cleanser. Then gently pat dry with a towel. Physical irritation of the skin makes acne worse, so stay ultra-gentle.
- Start with a high-quality (organic is best) witch hazel water with low or no alcohol content. Since the scientific community still doesn’t know whether regular use of topical alcohol on the skin is okay, opt for an alcohol-free formula if possible.
- Soak a cotton ball or pad with the witch hazel water.
- Very gently apply to the skin, avoiding eye areas. Stay exceedingly gentle and don’t scrub. Allow to dry.
- You can now apply other products if you wish.
- Gangemi, S. et al. Contact dermatitis as an adverse reaction to some topically used European herbal medicinal products – Part 2: Echinacea purpurea-Lavandula angustifolia. Contact Dermatitis 72, 193-205 (2015). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25600644
- Duwiejua, M., Zeitlin, J., Waterman, P. G. & Gray, A. I. Anti-inflammatory activity of Polygonum bistorta, Guaiacum oficinale and Hamamelis virginiana in rats. J. Pharm. Pharmacol. 46, 286 – 290 (1994). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8051612
- Gloor, M., Reichling, J., Wasik, B. & Holzgang, H. E. Antiseptic effect of a topical dermatological formulation that contains Hamamelis distillate and urea. Forschende Komplementarmedizin und Klass. Naturheilkd. 9, 153 – 159 (2002). https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Antiseptic-effect-of-a-topical-dermatological-that-Gloor-Reichling/26c180e9da8f1e3aab42380c55ea1b2a5eb2ea13
- Thring, T.S., Hili, P. & Naughton, D. P. Antioxidant and potential anti-inflammatory activity of extracts and formulations of white tea, rose, and witch hazel on primary human dermal fibroblast cells. J. Inflamm. (Lond). 8, 27 (2011). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21995704
- Deters, A., Dauer, A., Schnetz, E., Fartasch, M. & Hensel, A. High molecular compounds (polysaccharides and proanthocyanidins) from Hamamelis virginiana bark: Influence on human skin keratinocyte proliferation and differentiation and influence on irritated skin. Phytochemistry 58, 949 – 958 (2001). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11684194
- Wolff, H. H. & Kieser, M. Hamamelis in children with skin disorders and skin injuries: Results of an observational study. Eur. J. Pediatr. 166, 943 – 948 (2007). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17177071
- Korting, H. C., Schäfer-Korting, M., Hart, H., Laux, P. & Schmid, M. Anti-inflammatory activity of hamamelis distillate applied topically to the skin. Influence of vehicle and dose. Eur. J. Clin Pharmacol. 44, 315-318 (1993). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8513841
- Korting, H. C. et al. Comparative efficacy of hamamelis distillate and hydrocortisone cream in atopic eczema. Eur. J. Clin. Pharmacol. 48, 461 – 465 (1995). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8582464
- Touriño, S. et al. Highly galloylated tannin fractions from witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) bark: Electron transfer capacity, in vitro antioxidant activity, and effects on skin-related cells. Chem. Res. Toxicol. 21, 696 – 704 (2008). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18311930