- Witch Hazel and Its Potential for Healing
- Witch Hazel and Acne
- Witch Hazel Water
- Witch Hazel Cream
- How to Do It
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 now 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. 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.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.
Witch Hazel and Acne
To date, there is no data from clinical trials that examine the role of any form of witch hazel in treating acne. However, it does demonstrate 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 exhibits 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 P. 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, and how it has potential to be anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and non-pore-clogging.
Anti-inflammatory: Acne is an inflammatory disease. Most studies on witch hazel and inflammation have used witch hazel cream. However, there is one 1994 study published in The Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology that examined witch hazel water as a treatment for skin inflammation in rats:
This study examined two types of inflammation: (1) inflammation associated with injuries to the rats' paws, and (2) inflammation associated with arthritis in the rats.
The data showed that the witch hazel water had no effect on swelling from the paw injuries, but it did reduce the inflammation associated with arthritis.2 The data from this study indicates that witch hazel water may help with some types of inflammation, but because of the preliminary nature of this study and because it was performed in animals, we do not know if it confers the same effect in humans.
Antimicrobial: The strain of bacteria called P. acnes aggravates acne, so the antibacterial activity of witch hazel may be helpful in acne treatment. A study published in 2002 in the German medical journal, Naturheilkunde, examined the efficacy of witch hazel water on bacteria:
Fifteen study participants applied witch hazel water to their skin, and the scientists tested their skin for microbes. Additionally, the scientists conducted an in vitro experiment in which they examined the effect of witch hazel water on various bacteria in the lab, under the microscope. The witch hazel water showed antibiotic and antifungal activity both in the skin of the participants and in the lab, but this activity was weak when compared to traditional antibiotics that they tested.3 In other words, witch hazel might help reduce bacteria to some degree.
Non-pore-clogging: An acne lesion arises from a clogged pore in the skin. Keratinocytes are skin cells that produce a protein called keratin, which can clog pores and cause acne lesions. A 2001 study examined the role of witch hazel water in regulating the overproduction of keratinocytes.
The in vitro study examined specifically the effect of the polysaccharides in witch hazel water. Data shows that they did not affect the production of keratinocytes and that witch hazel water is not likely to increase pore clogging.4
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 potentially help with acne in the same ways as witch hazel water, but in addition, it may also provide antioxidants and improve the function of the skin barrier, both of which could potentially help with acne.
On the other hand, some data shows us that witch hazel cream might lead to clogged pores, which could increase acne.
In short, witch hazel cream 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.
- 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, and how it has potential to be anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, but also pore clogging.
Anti-inflammatory: Just like with witch hazel water, there are no studies to date that investigate the effect of witch hazel cream directly on acne, so we must rely on studies that examine witch hazel cream on other inflammatory skin conditions and then make educated guesses from there. These studies shows that witch hazel cream may be anti-inflammatory, but it has not demonstrated this effect in all the studies. Therefore, more research is needed to confirm its anti-inflammatory properties.
A 2007 study examined the role of a witch hazel cream—including the tannins that make up witch hazel—in reducing dermatitis. Dermatitis is a term used to describe general skin inflammation. The study, published in the European Journal of Pediatrics, investigated the effect of witch hazel ointment in comparison to dexpanthenol ointment, which is a standard treatment for dermatitis. The study involved a group of 309 children who were chosen based on a variety of skin problems, including minor skin injuries, diaper dermatitis, and localized inflammation. After an average of 8 days of treatment, each ointment caused a significant decrease in symptoms. Both treatments also were well tolerated, although patients tolerated the witch hazel ointment slightly better.5
In another study published in 1993 in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, researchers induced skin irritation in 24 healthy volunteers by creating fresh injuries to their skin. The researchers then tested the ability of three different creams, including witch hazel cream, to reduce the inflammation associated with the skin injuries. They found that while the witch hazel cream did reduce inflammation, it was less effective than a 1% hydrocortisone cream.7
The two studies outlined above suggest that witch hazel cream may possess anti-inflammatory properties. However, in a 1995 study published in The European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, witch hazel cream proved ineffective in reducing inflammation associated with eczema, an inflammatory skin condition in which the skin becomes itchy, red, cracked, and rough. The study involved 72 patients and compared witch hazel cream to a 0.05% hydrocortisone cream and a placebo cream. The hydrocortisone cream was most effective in reducing the inflammation associated with eczema, and the witch hazel cream performed no better than the placebo cream.6
Antimicrobial: As we mentioned above, bacteria, particularly a strain of bacteria called P. acnes, may aggravate acne. Therefore, the antibacterial activity of witch hazel cream may be helpful in the treatment of acne. However, there is limited research to date on the antibacterial properties of witch hazel cream.
One 1999 study published in the journal, Planta Medica, and cited in a 2002 article published in the German Naturheilkd, examined the antimicrobial activity of tannins from various plants. While the study found that some of them demonstrated antimicrobial activity, most of the ones tested are not in witch hazel cream.3 This research suggests that plant tannins possess antibacterial qualities, but more research is needed to understand their specific effects when included in witch hazel cream.
Antioxidant: The body uses antioxidants to ward off inflammation and cell damage caused by oxygen free-radicals, a natural byproduct of the body’s metabolism of oxygen. Because researchers believe that acne may be triggered by an overload of these molecules, the antioxidant properties of witch hazel cream may help acne in this way.
A 2008 in vitro study published in Chemical Research in Toxicology examined the antioxidant properties of the tannins extracted from witch hazel bark. The researchers found that the witch hazel tannins were “highly active as free radical scavengers. …” meaning the tannins were effective in reducing the free radicals that damage cells and may lead to acne.8 The data from this study suggests that the antioxidant properties of witch hazel cream may reduce acne.
Pore-clogging: We discussed that keratinocytes are skin cells that produce keratin, which can clog pores. We also talked about the data from a 2001 study which showed that witch hazel water did not increase the production of keratinocytes. However, the same study examined a specific type of tannin found in the extract of witch hazel bark and showed that it increased the production of keratin.4
These results suggest that the tannins in witch hazel cream may worsen acne by clogging pores.
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. However, unlike witch hazel water, witch hazel cream may clog pores. Further research is needed to determine how effective they might be in treating acne.
If you are going to try it, witch hazel water would most likely be more safe to try on acne-prone skin, however, products that contain hazel water usually contain alcohol, and the jury is still out on the safety of alcohol on human skin.
How to Do 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.