Witch Hazel

Posted by Dr Davin Lim on

By Dr Davin Lim

Best used : AM Or PM, up to twice a day


Caution: Potentially irritating

Best for: Acne

Comments: Best used as a toner

Mode of action: Astringent, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory

Science Score:



What is the skin science behind witch hazel?

Derived from the bark of a plant known as Hamamelis virginiana this organic compound has seen a surge in popularity making the Google Top 10 list.  Most commonly employed as an ingredient that contracts skin cells, this compound has antioxidant & anti-inflammatory properties. Witch hazel is derived from the leaves, bark & stems of Hamamelis to form a purified clear liquid. This can be classified as organic skin care.

How should I use witch hazel?

A sensible skin care routine is to use witch hazel as a toner: After cleansing with a gentle face wash, pat your skin dry and gently apply witch hazel using a cotton ball. Use every second day, increasing as tolerated. Be careful not to combine this with harsh cleansers or chemical exfoliants that contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide as this can cause excessive dryness & skin irritation. 

Can witch hazel help treat acne prone skin?

Yes. This compound can help reduce acne & excess oil production in some patients & works in the following ways-

  1. Reduces Oil Production. The astringent effects of witch hazel has a drying effect on skin, helping reduce excess sebum/oil.
  2. Reduces Skin Inflammation. The anti-inflammatory properties of witch hazel may temporarily calm the appearance of red or blotchy skin by soothing the area and triggering your blood vessels to constrict so that your pores appear smaller less red & angry.
  3. Kills C.acne bacteria. Unchecked this bacteria can proliferate & form zits, pustules & cysts- the hallmarks of acne. Witch hazel contains tannins which has strong antimicrobial properties, meaning they can help reduce C.acnes bacteria growth on the skin, in turn improving the frequency of breakouts.

Can acne flare up & get worse with too much witch hazel?

Yes. There is a fine line between the benefits of witch hazel and side effects, in fact this applies to almost every skin care ingredient. Due to the astringent properties of this compound, you can strip too much oil from your skin. This results in your body producing more oil, leading to outbreaks. Additionally, if you exceed your skin’s threshold for irritation, hazel's anti-inflammatory role is now reversed, leading to too much inflammation. The result? More outbreaks. The solution? Use as directed on the product information guide. 

How do I safely use witch hazel to treat acne?

Test spot: Apply a small amount of witch hazel to a one inch area of skin, for example in front of the ear. If you do not experience any skin irritation treat a bigger patch the next day, & so forth. By using small amounts in small areas the risk of huge flare ups will be markedly reduced.

Think before combining: Ideally you should separate application of witch hazel with other topicals such as BHAs, namely salicylic acid, retinol, benzoyl peroxide & AHAs by at least 12 hours. Though not an absolute contraindication, these actives should be combined with caution.  

Alcohol Free: High levels of ETOH may dry out or disrupt your skin’s barrier function, potentially increasing irritation & even oil production. Try to find a witch hazel product that is alcohol free. 

Witch Hazel Alcohol Free Toners: This can be an option for some patients. The majority of witch hazel products contain high levels of alcohol, ranging between 14-15%, find a solution with less than 5% Tone every second day after using a simple face wash. Don’t try to combine toners with actives such as salicylic acid scrubs, or benzoyl peroxide washes. 

Moisturise Moisturise Moisturise: Consider moisturizer application after toning or using witch hazel products. The use of correct moisturisers will decrease oil production as well as repair your skin’s barrier function. This can reduce redness & inflammation, as well as accelerate skin healing.

How can a medical dermatologist help you if your acne does not respond to witch hazel?

Your medical dermatologist will discuss treatment options with you, including the use of topicals, a course of antibiotics, anti-hormone medication or oral vitamin A. We also use lasers, lights, photodynamic therapy as well as clinical strength retinoic acid, AHA & BHA peels to effectively control your acne. 

These are the following steps you should take prior to seeing a dermatologist- 

  • Try simple anti-acne directed skin care such as BHAs, BPO washes, & if available in your country Differin Gel or Cream. You can substitute this retinoid for retinol if you live in Australia.  
  • Try an acne free diet. Cut down on refined foods, eat vegetables, grains, reduce or eliminate dairy products. 
  • Consider vitamins such as zinc to support your immune system.

Remember, medical dermatologists prescribe medication & not fairy dust, so try all the non-pharmacological methods prior to seeing a specialist. 

Disclaimer: I am a procedural not a medical dermatologist. My work involves injectables, complex laser & deep peeling. If you have acne, you can be reviewed by my clinical team or any one of my colleagues @cutis_dermatology

Does witch hazel help with dark spots?

The high concentration of tannins in the product makes it a great natural astringent, removing excess oil and shrinking pores. This compound has antioxidant properties which, in theory can reduce UV induced stress & pigmentation.

Is witch hazel antibacterial ?

This compound possesses some antibacterial properties, hence its use in reducing acne forming zits & pustules rich in C. acnes. Other antibacterial compounds used in acne include benzoyl peroxide, azelaic acid & antibiotics. 

Can you use witch hazel as a makeup remover or cleanser?

Should you use witch hazel as a makeup remover or cleanser?  Probably not a good idea on several levels. Firstly, witch hazel contains tannins & the majority of products are high in alcohol content. Both can cause excessive skin irritation. There’s also the fact that witch hazel isn’t really that effective at removing most types of makeup, especially today’s long-wearing formulas. What about using it as face wash? Firstly, it doesn’t have much cleansing ability for skin, not when compared to even simple water soluble cleansers. If you would like to add this to your skin care routine, I probably suggest you consider using a low ETOH based toner.

How do I incorporate witch hazel in my skin care routine?

A sensible skin care routine that involves witch hazel goes something like this;

AM: Gentle washSPF, Make up, with the option of antioxidants (Ferulic acid, Tocopherol)

PM: Cleanser, Witch Hazel Toner, moisturiser

*There are many formulations of witch hazel with endless combinations. The use of other actives such as ascorbic, retinoic, AHAs, BHAs, azelaic acid, BPO,  etc… are not absolutely contraindicated. A sensible starting point is to use witch hazel toner every other day (or night) and gradually incorporate it into your routine. As always test patch your product, & titrate according to skin irritation. 


Davin’s ProTip on Witch Hazel

Don’t expect a medical dermatologist to reach out for a prescription of witch hazel as there are more effective topicals for the management of acne. Having said this, the majority of patients seen by my colleagues would have trialed & failed the usual acne treatments such as BPO, retinol, salicyclic acid lotions, creams, washes, & gels, acne diets, zinc supplementation as well as natural acne remedies such as tea tree oil, witch hazel, & countless others. Dermatologists prescribe. Do we all scoff at natural remedies? No, in fact I highly recommend many plant based remedies including the use of botanical extracts to treat disorders of pigmentation such as melasma. My suggestion is that you try witch hazel prior to seeing a dermatologist, if this works, you have a nice, natural solution for your acne. A sensible starting point is the use of low alcohol witch hazel toners.

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