Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble. Witch hazel sounds like something that would be used in a potion or spell, right?
But you probably didn’t realize that it’s actually a pretty common ingredient in skincare products ranging from Clarins Beauty Flash Balm to Clinique’s Clarifying Lotion… and for good reason.
What is witch hazel?
Witch hazel is an ancient herb that has been used for medicinal purposes since centuries past.
It was first discovered by the Indians, who found a way to extract oils from the bark of Hamamelis virginiana — commonly known as the witch hazel plant.
Although the origins of its distinct name are unclear, it may have come from the Middle English word “wich”, which means “flexible”, in honor of the shrub’s bendy branches.
Witch hazel extract contains tannins, flavonoids and potent anti-oxidants, which can help clear up a multitude of skin problems. Native Americans also used the plant to ease swelling and treat minor wounds, abrasions and several other skin conditions.
Today, herbalists consider the witch hazel plant a powerful remedy for relieving muscle aches and pains, treating varicose veins, as well as to stem bleeding from cuts and scrapes.
However, it is as a skincare treatment that witch hazel keeps its mystique. And you don’t even have to wash your face with it from a silver bowl at full moon.
Witch hazel works for skincare quite simply and effectively at any time of day and the benefits are underlaid with solid scientific proof.
How to use witch hazel for skincare
Treating a sunburn with witch hazel will lessen healing time and prevent the infamous skin peeling and flaking. And it’s simple — just spread a thin coat of witch hazel on the ‘burn. It will both cool and soothe.
The high level of tannin content (which strengthens pore walls) from this extract of the witch hazel plant makes it great for soothing and reducing the look of enlarged pores. Plus the herb is naturally antibacterial and effectively sucks out the dirt and oil that would otherwise lead to acne.
To use, simply soak a cotton pad in watch hazel and gently rub over cleansed skin twice a day.
Bring down inflammation
Several studies prove that witch hazel contains several compounds, like gallic acid and tannins, which are exceptional at reducing inflammation and help soothe your skin. This is key to one of witch hazel’s uses in skincare — as a great topical solution for inflammation-led skin issues like acne, eczema and psoriasis.
Tone the complexion
Unlike many harsh astringents that contain chemical ingredients, witch hazel toners naturally firm the skin without making your face feel too tight.
It also helps reduce irritation and redness, while having a cooling touch that leaves you feeling refreshed.
Witch hazel’s anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial qualities help it disinfect and reduce the inflammation on a pimple, which is why it can be found in many over-the-counter acne treatments.
For maximum effectivity, try this potent mask: Mix a teaspoon of witch hazel with two teaspoons of honey (for dry skin) or an egg white (oily skin). Apply this to the affected area and leave for 20 minutes; rinse off with cool water.
Slow down premature skin aging
Witch hazel is rich in antioxidants, which defend our skin against free radicals. Free radicals can damage skin, leading to premature skin aging.
So, apply witch hazel regularly to clean skin when you want to slow down the clock.
Refresh tired eyes
NOT by squirting witch hazel in them, but by soaking a clean rag in witch hazel and cold water and placing the cold compress over your closed eyes for 10 minutes.
The anti-inflammatory effects (which make witch hazel one of the magic ingredients in Preparation H) will help relieve strained, puffy or red eyes.
Heal a bruise faster
Been in a fight recently? Well, maybe not. But if you bang your leg or arm and are left with a nasty bruise, a thrice-daily dab of witch hazel can help speed up the healing time. It also works as a disinfectant for cuts, cracked skin and blisters.
Soothe (or prevent) razor burn
Another one of witch hazel’s uses? The anti-inflammatory properties of witch hazel stop itchy bumps from forming around irritated hair follicles. Apply before or after shaving — this goes for both ladies and gentlemen.
Do a deo
The same antibacterial and astringent properties that make witch hazel so effective at reducing oiliness can also help your underarms.
Simply saturate a cotton ball in the liquid, dab it on your underarms and let it dry. You can also add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to give it a nice scent.
Varicose vein relief
Soak wash cloths in witch hazel and lay on legs (which are propped straight out) to reduce pain and swelling from varicose veins. Witch hazel will help tighten the veins, relieving discomfort temporarily.
Soothe poison ivy and poison oak
Just like acne and blemishes, witch hazel reduces itching and relieves swelling. Something definitely worth packing on your next picnic or camping trip.
Does witch hazel have any side effects?
On the whole, witch hazel is a very safe ingredient for the skin.
In fact, a study in the Clinical, Cosmetic, Investigative Dermatology journal has concluded that topical gels containing this plant extract are “non-stinging, non-irritating and non-comodegenic”, which makes them safe and effective for treating even sensitive or irritated facial skin.
However, many witch hazel products are usually diluted in high levels of alcohol. While alcohol is not always bad, higher concentrations can dry out the skin too much or aggravate a sensitive complexion.
Solution? If you have dry, inflamed or sensitive skin, look for pure witch hazel or a formulation that comes without alcohol and with extra moisturising ingredients like aloe vera (Thayers Alcohol-Free Rose Petal Witch Hazel with Aloe Vera has cult status!) or rose water (my forever pick: Mario Badescu Alcohol-Free Witch Hazel Facial Toner with Aloe Vera).
And, like all natural ingredients, there is always a small chance that you skin may develop an allergic reaction to this natural extract, so do a patch test on your wrist before applying it on your face to stay in the safe zone!
Do you currently use witch hazel in your skincare regimen?