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For as long as I remember, witch hazel was often cited as a go-to product for not only skin care but for everything. Did you get stung? Witch hazel. Razor burn? Witch hazel. Sunburn? Witch hazel. Woke up with a volcano-like zit. Witch hazel. Even for cleaning stuff, it was used. So what happened to a tried and tested ingredient? Or is it just going through the hype and bust cycle?

So, what is witch hazel?

The witch hazel plant (botanical name Hamamelis) is a small tree found in North America, China, and Japan. What’s commonly used to make into skin care products is the North American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).

Witch hazel, photo by Laura Ockel

Witch hazel, also called witch hazel water or hamamelis water is made by distilling the liquid from the leaves, bark, or twigs. You end up with a clear, colourless, and fragrant liquid. You may also find witch hazel as a semisolid ointment, salve, or cream.

Why the name witch hazel?

Contrary to what you might think, it has nothing to do with witchcraft, sorcery, or magic. The word “witch” stems from the Middle English word “wiche” and it means so much as bendable or flexible. The quality of its branches was well-known so that they were used to make bows.

But, in modern times, witch hazel is also a flexible (or perhaps more accurate versatile) product and finds its uses as a household cleaner, natural disinfectant, aromatherapeutic scent, and skin aid.

Even the beauty industry likes its versatility and includes it in formulations for toners, serums, moisturisers, bath products, after shave, deodorants, and more.

Why does it find so many uses in skin care?

For centuries, Native Americans have used witch hazel for a host of skin ailments related to irritation and inflammation as well as for minor wounds. It has antioxidant, astringent, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory effects on the skin. So, it can serve many purposes.

Relieve inflammation

Witch hazel is a truly tried and tested product that goes beyond a simple beauty routine. It can not only help calm down the inflammation, swelling, and redness that accompanies spots.

It can also be used as a natural remedy for everything from treating itching caused by haemorrhoids or diaper rash to reducing scalp irritation. It’s also been used to alleviate sunburns and insect bites.

It’s often added to after shave products, because it helps to remove residue left on the skin, calm inflammation, and minimise the risk of developing razor bumps. You can get razor bumps when your skin becomes irritated. It’s essentially a rash after shaving.

Cleanse oily skin

You’ll often find witch hazel extracts in products designed for oily skin since it’s astringent. This means it helps clear and contract the pores. You can use it as a cleanser since it also has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial effects.

Depuff under eye area

Being both anti-inflammatory and astringent, witch hazel can help reduce puffiness under the eye. This is helpful, especially during allergy season.

As for skin care, witch hazel is most commonly formulated into liquid products like toners that claim to reduce the appearance of pores or tighten skin. So, let’s first talk about toning.


Depending on if you’re leaning more toward Western or Eastern skin care, you may find toning more or less optional than cleansing or moisturising. If you follow the Western philosophy, you may see toning to more deeply cleanse and further remove dirt and oil.

Should you be leaning more towards the Eastern way of caring for your skin, you may find toning an absolute must because it enhances the penetration of the following products you apply.

So, where does that leave witch hazel water? It can cleanse your skin more deeply by removing surface oils and bacteria but also has a calming effect. It actually depends on the formulation and concentration.

Is witch hazel now good or bad for the skin?

Uh… it’s not really clear why witch hazel got into a trough. If I’d have to speculate, it may be because of the tannins present. Did you ever just try how a grape skin tasted like? Maybe you found them bitter and spit it out again. It’s the tannins that make it taste not so delectable – bitter.

But many fruits, nuts, and veggies contain tannins. Think of green tea, chocolate, coffee, pomegranate… But they don’t get so much pressure. Tannins themselves are not bad for your skin. On the contrary, they’re natural antioxidants that help improve your skin tone and texture, help neutralise free radicals, and are anti-inflammatory.

It can also be that it comes from how witch hazel water is made. It’s often distilled with alcohol and historical formulations contained high alcohol levels. This may make it very drying if used too much. There’s a lot of overlap between toners and alcohol-based astringents, which are known to be drying. And, not everyone needs an astringent.

Best for

As you may imagine, witch hazel may not work for everyone, although any skin type can benefit from a deep cleanse every once in a while.

Hamamelis water works best for oily and acne prone skin types, since it can cut through oil and treat a breakout from multiples angles. It reduces oil, bacteria, and inflammation and is also an antioxidant. This means it wards off environmental damage to your skin. It’s one of the best natural ingredients for oily and spotty skin.

Choosing witch hazel water

Hamamelis water is considered a safe ingredient but it’s still often distilled with alcohol. So make sure you find a 100% pure witch hazel product. Be sure to pick one without alcohol. Check for ethyl alcohol or ethanol. You may want to find a product specifically for dry skin, formulated with soothing aloe, nourishing rose water, or hydrating glycerine.

Do a patch test first to avoid reactions. Test the product first on a small area of your skin, maybe on your arm. When there are no reactions, move on to your face. Especially with hazel, you want to do it in moderation.

In closing

It’s the dosage that makes the poison. Witch hazel in the right concentration and formulation can be a boon for your skin.

The cool thing about witch hazel is that you can use it aside from treating minor wounds and for beauty. With its cleansing properties, you can also use it to clean surfaces like glass, metal, and tile. It even makes for a great cleansing agent for jewellery.

What You Don't (But Should) Know About Witch Hazel

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