October 23rd 2020
Why witch hazel could be making your skin concerns worse
February 21st 2019 / 0 comment
Searches for the old-school botanical are up 300 per cent on Pinterest, but there’s a chance that buying into the trend will do your skin more harm than good in the long-term. Here’s what you need to know
In beauty, there are some comebacks that are worth the buzz, some, not so much. And there’s one in particular that’s taken us by surprise due to how much it divided opinion the first time around - witch hazel. Not only are searches for the botanical up 305 per cent on Pinterest, but a variety of brands have launched ranges centred around the ingredient in recent months too.
Derived from the witch hazel plant, you’ll often find it as hammamelis virginiana water on your labels. Known for its antioxidant and astringent properties, it’s a core ingredient of products aimed at soothing redness, and those with oily and acne-prone skin types. One such example is Simple’s new Daily Skin Detox range. The six-piece collection, featuring a Micellar Cleansing Water, Polishing Face Scrub, Face Wash and more, combine the plant extract with thyme, zinc and vitamin B3 to help reduce shine, clear skin and fight blemishes.
Similarly, Boots has also recently released a Tea Tree & Witch Hazel range that features a Blemish Stick, Concealer Stick, Pore Strips, Cleansing Wipes and even a Back Spray, all formulated with the needs of the breakout-prone in mind.
What’s behind the sudden spike in demand for the ingredient? “I suspect the resurgence on the market we are seeing is due to increased consumer drive for products derived from nature,” consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto tells me. Does she feel that it still has a place in our skincare regimes today? If you have oily or acne-prone skin, maybe, with ‘leave-on’ products such as toners or targeted spot treatments likely to provide the greatest benefit. That being said though, it’s far from a perfect solution. “I don’t think it’s a suitable ingredient for everyone and it has the ability to cause irritation in those with sensitive and rosacea-prone skin,” she says. There are better options out there in her opinion (more on that in a moment though…)
Why can witch hazel be irritating?
Witch hazel’s propensity to cause irritation is one of the main criticisms put forward by skincare experts such as Beautypedia creator and Paula’s Choice Skincare founder, Paula Begoun. This outweighs any anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties it has. “Witch hazel isn’t worth all of the hype or excitement, in fact it is a problem for all skin types and we’re worried about this strange fascination with it,” she says. “There is no new research proving it has any benefit for skin.”
Its ability to be irritating can also be amplified as a result of its distillation process. “It is mixed with alcohol and that’s even worse,” she explains. “Almost all witch hazel products rely on the skin-damaging kind of alcohol to extract the plant for use in skin care. Up to 15 per cent of that alcohol remains, and research is clear that much lower amounts than that can trigger skin cell death and barrier damage.”
If you're looking to remove excess oil in the short-term, it can help. However, this can come at a price: “The irritancy of witch hazel toners can trigger more oil production at the base of the pores,” warns Paula. “So, while you’ll see a short-term benefit of less oil, in the long-run daily use of witch hazel is capable of making skin more oily! This, in turn, can trigger more breakouts.”
What are the better alternatives?
If you have oily or acne-prone skin, Paula recommends incorporating salicylic acid into your routine, an ingredient that's incorporated into two products of her Clear range. Look for a percentage of one to two per cent concentration in your products. “This will help reduce clogged pores, breakouts, oily skin, rough texture, pore size, and even increase hydration,” she says.
Dr Mahto, who has oily and spot-prone skin herself, is also a fan of salicylic acid too. “It’s a good and safe ingredient which provides many of the benefits of witch hazel. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory on acne-prone skin,” she says. Try Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, £26, or Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser, £35.
If you have rosacea-prone or sensitive skin though, she recommends using gentler polyhydroxy acids such as lactobionic or maltobionic acids instead. Her top product pick is Neostrata Bionic Face Cream, £42.
Can witch hazel ever have a place in your routine?
Yes, just from the neck down and for short-term, intermittent use only. “It can help soothe and offset the itching sensation from insect bites and help alleviate the uncomfortable symptoms of poison oak and ivy,” says Paula. “It can even help bruises fade faster, this being due to the tannins witch hazel contains. These can speed the breakdown of what causes a bruise’s color by constricting blood flow.” Definitely not something that you’d want on your face though.