Investigating the Usefulness of Witch Hazel for Acne

Jeff Hautala
By Jeff Hautala, Co-Founder of Exposed Skincare

You’ve probably heard that honey, aloe vera, antibiotics, Differin, etc., are a “miracle cure” for acne. We are automatically wary when any product claims to be a “cure” for acne, because that’s just not how acne treatments work.

However, just because a product is a little overhyped, that doesn’t mean it can’t at least help reduce pimples. Investigation reveals that most of the claims surrounding witch hazel aren’t false 📚, but they haven’t been proven true yet, either. Let’s start with the simplest question: what is witch hazel?

Witch hazel, also known as Hammamelis virginiana, is a flowering shrub whose bark, twigs, and leaves are processed and used in a variety of skin care solutions.

What Is Witch Hazel?

The witch hazel plant 🌱is a flowering shrub with the botanical name of Hamamelis virginiana, and it’s found mainly in North America and Asia. Its bark, twigs, and leaves are processed into a clear liquid, which is then sold on its own or incorporated into other products. Witch hazel was used in Native American medicine for everything from sore muscles and dysentery to bug bites 🐞, and today is it widely advertised as a possible solution for acne. But why?

How Is Witch Hazel Supposed To Work for Pimples?

Supposedly, witch hazel can help reduce acne because it addresses all three of acne’s main causes:

  • excess oil
  • inflammation 🔥
  • P. acnes bacteria 🦠

Some sources claim that using witch hazel can stop all of these in their tracks. Witch hazel extract is also touted to be approved by the U.S. Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Let’s investigate the evidence 🕵️‍♂️.

Claim #1: Witch Hazel’s Ability To Remove Excess Oil

Astringents like witch hazel 🌿 can reduce skin pore size by removing the oil clogging them and pulling the skin cells tighter together to make pores smaller. So, it’s said that astringents are good toners to remove excess oil, but that doesn’t necessarily make them crucial to a successful facial routine

But Are They Really Necessary?

That’s debatable, because the truth is, many cleansers already contain mild astringent ingredients to speed up skincare routines. We also assume your witch hazel astringent or toner doesn’t have alcohol in it, which is a major assumption. Most toners don’t contain alcohol, but most astringents do, making them items you definitely want to avoid.

Acne Treatments Don’t Need Alcohol

Even if you have extremely oily skin, alcohol can dry out the skin too much, causing irritation that can lead to inflammation 🔥. Since inflammation is at the heart of all acne, it’s always best to avoid it when possible. If you want to try witch hazel, we strongly recommend using it in an alcohol-free toner or astringent.

Claim #2: Witch Hazel Can Kill P. acnes

There’s some evidence that witch hazel can kill bacteria 🦠, but relatively ineffectively. This is especially when compared to antibiotics or benzoyl peroxide, or even other natural ingredients, like tea tree oil.

There is also no evidence that witch hazel can kill P. acnes specifically. Not all bacteria are created equal, and just because a substance is mildly antibacterial, that doesn’t mean it can kill all bacteria.

If you primarily have pimples or cysts, you can try witch hazel on pimples, but make sure also to use other acne treatments that can more effectively fight P. acnes.

Claim #3: Witch Hazel Is an Anti-Inflammatory Agent

There are many theories on how witch hazel affects inflammation 🔥 for acne. Its astringent properties can help restrict excess blood flow associated with inflammation, but those same properties can also dry out and irritate the skin, leading to increased inflammation.

It’s hard to know for sure how witch hazel affects the inflammation associated with acne because no studies have yet been done on the direct relationship between witch hazel and acne.

Studies have been conducted on inflammation associated with dermatitis, eczema, minor skin injuries, and arthritis, with very varied results, so it’s difficult to say how witch hazel might affect acne-related inflammation. One of the most persuasive theories is that it is helpful in skin care products because of its antioxidant properties.

Claim #4: Witch Hazel Has Antioxidant Properties

In an interview with Prevention, board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology 👨‍⚕️ at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City said:

“Witch hazel, which is a plant extract, contains compounds called tannins that have both antioxidant and astringent properties to fight acne.”

Witch hazel definitely has antioxidant properties that could help reduce acne.

An antioxidant is a good skincare ingredient because antioxidants decrease inflammation by combating cells called free radicals. Free radicals are oxygen molecules that have broken in half to produce two unstable atoms that are missing an electron. Because they’re missing an electron, these atoms are very reactive. They are likely to interact with all kinds of other atoms, “looking” for another electron.

A certain number of free radicals is completely normal, and encourages the process of oxidation, which can help fight pathogens and infection. However, when free radicals and antioxidants are out of balance, the body can go into damaging oxidative stress. This often leads to widespread inflammation 🔥, which could increase acne.

On Skin, Witch Hazel Can Be Anti-Inflammatory

Witch hazel may be able to help because of its tannins, as Zeichner said. Tannins are great antioxidants because they can provide a spare electron to the free radicals without becoming unstable themselves.

As we discussed, witch hazel’s anti-inflammatory properties are still under-researched, but the presence of the antioxidants indicates that it may be able to beat inflammation.

Claim #5: Witch Hazel Is pH Balanced

This is true, but it doesn’t matter as much as you might think. Everything has a pH value between 0 (the most acidic), and 14 (the most alkaline). Water 💧 is typically considered neutral at 7, and our skin is naturally moderately acidic, with a pH between 4 and 5. Witch hazel has a pH between 3 and 4, and back when soap contained more lye, this made it a very good ingredient for keeping our skin acidic.

Soap Used To Be Too Harsh

Soap 🧼 used to be made using a safe but alkalizing amount of lye that would make the skin more alkaline than it was naturally. Washing sometimes stripped away what is called the “acid mantle,” meaning the thin protective layer of oil, lactic acid, and amino acids on our skin that helps prevent skin irritation. To counterbalance this, slightly acidic products, like witch hazel, were advertised as “pH balanced” because they could help restore the acid mantle and maintain a healthy amount of oil on the skin.

pH Balance Is Not That Important Any Longer

However, now that our soaps are less alkaline, the role of pH balanced products has diminished. Substances such as witch hazel are unlikely to cause any problems on your skin, but harsher acids, like lemon juice 🍋, can have the same effect as anything that’s too alkaline: they can strip away the skin’s acid mantle and cause irritation, inflammation 🔥, and acne.

Claim #6: Witch Hazel Is Approved By the FDA

This is true…but. Witch hazel has been approved by FDA for minor skin irritations due to insect bites 🐞, minor cuts, or minor scrapes. Just because it has not been approved for use on acne-prone skin, doesn’t mean it can’t work. This simply means that witch hazel hasn’t undergone the rigorous testing process needed to be endorsed by the FDA.

Many FDA-approved substances are prescribed “off-label,” meaning for conditions other than those it is explicitly approved for. This is the case with witch hazel for acne-prone skin, and dermatologists agree 👩‍⚕️.

In Summary—You Can Still Use Witch Hazel Toner

To reiterate, all of this doesn’t mean this astringent herb would be completely redundant in your skin care routine.

  • Use witch hazel on any skin type to remove excess surface oil from acne prone skin. It’s a good toner that way.
  • Use witch hazel to remove excess surface oil, but not if it contains alcohol. Definitely use alcohol free witch hazel products to avoid any skin-drying effect.
  • Alcohol free witch hazel would also be the best choice if you have sensitive skin that is prone to inflammation 🔥.

Exposed Skin Care’s Clearing Tonic and Body Wash

Based on our investigation, we can’t recommend using witch hazel on its own. In general, acne treatments are most effective when used with a full skincare system 🏆, like the Exposed Skin Care Basic Kit. However, we can recommend using witch hazel in products containing other, proven acne-fighting ingredients 💪, like Exposed Skin Care’s Clearing Tonic or Body Wash.

Clearing Tonic is gentler and includes soothing, natural ingredients like green tea extract, passion flower extract, and sage extract to balance out the witch hazel and salicylic acid.

Both the Clearing Tonic and Body Wash contain salicylic acid, a mild astringent that has proven especially effective with blackheads and whiteheads.

Since the Body Wash is used on the thicker, tougher skin of the arms, chest, and back, it contains strong essential oils, like tea tree oil, which is known to kill P. acnes bacteria 🦠, and witch hazel. The Clearing Tonic is gentler and includes soothing, natural ingredients like green tea extract, passion flower extract, and sage extract to balance out the witch hazel and salicylic acid.