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 “miracle cures” for acne. You should be wary when any product claims to be a “cure” for acne because that’s not how acne treatments work. But witch hazel for acne, while not a miracle treatment, isn’t worthless, either.

Investigation reveals that most of the claims surrounding witch hazel aren’t false, but they haven’t been proven true yet, either. So is witch hazel good for pimples? Let’s start with the most straightforward question: what is witch hazel?

Witch hazel plant.
Witch hazel, also known as Hamamelis virginiana, is a flowering shrub whose bark, twigs, and leaves are processed and used in various skincare 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 it is widely advertised as a possible solution for acne. But why?

How Does Witch Hazel Work for Pimples?

Supposedly, witch hazel can help reduce acne because it addresses all three of acne’s leading 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 U.S. Federal Food and Drug Administration-approved (FDA). Let’s investigate the evidence.

Claim #1: Witch Hazel Can 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, astringents can be suitable toners for removing excess oil.

Studies show witch hazel on its own can be too drying, causing irritation that leads to inflammation. However, witch hazel is very effective when combined with skin-soothing ingredients. Our Clearing Tonic is a powerful toner that combines the benefits of witch hazel for acne with green tea extract and passionflower to calm redness and irritation.

Bottle of Exposed Skincare Clearing Tonic.
Exposed Skincare Clearing Tonic combines witch hazel with green tea extract and passionflower. This powerful combo helps witch hazel be the most effective.

Claim #2: Witch Hazel Can Kill P. acnes

There’s some evidence that witch hazel can kill bacteria, but relatively ineffectively. It’s not as effective in killing bacteria as antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide, or 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 doesn’t mean it can destroy 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. For example, benzoyl peroxide can kill bacteria, so use a product like Acne Treatment Serum for this specific benefit.

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

There are many theories on how witch hazel affects inflammation for acne. It can help restrict excess blood flow associated with inflammation because it’s an astringent. 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 exist on the direct relationship between witch hazel and acne.

Studies on inflammation associated with dermatitis, eczema, minor skin injuries, and arthritis have varied results. That’s why 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 skincare 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.”

Girl smiling and touching her face.
Witch hazel has antioxidant properties that could help reduce acne.

An antioxidant is a good skincare ingredient because antioxidants decrease inflammation by combating compounds called free radicals. Free radicals are oxygen molecules that have broken in half to produce two unstable atoms 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 entirely 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.

Witch hazel’s anti-inflammatory properties are still under-researched. However, 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 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.

Soap Used To Be Too Harsh

Soap used to contain lye, which would make the skin more alkaline than it was naturally. Washing with lots of lye soap would strip away the “acid mantle.” This is the thin protective layer of oil, lactic acid, and amino acids on our skin that helps prevent skin irritation. To counterbalance this, witch hazel products 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. However, like lemon juice, harsher acids 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. The FDA approved witch hazel for minor skin irritations from insect bites, minor cuts, or minor scrapes. Just because it isn’t 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 for which it is explicitly approved. 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 utterly redundant in your skincare routine. A toner that includes witch hazel can be effective in removing excess surface oil from acne-prone skin. Use alcohol-free witch hazel products to avoid any skin-drying effect.

How to Incorporate Witch Hazel Into Your Routine

Based on our investigation, we don’t think witch hazel is good for pimples on its own. In general, acne treatments are most effective when used with a complete skincare system. Start by incorporating a facial toner with witch hazel (our Clearing Tonic) as the second step in your routine after using our Facial Cleanser. Follow this every evening with Clear Pore Serum, which combines witch hazel with salicylic acid to clarify and balance skin overnight. With the Exposed Skincare Basic Kit, this routine is simple, gentle, and easy to do every day, morning and night.

Exposed Skincare products
Get every step of this scientifically proven acne routine with the Exposed Skincare Basic Kit.

You can even use witch hazel in products for your body. Our Body Wash is effective in treating body acne because it combines witch hazel with salicylic acid. The Body Wash contains strong essential oils, like tea tree oil, to kill P. acnes bacteria. That’s because the thicker, tougher skin of the arms, chest, and back can handle more potent ingredients.