Investigating the Usefulness of Witch Hazel for Acne

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

The hardest part of finding an acne treatment that works for you is sifting through all the different products, like witch hazel for acne, to figure out what really works. This task becomes even more difficult when various products start getting a lot of hype. For instance, you’ve probably heard that honey, aloe vera, antibiotics, Differin, and a million other products 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 works. It’s not a one-time issue that can be solved once and for all; acne is an ongoing skin condition that will lessen and eventually go away with time, but no one product can stop it in its tracks and banish it forever. However, just because a product is a little overhyped, that doesn’t mean it can’t at least help reduce acne. That’s why we decided to investigate the usefulness of witch hazel for acne. We’ve heard a lot of different things, and our investigation revealed 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 for acne
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?

Witch hazel is a flowering shrub also known as Hammamelis virginiana, found largely in North American and Asia. Its bark, twigs, and leaves are processed into a clear liquid, which is then sold on its own or incorporated into other skin care products. Witch hazel was used in Native American medicine for everything from sore muscles to dysentery, and today is it widely advertised as a possible solution for acne. But why?

How is Witch Hazel for Acne Supposed to Work?

Supposedly, witch hazel can help reduce acne because it reduces inflammation, kills bacteria and other microbes, removes oil, and boosts antioxidants. If all of these are true, witch hazel for acne really could be an excellent solution because it addresses all three of its main causes: inflammation, oil production, and bacteria.

All acne starts with inflammation. That’s how the oil and bacteria get trapped in a pore in the first place. Many things can cause inflammation: illness, physical irritation of the skin due to scratching or harsh products, an allergic reaction, and more. Once the skin is inflamed, the pores constrict and trap oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria inside. The bacteria, called p. acnes, always live on the surface of your skin and don’t usually cause a problem, but when they’re trapped in a pore, they can cause a minor infection and form pimples, nodules, and cysts. This is especially likely to happen if there is excess oil trapped in the pore as well. On its own, oil can clog pores and cause blackheads and whiteheads, but it can also contribute to the formation of pimples because p. acnes feed on the oil our skin produces. When they are trapped in a pore together, this can lead to a rapid increase in p. acnes and the creation of a pimple.

Some sources claim that using witch hazel for acne can stop all of these processes in their tracks. Supposedly, it can remove excess oil, which would decrease the likelihood of blackheads and whiteheads, and could help lower the rate of developing pimples. If it can also kill p. acnes bacteria, then pimples would diminish even more. Finally, if it really does keep the skin from getting inflamed, it would help prevent most acne right from the get-go. So now it’s time to investigate some of these claims.

Claim #1: Witch Hazel Can Remove Excess Oil Because It’s an Astringent

Astringents are often recommended in skin care, especially for acne-prone skin, because they help reduce the size of your pores. If you have blackheads or whiteheads, you may notice that your pores are wider or more visible than they used to be before you had acne. This is because the oil trapped inside stretches the wall of the pore, making it more visible. Astringents can help different kinds of cell tissues stick together by drying them out, causing them to tighten. The idea behind using astringents for acne is that they can remove the oil clogging pores and help pull the skin cells tighter together to make pores smaller.

It’s true witch hazel and other astringents can do these things, but that doesn’t make them necessary to your skin care routine. The truth is, many facial cleansers already contain mild astringent ingredients, making toners or astringents largely redundant. One of the biggest barriers to good skin care for most people is the time it takes to apply three, four, even five products every morning and every night, so if you can skip this one step, you might find yourself doing your skin care routine more regularly.

All of this is assuming 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 astringent products do, making them products you definitely want to avoid. Even if you have extremely oily skin, alcohol can dry out the skin too much, causing irritation that can lead to inflammation, and 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 for acne, we strongly recommend using a toner or alcohol-free astringent.

Claim #2: Witch Hazel Can Kill P. acnes

This claim likely came about due to an internet-version of telephone. Someone suggested that witch hazel might have antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, so someone else said witch hazel can kill bacteria, so someone else said witch hazel can kill acne-causing bacteria. Each of those leaps individually might not seem so big, but we start and end up in very different places. The truth is, there’s some evidence that witch hazel can kill bacteria, but relatively ineffectively, especially when compared to antibiotics or benzoyl peroxide, or even other natural ingredients, like tea tree oil. On top of that, there is no evidence that witch hazel can kill p. acnes specifically. Not all bacteria are created equal; 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 for acne, but make sure to also use other acne products that can more effectively fight p. acnes.

Claim #3: Witch Hazel Can Reduce Inflammation

There are many different 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, but the results have varied so much, it’s difficult to say how witch hazel might affect acne-related inflammation.

Claim #4: Witch Hazel Has Antioxidant Properties That Help Acne

One of the only properties of witch hazel we are able to confidently confirm is that it does seem to have powerful antioxidant properties, and antioxidants are always good for improving acne. Although antioxidant properties don’t cancel out the other issues with using witch hazel for acne, they are one very big positive.

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

Having antioxidant properties is good for any acne treatment because it decreases the possibilities for inflammation. Antioxidants combat 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 oxidative stress, causing damage to proteins throughout the body. This often leads to widespread inflammation, which could increase acne.

Witch hazel may be able to help because of its tannins. You may have heard of tannins in discussions about wine, and “letting the tannins breathe.” Those same tannins can be found in witch hazel, and they are great antioxidants because they can provide a spare electron to the free radicals without becoming unstable themselves. This extra electron stabilizes the free radical and helps prevent oxidative stress, which may help reduce inflammation. As we discussed, the research on witch hazel and inflammation is still unclear, but the fact that it contains these antioxidizing tannins makes it more likely that witch hazel has the power to reduce inflammation at least slightly, which means it may have the power to decrease acne as well.

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 made using a safe, but very alkalizing amount of lye that would make the skin more alkaline that it was naturally. This can strip away what is called the “acid mantle,” 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. However, now that our soaps are far less alkaline, “pH balanced” products are less important, because our skin is already relatively balanced. Products that are slightly more acidic than our skin, like witch hazel, are unlikely to cause any problems, but harsher acids, like lemon juice, can have a similar effect as a substance that’s too alkaline: they can strip away the acid mantle and cause irritation, inflammation, and acne.

Although it isn’t as important as it used to be for an acne product to be pH balanced, witch hazel does have a healthy pH for our skin.

Claim #6: Witch Hazel is Approved By the FDA

This is true…to a certain extent. Like most claims about using witch hazel for acne, it’s been oversimplified. Witch hazel has been approved by FDA for “minor skin irritations due to: [select one or more of the following: ‘insect bites,’ ‘minor cuts,’ or ‘minor scrapes’].” You’ll notice that acne is not listed here, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work, just that it hasn’t undergone the rigorous testing process to be endorsed by the FDA for that specific use.

Many FDA-approved substances are prescribed “off-label,” meaning for conditions other than those it is explicitly approved for. This might sound like an objectively bad thing: after all, if your doctor prescribes something to you “off-label,” there may be little to no research about how that particular drug actually interacts with your condition or someone of your demographic (many drugs are predominantly tested on white, cis men). However, there is a reason prescribing drugs “off-label” makes some sense: FDA approval can move very, very slowly, even after there’s substantial research suggesting that the drug can work for other conditions. When it comes to life-threatening conditions like cancer or Alzheimer’s, many doctors are willing to go “off-label” if there’s a greater chance that it can help than there is that it can hurt.

Funnily enough, this method of weighing the possibility for benefit against the possibility for harm means that many of us use various substances “off-label” for relatively minor conditions too, like acne. Although witch hazel for acne might not work, it’s unlikely to cause serious side effects, so for many of us, it’s worth a try. As long as you don’t have an allergy, the worst case scenario is some redness, irritation, and temporarily worsened acne.

Exposed Skin Care’s Clearing Tonic and Body Wash

Based on our investigation of the claims about using witch hazel for acne, we can’t recommend using witch hazel on its own, but we can recommend using witch hazel for acne in products that also include other, proven acne-fighting ingredients, like Exposed Skin Care’s Clearing Tonic or Body Wash. Both products contain salicylic acid, a mild astringent that has proven especially effective with blackheads and whiteheads, and other products fitting for their respective uses. For instance, since the Body Wash is meant to work 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.

Caption: Acne creams are most effective when used with a full skin care system, like the Exposed Skin Care Basic Kit.