Witch hazel: the skincare ingredient that helps oily skin

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For years, it’s been hailed as a super acne-fighter while promising to calm irritated skin and reduce excess oil. But how well does witch hazel really work? Our expert guide reveals all…

Age old remedies have been the failsafe options for breakouts, inflammation and increasing hydration. From turmeric to black soap they’re still as effective as ever. But, the ingredient that benefits those with oily skin the most? Witch hazel.

The plant-based skincare ingredient is synonymous with astringent face toners and twist-up blemish sticks but its powers extend beyond spot-fighting for teenage skin. Witch hazel is known to banish excess oil, prevent ingrown hairs, quell redness from sunburn, soothe insect bites, minimise pores and even blitz puffiness under the eyes.

No wonder it stars in everything from after-suns and scalp treatments to face washes and make-up primers. One particular product – the US-only Thayers Original Witch Hazel Alcohol-Free Toner – is a secret weapon for the likes of model Behati Prinsloo and singer-actor Zendaya.

And while the ingredient has previously had a rep for being drying, the latest formulations pair it with goodies like hydrating hyaluronic acid, nourishing aloe vera and soothing rosewater.

But could it really be the secret to clearer, calmer, more balanced skin, and kick tried and trusted acne-busters like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide to the kerb? Paula’s Choice founder Paula Begoun, renowned for her encyclopaedic knowledge of skincare ingredients, believes otherwise.

“There is mixed research into witch hazel. It can indeed act as a short-term remedy for some things such as quickly de-greasing oily skin. It’s also been shown to ease discomfort from bug bites and stings, haemorrhoids, bruises, nappy rash (when used as an ointment, not toner) and poison oak and poison ivy rashes. But long-term use can cause problems,” Begoun explains.

Here, we take a closer look at the famed spot weapon and reveal whether it’s really worth making space in your skincare routine for.

What is witch hazel?

The ingredient comes from the Hamamelis virginiana – a plant with fragrant yellow flowers found in North America and Asia. Dubbed a ‘magic water’, the liquid is typically made by boiling up the bark and leaves then distilling the mixture.

It has been used for centuries in traditional medicine to heal swelling and bruises. 

What is witch hazel used for?

You’ll find witch hazel sold in all kinds of forms. There are witch hazel gels and ointments that pair it with glycerin for a comforting creamy texture. It’s hugely popular in toners – either as a pure liquid or as part of a targeted skin treatment.

Since it’s often hailed as a cure for spots (more on that below) you’ll also find it in many blemish-zapping skincare lines within face washes, spot creams or quick cleansing pads or face wipes.

What are the benefits of witch hazel in your skincare routine?

The most significant benefit of witch hazel is its ability to reduce excess oil. A quick swipe will immediately – albeit temporarily – stop greasiness in its tracks. As a result, enlarged pores can also appear smaller.

Since spots can be caused by excess oil mixing with bacteria, this can in turn help prevent further blemishes from forming to some extent. Those same astringent powers also make it useful for combating an oily scalp, tackling dandruff or limp, greasy locks. They also work to minimise puffiness caused by fluid retention under the eyes.

Can witch hazel be used for all skin types? 

Very oily skin will benefit most from the de-greasing benefits of witch hazel which is why it’s especially common in products aimed at teenage skin, when oil production tends to be sky-high. There aren’t any issues when it comes to mixing it with other skincare ingredients and you don’t have to worry about sun exposure as it won’t make skin more sun-sensitive in the way retinol can.

Witch hazel doesn’t have any known side effects although it can be drying if used excessively.

“The oil-reducing effect comes from the ‘tannins’ in witch hazel but these can be very sensitising for skin. This is worsened by the fact almost all types of witch hazel are distilled using denatured alcohol (ethanol) which can damage the skin’s protective barrier making it more prone to dryness and irritation,” warns Begoun, who advises dry, sensitive or rosacea-suffering complexions to steer clear, in particular.

When and how often should witch hazel be used?

Think of witch hazel as a temporary speedy fix rather than a long-term solution to skin problems. If you’ve suffered an insect bite, a dab will quickly ease itching. Sunburn? It can help tone down the redness and lend a cooling effect. If it’s your time of the month and you’re feeling extra oily, it can be helpful to use pre-make-up.

But opt for alcohol-free formulas, making a beeline for those loaded with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, aloe vera and rosewater that will go some way to counteracting any drying effects.

Does witch hazel help with acne scarring and spots?

Witch hazel’s oil-blitzing abilities often lead to it being touted as a saviour for acne sufferers. Since these skin types are often plagued by an oil slick feeling, it can seem like a satisfying solution. But witch hazel won’t directly treat the cause of acne or clogged pores. “For that, proven ingredients like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are the gold-standard and have years of research behind them. In fact, witch hazel can actually make blemishes worse in the long-term by causing irritation,” says Begoun.

Witch hazel won’t improve the texture and tone of your skin, either. If it’s post-inflammatory marks you’re looking to treat, opt for retinoids instead. Avene TriAcneal Expert, £23, gets dermatologists’ seal of approval. For deeper pitted scars, in-clinic micro needling works well.

Other expert-approved acne treatments include Paula’s Choice Clear Extra Strength 2% BHA Exfoliant, £28, that uses salicylic acid to shed dead skin on the surface and deep inside the pore, reducing breakouts and blackheads. Or, choose the over-the-counter Acnecide 5% Gel, £10.49, that features 5% benzoyl peroxide to nuke acne-causing bacteria. 

Best witch hazel creams, pads, toners and face washes

  • Best witch hazel moisturiser

    Boots Tea Tree and Witch Hazel Shine Control Day Moisturiser

    Boots Tea Tree and Witch Hazel Shine Control Day Moisturiser, £4

    Insiders tell us Boots Witch Hazel and Tea Tree Spot Wand, £4.50, is one of the brand’s top-selling products while Boots Witch Hazel and Tea Tree Foaming Face Wash, £4, is their best-selling face wash.

    While we wouldn’t necessarily advocate using a witch hazel moisturiser every day, this lightweight gel makes the perfect oil-proof canvas for sweaty nights out if you’re shine-prone.

    It lends skin a silky, matte veil so foundation glides on smoothly – just use it in place of your usual moisturiser and primer.

    £4, Boots

  • Best witch hazel scalp treatment

    Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal and Tea Tree Scalp Treatment

    Briogeo Scalp Revival Charcoal and Tea Tree Scalp Treatment, £26.95

    Witch hazel’s oil-eliminating prowess makes it a worthy addition to scalp-caring products including dry shampoos or anti-dandruff buys. From a hot new ‘it’ brand for hair hailing from New York, this is as plush as scalp treatments come.

    Targeting dry, irritated and flaky types, witch hazel and charcoal help mop up oiliness while tea tree oil soothes itching and biotin strengthens the hair follicle. Section your hair after washing, then apply a couple of drops to each zone and massage in – no rinsing required.

    £26.95, Beauty Bay

  • Best alcohol-free witch hazel toner for minimising pores

    Kate Somerville Clarifying Treatment Toner

    Kate Somerville Clarifying Treatment Toner, £22

    Many toners rely on high levels of dehydrating alcohol to temporarily make pores appear smaller. But this zero-alcohol, fragrance-free formulation uses much smarter active ingredients.

    Aloe soothes and witch hazel helps to cut through greasiness. But there’s also lactic acid – a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that helps slough away dead skin cells for a smoother, more even-toned surface.

    It’s designed to be used everyday, morning or night, but we’d recommend opting for just a few times a week at first.

    £22, Kate Somerville

  • Best witch hazel cleansing pads

    Nip+ Fab Hydrate Dragons Blood Fix Cleansing Pads

    Nip + Fab Dragon’s Blood Fix Cleansing Pads, £9.95

    Remember we said witch hazel was a smart quick fix? These fast-action pads epitomise that. Ignore the name, we wouldn’t recommend them as a replacement for your usual cleanser. Instead, pop them in your gym bag to whisk away excess oil before or after working out.

    The addition of salicylic acid (to combat spots) and hyaluronic acid (to hydrate) immediately makes the complexion look and feel infinitely fresher. And at just over £10 for 60 large pads, they’re great value.

    £9.95, Nip + Fab

  • Best witch hazel gel for insect bites

    Witch Doctor Skin Soothing Gel for Insect Bites and Irritation

    Witch Doctor Skin Treatment Gel, £3.05

    Witch Doctor is famed for its teen skincare products and, while we’d favour salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide products to treat spots, this multi-tasking gel is a hidden gem.

    Brimming with witch hazel, it makes use of the ingredient’s insect bite-soothing skills. Just one application quickly stops itching while working on redness. One to keep in your travel bag, it’ll help with all kinds of minor irritation.

    £3.05, Superdrug

  • Best soothing witch hazel face mask

    Garnier Ambre Solaire After Sun Tissue Mask

    Garnier Ambre Solaire After Sun Tissue Mask, £3.49

    This 15-minute post-sun mask isn’t an excuse to hit the sun-lounger harder but, if you have overdone things, it’s brilliant at calming and rehydrating.

    Loaded with cooling witch hazel as well as plumping hyaluronic acid, skin will feel revitalised faster than you can say ‘pass me a mojito’.

    Ideal for travel, it holds five applications’ worth of moisturiser so you can scoop out the rest for a few extra uses. Pop it in the hotel fridge to boost the ‘ahh’ factor.

    £3.49, Look Fantastic

  • Best witch hazel face wash

    Holland and Barrett Sukin Foaming Facial Cleanser

    Sukin Foaming Facial Cleanser, £6.36

    If you’re addicted to foamy facial washes, now’s the time to have a re-think. Many contain sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) that can strip skin and leave it feeling tight. Gentle cleansing creams or gels are a much better choice but if it’s the lather you love, this is a great swap.

    It’s SLS-free yet still foams up, giving a satisfying clean. The witch hazel helps to balance skin but aloe vera is the hero for a non-drying cleanse that’s suitable for all skin types. It’s a nice pick (from a carbon neutral product range), especially for summer.

    £6.36, Holland and Barrett

  • Best witch hazel make-up remover for oily skin

    Simple Daily Skin Detox Oil Be Gone Micellar Water

    Simple Daily Skin Detox Oil Be Gone Micellar Water, £7

    Witch hazel itself won’t remove make-up but when used within a micellar water, like this newbie, it can help take away greasiness for an even cleaner feeling.

    We’ve long rated Simple’s gentle yet effective fast-cleansing solutions and this is just as genius. With no alcohol and the addition of clever niacinamide (that strengthens skin) and healing panthenol, it won’t strip your complexion. Keep it stashed on your bedside table for those late night emergencies – just sweep over your face with a cotton pad.

    £7, Tesco

  • Best witch hazel lotion for puffy eyes

    Liz Earle Eyebright Soothing Eye Lotion, £13.60

    This revitalising lotion is a fine example of witch hazel working to dial down puffiness in the under-eye area. While we wouldn’t suggest applying the ingredient on its own, as it could irritate over time, this uses it with aloe vera and cornflower for a mild botanical blend.

    It’s just as gentle as you’d expect from the brains over at Liz Earle and is even suitable for contact lens wearers. Another one worth keeping in the fridge, use a cotton pad to swipe it over or drench two and leave them in place for five to 10 minutes. It’ll act as an intensive fix, leaving tired (or hungover!) eyes both looking and feeling brighter.

    £16, John Lewis

  • Best alcohol-free witch hazel toner with rosewater

    Mario Badescu Witch Hazel and Rosewater Toner, £10.95

    Mario Badescu toners, loved by the likes of actor Gabrielle Union, are infamous, offering a blend for everyone including smoothing glycolic acid lotions and targeted aloe vera sprays. But this one gets our vote. Witch hazel and delicate soothing rosewater make for a divine combo since the latter helps balance any skin-drying effects.

    Suitable for daily use, skin’s left calmer and more radiant without feeling thirst-quenched.

    £10.95, Beauty Bay

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Images: Prince Akachi and courtesy of brands.

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