Let’s begin with some facts about witch hazel: it’s a very commonly used cosmetic ingredient that comes from the bark and leaves of the hamamelis virginiana plant. I learned the following from the book The New Ideal in Skin Health (pages 318-319):
Topically used to treat cutaneous inflammation, swelling, itching, injury, hemorrhoids, insect bites and stings, minor burns and irritations. Active elements include bitters, essential oils, gallic acid, and tannins.
Types of Products: Skin fresheners, astringents, local anesthetic, vein cosmeceuticals
Functions: Anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, astringent, elastin synthesis stimulant
Adverse Effects: The alcohol content contained in witch hazel can be a skin irritant
a. One clinical study shows Witch Hazel to be less effective in reducing UV-induced erythema than 1% hydrocortisone.
b. It was shown to reduce inflammation and pruritis in 36 atopic dermatitis patients.
For centuries, witch hazel has been known for its soothing and cleansing properties, but right now, one of our Web editors is going completely nuts over the stuff. While searching for an alternative to her over-drying cleanser, she tried a witch hazel-infused one, and it did the trick, degreasing her skin, without drying or stripping it.
“Witch hazel is a natural astringent,” says Kenneth Beer, a cosmetic dermatologist in West Palm Beach. “It removes surface debris and oil, and has a long history of safety and efficacy.” Hmm. No wonder why it’s in tons of popular face cleansers, treatments, and atomizers. …
Bottom line: Witch hazel is the Madonna of skincare ingredients—it takes many forms and has been around forever.
But before you rush out to buy some witch hazel keep a few things in mind. My Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients has the following to say about witch hazel (I have the 6th edition of the book, page 546):
One of the most widely used cosmetic ingredients, it is a skin freshener, local anesthetic, and astringent made from the leaves and/or twigs of Hammamelis virginiana. Collected in the autumn. Witch hazel has an ethanol content of 70 to 80 percent and a tannin content of 2 to 9 percent. Witch hazel water, which is what you buy at the store, contains 15 percent ethanol.
[So then the question really becomes - what does ethanol do to your skin? Well that readers is a whole other debate that I really can't get into here in this post (or would want to). Cutting to the chase - ethanol is an alcohol and there are varying opinions about how alcohols (we aren't talking about alcohol that you drink, by the way) impact the skin. I would suggest reading the following blog posts from Future Derm for more information about ethanol and about alcohol in skincare products: Why Alcohol in Skin Care is Safe, Despite What Paula Begoun Says and Is Ethanol in Skin Care Products Safe?)]
In its natural form witch hazel is a shrub that can grow to be 10 feet tall, or more. It has oval leaves and slender petals. In autumn, the plant is harvested by cutting the branches to the ground and chipping the wood and leaves into little bite size pieces. This mulch is then transferred to large stainless-steel vats where it is steam distilled for thirty-six hours. After “stewing” the extracted mixture is condensed and filtered and ethanol is added as a preservative. (Depending on the exact processing, the witch hazel may contain more or less tannins. The mixture of plant parts also controls the tannin content – bark contains 31 times more tannin than the leaves.) The resulting liquid is bottled and sold to drug stores as “witch hazel.”
Paula Begoun’s objections to products containing witch hazel rests on the fact that you don’t know what you are getting in your product and because of possible skin irritation. She explains:
Commonly used plant extract that can have potent antioxidant properties (Sources: Phytotherapy Research, June 2002, pages 364–367; and Journal of Dermatological Science, July 1995, pages 25–34) and some anti-irritant properties (Source: Skin Pharmacology and Applied Skin Physiology, March-April 2002, pages 125–132). However, witch hazel’s high tannin content (and tannin is a potent antioxidant), can also be irritating when used repeatedly on skin because it constricts blood flow. The bark of the witch hazel plant has higher tannin content than the leaves. Steam distillation for producing witch hazel water removes the tannins, but the plant’s astringent qualities are what most believe give it benefit. Alcohol is added during the distillation process, the amount typically being 14–15%. Witch hazel water is distilled from all parts of the plant, so in that sense you never know what you’re getting, though the alcohol content remains (Source: http://www.naturaldatabase.com; http://www.drugs.com). Depending on the form of witch hazel, you’re either exposing skin to an irritating amount of alcohol (which causes free radical damage and collagen breakdown), tannins, or both. Moreover, witch hazel contains the fragrance chemical eugenol, which is another source of irritation.
Personally I remember drying my face out with the use of a witch hazel astringent when I was a teenager with acne. Now I know that the added ingredients in the product caused my skin to feel dry and tight not the witch hazel itself. As a stand alone ingredient witch hazel has many skincare benefits. When buying a product containing witch hazel look to see what the witch hazel is mixed with to make sure that you are getting the real benefits of this ingredient and not suffering side effects from the other ingredients in the product.
Image from http://theabsoluteglamour.com