Witch hazel is one of the most widely used natural ingredients in skin care products due to its ability to improve the look and feel of the skin and assist in the treatment of many common skin care problems. The source for the skin care ingredient referred to as witch hazel is a plant that has the same nickname. Scientifically known as the Hamamelis virginiana, the witch hazel plant is native to North America and grows in a band from Nova Scotia and Ontario, Canada, southward into Florida and Texas in the United States. As a skin care ingredient, witch hazel may be referred to as NCI-C50544, snapping hazel, spotted alder, striped alder or winter bloom.
The use of witch hazel as a topical product to the treat the skin can be traced back to Native American tribes in the northeastern United States who boiled the stems of the herbs to treat swelling and growths on the skin. The first Puritan settlers adopted the use of witch hazel for treating skin injuries, but the ingredient did not become widely used until the 19th century. It was then that two separate brands of witch hazel appeared on the shelves of apothecaries: Ponds' Extract and Hawes' Healing Extract.
When it became clear that witch hazel had the ability to not only heal the skin, but also make it more visually appealing, people began to purchase these extracts in droves. New brands of witch hazel emerged, and now, consumers can purchase many pure witch hazel formulations and find witch hazel listed in the ingredients of skin care products manufactured by numerous brands.
The witch hazel plant does not product a large amount of oil, making it difficult to create essential oils from it. Instead, witch hazel extract is usually a hydrosol, a less potent, watery substance produced by boiling the herb in liquid. Often, witch hazel is mixed with alcohol when sold in isolation in its pure form as a skin care treatment. In skin care products that contain witch hazel along with other ingredients, the witch hazel hydrosol is usually in its raw state.
The benefits of witch hazel come from its properties as an astringent. When applied to the skin, witch hazel causes the tissue to constrict. This constriction in turn reduces the size of the openings in the skin known as the pores. Often as people age, the pores become stretched or enlarged and are visible on the complexion. Many skin care products are available to treat this problem, and witch hazel is a common ingredient in such formulations.
Because witch hazel reduces the size of the pores, the ingredient offers additional benefits for the complexion. The pores are the small canals through which sebum (the skin's natural oil) passes to reach the surface of the complexion. When the pores constrict, less oil is able to leave their openings, which is beneficial for those with excessively oily skin or combination skin that is oily in some spots and dry in others. For acne sufferers, decreasing the amount of sebum in the skin leads to fewer clogged pores and breakouts.
Due to its astringent properties, witch hazel is most commonly found in toners and clarifiers, which help to balance the skin's pH and improve its oil content. Witch hazel is also used in cleansers for oily and combination skin. New clinical research has found that chemicals called tannins that are present in witch hazel may have antioxidative abilities, meaning that they slow down the visible aging process by neutralizing free radicals in the environment. These initial findings have led some skin care companies to add witch hazel extract to their anti-aging skin care products.
TAlthough witch hazel is of natural origins and not toxic, some people with sensitive skin develop irritation and redness from the ingredient, and those who are sensitive to tannins may be unable to use witch hazel due to the potential for skin allergies. Individuals with dry skin may want to avoid products that contain witch hazel as decreasing sebum levels in the tissue can exacerbate symptoms of tissue dehydration. In addition, the alcohol found in some pure witch hazel products can also lead to excessive dryness and skin irritation.