Witch hazel is a botanical component used in holistic medicine to treat inflammation, open wounds, sunburn, insect bites, and even vascular conditions such as varicose veins and hemorrhoids.
However, witch hazel has also been hailed as the perfect natural remedy for inflammatory skin conditions such as cystic acne.
And while some swear by it, others warn against it.
Therefore, in this article, we will examine the anti-inflammatory benefits of witch hazel, the potential side effects of using it excessively and answer the burning question of whether witch hazel can actually help get rid of cystic acne.
What is Witch Hazel?
Witch hazel is a plant that grows wild throughout North America and Asia.
It’s known by its Latin name Hamamelis Virginiana, which is the name you will most likely notice written on the ingredient list of skincare products that contain witch hazel.
The ingredient itself can be found in many skincare products, including cleansers, serums, and moisturizers, however, it’s believed that it’s most efficient and easily absorbed when used in a liquid form, such as toners.
Witch hazel in holistic medicine is typically prepared by boiling the leaves and the bark in water and then distilling the concoction by mixing it with alcohols such as ethanol.
However, witch hazel used in skincare products is a synthetically made alternative that’s more stable and easier to formulate with.
This alternative is also safer and easily tolerable by the skin because it has been purified from potential allergens and other inflammatory components.
What Makes Witch Hazel Effective?
Like many plant-derived components, witch hazel is a source of several antioxidants, many of which benefit the skin short-term.
Some of these antioxidants include proanthocyanidins, which are concentrated in the plant’s leaves and have shown an ability to trigger the release of growth factors in the skin, leading to improved skin appearance, elasticity, hydration, and sebum content, which can help reduce the signs of aging.
Proanthocyanidins are also available from many other plant sources, including apples, bilberry, grapeseed, and black chokeberry, and are generally considered to be excellent free-radical scavengers, regardless of whether they are ingested or applied to the skin.
However, the star of the show in witch hazel is a group of components known as tannins, which are antioxidants concentrated in the plant’s bark, and contribute to its astringent properties.
Additionally, two tannins specifically – hamamelitannin and gallic acid – have been effective in targeting inflammation and relieving irritated and inflamed skin due to acne breakouts.
Hamamelitannin is the major constituent of witch hazel and the most active antioxidant the plant has to offer. It has shown to be effective in scavenging free radicals caused by UV damage and has the ability to prevent cell damage caused by other organic radicals and active oxygens.
Gallic acid, on the other hand, is another well-known natural antioxidant and antimicrobial component that’s also found in Black tea and hailed for its ability to protect the cells from free-radical damage.
Lastly, witch hazel also contains propyl gallate, which is yet another potent antioxidant that’s found both free and as a part of the tannin group. Propyl gallate protects oils from oxidation, which could potentially have an antimicrobial effect on human sebum.
All these components make witch hazel effective in reducing inflammation on the skin, scavenging free radicals caused by various environmental factors, and tackling various skin conditions.
Does Witch Hazel Help Cystic Acne?
If you are like most people, you probably think that cystic acne is an exclusively hormonal condition that can’t be addressed with a good skincare routine.
However, although that’s partly true, cystic acne isn’t always caused by overactive or “bad” hormones.
In most cases, acne starts as a clogged pore and becomes an inflamed cyst due to the immune system’s reaction to that clog.
When a pore becomes clogged with hardened sebum and dead skin cells, this creates the perfect airless environment bacteria need to thrive and proliferate.
From there, the immune system senses the overgrowth of bacteria and starts sending white blood cells to the area to help fight the infection.
This “fight” leads to inflammation which we see on the skin as pimples, but in reality, it’s the immune system’s way of telling us that our body is dealing with an infection.
Which is why we need to introduce an anti-inflammatory agent that will help soothe and prevent the spread of the inflammation.
As we already mentioned above, witch hazel has several components with anti-inflammatory properties, which is why this ingredient can effectively soothe inflammation and reduce the appearance of cystic acne.
Does Witch Hazel Help Fungal Acne?
Fungal acne is another term for a pesky condition that manifests itself on the skin as pimples but tends to resist all traditional acne remedies.
Malassezia folliculitis, which is the official term for fungal acne, is an infection of the hair follicles caused by oil-loving malassezia yeasts.
It’s a species of yeast that’s part of the skin’s microbiome, which is a world composed of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, and even mites that live on our skin and in our pores, and have important functions in keeping the skin balanced, healthy, and clear.
However, changes in pH, low levels of hydration, excess oil production, certain skincare and cosmetic products, and even environmental factors can all affect our microbiome.
This essentially leads to concluding that even the slightest imbalance can lead to flare-ups, sensitivity, blemishes, and…you’ve guessed it?
And since malassezia folliculitis is an oil-loving microorganism, it thrives and proliferates in the presence of excess oil, particularly oil that’s at a certain pH, also known as oxidized oil.
However, since propyl gallates found in witch hazel can protect the oil from oxidation, it’s safe to say that witch hazel can be an effective natural treatment against fungal acne.
Does Witch Hazel Help Bacterial Acne?
Bacterial acne is a condition caused by the overgrowth of Cutibacterium acnes, a slow-growing, gram-positive bacterium that thrives in airless environments, such as a clogged pore.
This strain of bacteria actually lives on healthy skin without causing any issues; however, they start to grow and proliferate when they find their ideal living conditions.
It’s also known that C. acnes feed on hardened oil and cellular debris inside the pore, which is what causes them to become problematic and trigger the immune system to start the inflammation process.
Therefore, since witch hazel has antimicrobial properties, it can help slow down the overgrowth of bacteria. Witch hazel will also soothe inflammation on the skin, thus helping pimples heal faster.
Can Witch Hazel Make Acne Worse?
Witch hazel, although useful, has the potential to make acne worse due to the drying effect it can have on the skin.
Drying out your pimples is not the best approach to getting rid of acne because this will also dry out the skin and contribute to barrier damage over a prolonged period.
When your skin barrier is damaged, your skin’s optimal function is affected, and this will weaken its ability to protect itself against pathogens.
Additionally, skin with a compromised skin barrier is more likely to be susceptible to irritations, allergic reactions, and even developing permanent inflammatory conditions such as dermatitis.
Lastly, skin that’s naturally on the oilier side is likely to retaliate against the caused dryness by producing more oil in an attempt to lubricate the dried-out surface, protect itself from pathogens, and compensate for the lack of hydration.
This means that eventually, more oiliness and more breakouts will follow.
To avoid this, you need to know when it’s appropriate to introduce witch hazel into your skincare regimen and when to discontinue using it.
How to Use Witch Hazel for Acne?
The best way to use witch hazel for acne is to incorporate it into your skincare routine as a facial toner a few times a week.
When used this way, witch hazel can help balance out oil production, remove excess oil that’s clogging the pores, and soothe inflammation caused by an overgrowth of bacteria due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
However, since witch hazel can be drying to the skin, you should also follow it up with a good, non-comedogenic moisturizer that will replenish skin hydration, and balance the skin.
Additionally, using a gentle, zinc-based sunscreen in the morning is also advised, as this will prevent the pimples from turning into hyperpigmented spots.
Witch Hazel Side Effects
The main and most commonly observed side effect of witch hazel is dry skin.
However, some people can also develop allergies to witch hazel, and while the research around this particular issue is scarce, it doesn’t exclude the fact that the immune system might recognize the ingredient as a trigger and rebel against it by causing an allergic reaction.
Therefore, doing a patch test by dabbing a little bit of the product behind your ear before applying it to the entire face or other larger areas is a good way to avoid discomfort due to allergic reactions.
If you are allergic to witch hazel, the area where it’s applied will likely become red and swollen, which should be a clear indication that you should not attempt to use the product on larger areas of the face and body.
Witch Hazel Alternatives for the Skin
If you don’t think witch hazel would be a good option for your skin, there are other useful ingredients found in skincare products that will help you get rid of acne.
Here are some of them:
Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) and an oil-soluble component that can cut through the superficial skin oil and travel deeper into the pores, where it will dissolve the gunk made up of dead skin cells, white blood cells, oil, and other cellular debris, that’s causing the pore to clog.
This action will allow our natural oil to flow freely out of the pores instead of remaining stuck inside and causing issues such as blackheads, pustular pimples, and cystic acne.
Benzoyl peroxide is another effective ingredient that works by infusing the pores with oxygen and destroying the airless environment bacteria needs to thrive and proliferate.
This ingredient works great in lower concentrations and it usually comes in a cream form which can help protect the skin from excess dryness.
Benzoyl peroxide isn’t the best option for non-inflammatory acne such as blackheads, but it’s definitely superior when it comes to addressing deeper cystic acne.
Vitamin A or retinoids work by speeding up cellular turnover (the rate at which your skin produces new cells and sheds them from its surface.)
Therefore, after introducing a topical retinoid into your skincare routine, your skin cells will travel faster to the surface, purging clogs in the process and revealing a brighter, smoother, and healthier complexion.
Niacinamide is a vitamin with antioxidant properties that’s efficient in tackling several skin concerns, including excess oil production, inflammation, acne, and hyperpigmentation.
Additionally, niacinamide has the ability to strengthen the skin barrier, which then allows the skin to protect you from pathogens and deal with inflammation better.
Zinc is an essential mineral that helps soothe and repair the skin, which is why it’s exceptionally good for inflammatory conditions such as acne.
Besides applying products that contain zinc on the skin, you should also consider taking a zinc supplement, as these have been observed to reduce inflammation on the skin within a few days of taking them.
Hydrocortisone cream is a topical steroid that can help reduce inflammation on the skin. This includes everything from eczema to acne. Although hydrocortisone cream can reduce cystic acne you need to be aware of the potential side effects. If you apply hydrocortisone cream to your entire face instead of only the areas with cystic acne you risk tightening and drying out your entire face. For people with painful cystic acne targeted amounts of hydrocortisone cream can be effective and soothing for alleviating your breakouts. I recommend discussing this option with a dermatologist if you are seriously considering it.