Sure, there's a number of new lotions, potions, and the like that claim to zap pimples fast, but sometimes going back to the basics is one of the most effective ways to treat acne. Case in point: witch hazel.
A bottle of the clear, plant-derived extract was probably a fixture in your bathroom cabinet growing up, and trust us when we say that your mom was onto something. "Witch hazel is a shrub. Its leaves and bark has been used for medicinal purposes for many centuries as they contain up to 10% tannins (potent antioxidants including hamamelitanins and ellagitannins)," explains dermatologist Dr. Melanie Palm, founder of Art of Skin MD in San Diego, CA. "It is used to soothe irritated and inflamed skin, as well as reduce swelling and injury of tissue and constrict injured blood vessels."
Its soothing, anti-inflammatory proprieties is exactly why you find witch hazel amongst the list of ingredients on many acne-fighting skincare products you've tried. Most commonly, it's used as a toner or astringent for acne-prone individuals with oily complexions. "As acne is an inflammatory condition that may cause redness, swelling, and discomfort, the calming and anti-inflammatory nature of witch hazel could be used as a homeopathic accompaniment to prescription topical acne medications," says Dr. Palm.
If you want to try to incorporate witch hazel into your acne-fighting skincare lineup, Dr. Palm recommends introducing it slowly into your routine so that your skin develops a tolerance for it. "Typically, witch hazel astringents are used once daily after cleansing as a toner. If someone has tolerated this well, the astringent application may be increased to twice daily," she says. "Witch hazel ointments may be used as a form of 'spot' treatment for acne blemishes once to twice daily, if desired."
For sensitive skin types, the dermatologist suggests doing a spot test on one side of your jaw line first to make sure you're not going to have an adverse reaction to the ingredient. "Oily skin complexions usually benefit the most from witch hazel astringents," Dr. Palm says. "Acne-prone individuals without excessive skin sensitivity are most likely to benefit from witch hazel use."
When to avoid it? If you're expecting or breastfeeding you should store your bottle in the back of your bathroom cabinet for the time being. "It is potentially toxic in high concentrations due to the high level of tannins available even in commercial products," explains Dr. Palm. "Therefore, witch hazel should be avoided in excessive use in these women."
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You also skip ingesting witch hazel because it's only intended for topical use, and doing so can result in liver or kidney damage.