Witch hazel toners are a cult favorite among most skincare junkies, but it might just be too good to be true
A few years ago, the local beauty world uncovered a secret: Healthy Options’ beauty section. Home to raved-about elixirs like clay masks and superfood-loaded lotions, skincare junkies were quick to spread the word about the surprisingly extensive inventory, proceeding to queue and purchase and even hoard. One of the products that earned the love of many—supposedly deservedly—was the Witch Hazel Toner from American brand, Thayers. Priced at a reasonable P695 for 355mL, the stuff unlocked cult favorite status, flying off shelves in 2018 and earning a cozy, unshakeable spot in the regimens of many.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly caused witch hazel’s meteoric rise to holy grail status. Thayer’s, easily the most popular brand for skincare infused with the stuff, has been around since 1847. It was only three to four years ago that the number of recommendations on witch hazel-infused skincare—spoken and written and vlogged—began to pick up. It took us long enough to figure it out, because behind the fanfare lies a threshold of benefits.
On paper, witch hazel sounds like that one dish in a restaurant that absolutely everybody loves, or a one-size-fits-all piece of clothing. Its effects honestly sound as magical as its name (as long as you’re reaching for the alcohol-free version, of course.) It calms inflammation, and we don’t just mean acne: it works on conditions like rosacea, eczema and psoriasis, too. It’s full of antioxidants, which can prevent the skin’s outer layer from damage. Witch hazel toners restore the skin’s balance after cleansing, tighten pores and can soothe the skin when it’s going through one of those unprecedented rough patches.
We weren’t immune to the hyper either. We preached of our love for witch hazel ourselves more times than I can count: we raved about it in shopping lists, spritzed it all over our faces in the height of the summer scorch, recommended it to the fellas looking to dip their toes into the intimidating waters of the skincare world.
But now, we’re having second thoughts—or at least treading a little lighter when it comes to witch hazel products.
Witch hazel isn’t the only ingredient that poses the danger of overstripping the skin, but the prospect of the stuff being problematic is especially alarming considering the contradicting pros and cons. Loyalists have worked the ingredient into their beauty routines day and night, in some cases even pressing a witch hazel-soaked cotton pad against their breakouts in the hopes that it would bring irritation to a halt. Perhaps it’s a natural reaction—when you see something works, you stick to it. But there are deeper conditions to examine when it comes to skincare.
Countless have experienced near-immediate relief thanks to witch hazel, but it’s important to understand the hows and whys and whens of that efficacy. The witch hazel in our skincare comes from a flowering shrub called Hammamelis Virginiana. It’s rich in tannins, an antioxidant that de-greases the surface of the skin, strips oil and wipes up any remaining debris. As someone who grew up with oily skin, I know this sounds ideal—but the goodness of tannins isn't always all it promises to be on paper. Don't get me wrong: tannins aren't always bad (green tea has them, too!). But they don't come without risks, and if you're putting this stuff on your face, you should know what those risks are.
Constantly exposing your skin to tannins (or in this case, dousing a cotton round in the stuff and feeding it to your skin) for an extended period may be more dangerous than it seems, especially for those who lean towards sensitivity. The fanfare around astringents like witch hazel is a result of the idea that the solution to oily skin is to dry it out—a misconception that is especially common amongst skincare rookies. Drying out the skin may lead to overcompensation, which eventually leads to… more oil production. It's a long, winding and often expensive road back to step one. As aesthetician and YouTuber LaBeautyologist puts it, “You’re always going to be oily if you’re always stripping oil from the skin.”
On the flipside, prolonged use of ingredients that suck up excess oil—especially ones that contain alcohol—can also cause the skin to excessively dry out, slowly but surely disrupting the balance of the skin and compromising the moisture barrier in its wake. The side-effects aren’t as quick to see as the benefits, but they can be much tougher to fix than your run-of-the-mill breakout.
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Witch hazel can also be sensitizing, something that becomes more apparent after long-term usage. It makes the skin less resilient against stressors, and can lead the skin to turn against ingredients that it was once fine with. Most witch hazel toners are also distilled in alcohol, which leads to further drying and irritation—and while the Thayers line of toners is alcohol-free, it isn’t completely free of the side effects either.
Take former witch hazel loyalist Emilia Kate, for instance. In the video below, she details her two-year-strong bond with her Thayers Witch Hazel Toner and how she had to master the art of letting go when she realized that the product that once saved her skin was also the reason for her new flare-ups.
Is it time to part ways with your witch hazel toner? It’s something to consider. For the record, having witch hazel around is still a good idea, considering how it makes for a great cure for things like stings and hemorrhoids, but when it comes to the face, a little deliberation might be in order.
At the end of the day, the effects of skincare products and the ingredients in them vary. Like alcohol in cleansers, witch hazel is not be the best ingredient to have in a product you reach for on the daily. But like most skincare, it remains a choice: if it works for you and the thought of extracting it from your regimen is unbearable, consider lighter and less frequent usage. Working witch hazel into your skin day and night, however, might not be the smartest choice in the long-term, ingredient-wise—especially not for those with sensitive skin, those with dry or dehydrated skin, or the oily-skinned folk who are looking for a long-lasting fix.
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver