Witch hazel is a smallish tree (up to 5m) that's native to North-America, has nice yellow flowers and is similar to the hazelnut bush (hence the name).
As for skincare, it's loaded with active components that have a bunch of magic abilities, like astringent, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant or anti-bacterial. It's also a well-known vasoconstrictor (makes the blood vessels narrower) and promotes the healing of broken skin by tightening up the skin proteins and thus creating a protective covering.
The complication, though, is that different extracts and distillates can be made from different parts of the plant (bark, twigs, and leaves are typically used) and different extraction methods from different parts produce different results. So if you see only Wich Hazel Extract or Wich Hazel Water on the ingredient list, it's a bit hard to know what you're getting, but we will try to summarize the possibilities to give an idea.
The main biologically active components in Wich Hazel are hamamelitannin (potent astringent and antioxidant), catechins (anti-inflammatory and antioxidant) and gallic acid (antibacterial). The bark extract contains by far the most hamamelitannin, and it also has the most gallic acid and catechins. The twigs contain fewer catechins, less gallic acid and much less hamamelitannin (4.77% vs 0.18%). The leaves contain hardly any tannins (0.04%) or catechins and contain a medium amount of gallic acid (compared to bark and twigs).
In tiny amounts, Witch Hazel also contains essential oil and the fragrance component eugenol, but the amount is so small that it's probably not significant for the skin.
Apart from the differences in active components in different parts of Witch Hazel, the extraction methods also vary. Witch Hazel Distillate contains 14% added alcohol according to the USP specification, and alcohol is at best drying, at worst skin-damaging. Luckily, there are also alcohol-free distillates so if you prefer no alcohol, check the ingredient list carefully. Witch Hazel Extracts can also be made in different ways: browsing Ulprospector, we could find hydroglycolic, hydroalcoholic and glicerin+water based extracts.
Well-known skin care expert, Paula Begoun rates witch hazel as poor and says that "depending on the form of witch hazel, you’re exposing your skin either to a sensitizing amount of alcohol or to tannins, or both." This might be the case if you are dealing with an alcoholic witch hazel bark water or extract, but looking at CosIng (the official INCI name listing of the EU), witch hazel bark water or witch hazel bark extract are not listed ingredients. Bark and leaf or bark and twig or all three are used together to create extracts so the chance that there is too much hamamelitannin in the final cosmetic ingredient seems small. Also, alcohol-free extracts and distillates exist, actually, the majority seems to be alcohol-free nowadays, so all in all, we think "Hamamelis Virginiana Extract" on the ingredient list is nothing to worry about.
We even found a German study that compared the efficacy of Hamamelis ointment to panthenol ointment for soothing of the skin in children (from 27 days old to 11 years old). They observed 309 children and concluded that both ointments were similarly effective but the one with Hamamelis was even better-tolerated (98.2% vs. 92.3% tolerated well the ointments in the two groups).
All in all, Witch Hazel Extract is a sloppy INCI name (btw, not in the CosIng listing), and you do not really know what you're getting. But most probably, you are getting a goodie with nice astringent, soothing, antibacterial and even antioxidant properties.
- Wang, Huafu, Gordon J. Provan, and Keith Helliwell. "Determination of hamamelitannin, catechins and gallic acid in witch hazel bark, twig and leaf by HPLC." Journal of pharmaceutical and biomedical analysis 33.4 (2003): 539-544.
- Wolff, Helmut H., and Meinhard Kieser. "Hamamelis in children with skin disorders and skin injuries: results of an observational study." European journal of pediatrics 166.9 (2007): 943-948.
- Korting, H. C., et al. "Anti-inflammatory activity of hamamelis distillate applied topically to the skin." European journal of clinical pharmacology 44.4 (1993): 315-318.
- Touriño, Sonia, et al. "Highly galloylated tannin fractions from witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) bark: electron transfer capacity, in vitro antioxidant activity, and effects on skin-related cells." Chemical research in toxicology 21.3 (2008): 696-704.