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What is an Astringent?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An astringent is a substance which causes biological tissue to contract or draw together. There are a number of uses for astringents medically, and many cosmetic companies also sell astringents for skin care. The term is also used to refer to tart foods which cause the mouth to pucker, such as lemons, pomegranates, and persimmons. Tannins, such as those found in teas and wines, are also astringents, since they cause the mouth to feel dry and constricted. Many of these tannins, such as oak bark, are used to produce these products for both medical and cosmetic use.

The word's origins can be found in the Latin astringere, which means “to bind fast.” An astringent can be said to have “astringency” when someone is describing its properties. When this substance is applied to living tissue, it does indeed cause the tissue to bind fast to itself, causing it to shrink. This property can be extremely useful for a variety of applications.

In internal medicine, astringents are used to shrink mucus membranes. By reducing swelling, a doctor can identify areas of bleeding or irritation more readily. The use of a medical astringent can also act to reduce unwanted discharge, which will make patients more comfortable. Many doctors also prescribe these products to relieve skin irritations such as those cause by fungal infection and insect bites. Calamine lotion is an example of a topical medical astringent designed to reduce irritation, as is witch hazel. Pet guardians may have used stronger products, in the form of styptic pencils or sticks, which are designed to be applied to nails which have been cut too short in order to stop the bleeding.

In cosmetics, astringents are used to firm and tone the skin, constricting the pores and creating a protective layer of firm tissue between the under layers of skin and the elements. A cosmetic astringent is sometimes called a toner, and it is usually applied after bathing but before the application of moisturizers. Aftershaves are also astringents. Using an astringent after shaving can help to reduce the pain of minor cuts while also soothing the skin.

Applying excessive astringents, especially harsh ones such as alcohol, can be drying. This is why many cosmetic astringents are followed by moisturizer, to keep the skin moist as well as firm. There is also some debate in the medical community over whether or not people with acne should use astringents. Some people argue the products may have a positive impact, while others fear these products restrict the pores, leading to an increased likelihood of blockage and infection.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Kristee — On Nov 03, 2012

Witch hazel works well at relieving the itch and burn of insect bites or stings. So does calamine lotion.

I dab this pink stuff on whenever I get mosquito or ant bites. It seems to dry them up and keep them from forming blisters. Also, it keeps me from scratching them and making them bleed.

By seag47 — On Nov 03, 2012

If you are wanting to use something only on your pimples, alcohol makes the best skin astringent. However, I wouldn't recommend putting it all over your face.

It is incredibly drying, but because of this, it can work to eliminate pimples if you apply it directly on top of them. If you put it all over, it will dry out your skin, making it produce more oil than necessary and possibly causing more acne.

I've noticed that if I put alcohol on my zits at night, they have not grown any by the next morning. If I continue to put alcohol on them until they go away, they will never flare up and become nasty red bumps.

I've never even seen a pimple that I've treated with alcohol form a head. It's like the alcohol is sucking the power out of them and fast-forwarding to the diminishing phase.

By healthy4life — On Nov 02, 2012

I never thought of a persimmon being a natural astringent. I always associated the term with a solution that would constrict your pores.

Persimmons definitely do have a puckering effect. If you bite into one that isn't totally ripe, your mouth will suffer for a long time. Even the ripe ones are unpleasant to eat because of their astringent qualities.

I can also see how tea could be classified as an astringent. I always notice that my tongue is extremely dry and feels like it is coated with something after I drink strong tea.

By orangey03 — On Nov 01, 2012

@ashketchum – I would not use an astringent on my face after using a scrub. The scrub irritates the skin, and closing the pores of irritated skin could cause problems.

On nights when you use the scrub, skip the astringent. You shouldn't be scrubbing every night, so use the astringent when you skip this step.

By SarahGen — On Nov 01, 2012
@anon19164-- I'm not a dermatologist, so please make sure to check with your doctor. But I do think an astringent toner will help with your pimples, especially if the toner contains salicylic acid. Most drugstore toners contain this ingredient which is a type of chemical exfoliator that gets rid of dead skin cells. You will want an astringent that has either 1.5% or 2% salicylic acid in it and this will be mentioned in the active ingredients list on the product.

You should always wash your face first with an oil-free cleanser in your skin care routine. After drying your face with a clean towel, use the astringent with the help of a cotton ball and concentrate on your pimples. After the astringent has dried, follow up with an oil-free moisturizer. If you do this morning and night, your pimple should dry out in a couple of days. I also have an acne problem and this is how I keep things under control.

By burcinc — On Oct 31, 2012

Rosemary and raspberry are natural astringents as well. My homeopathic doctor gave me tonics made with these to reduce the inflammation in my stomach. I didn't take it for a long time though, just a few days. My doctor said that taking it longer would affect my stomach's ability to absorb nutrients.

By ZipLine — On Oct 30, 2012

For years, I didn't understand why it was necessary to use a toner before applying moisturizer. I felt like it was an unnecessary step that would just increase the cost of my facial care.

But a few months ago, my daughter gave me a skin care set which has a cleanser, a toner and a moisturizer. She told me to use it in order and use it at least once a day. I did as she said, and in just a week my skin looked so much better.

All this time, I underestimated the benefits of a facial astringent in skin care and I was wrong. It really does make skin firmer and clearer.

By anon159062 — On Mar 10, 2011

Why do I get headaches after using an astringent?

By anon41893 — On Aug 18, 2009

Fast on water only one day a week, and increase the intake of live foods, such as raw vegetables and fruits in the other days, and in one month you'll get rid of all the problems. When the body can't detoxify anymore by itself you see these symptoms. Consult a nutritionist not a doctor! Or better a nutritionist doctor. Take care

By anon19164 — On Oct 07, 2008

i have a problem with my face..before my face is fair and clear but due to dust and life's stress i acquired these pimples and left scars on my face.i am totally irritated. i have visited dermatologist but none of them gave me a better solution. i have found out this particular astringent, a branded one. do you think it is safe to use to get rid of these pimples that i have?

By anon14970 — On Jun 28, 2008

Hi, I would like to know whether i can apply my night whitening cream immediately after using astringent 2 (papaya extract). Thank you, Lina

By ramaswamyps — On Mar 08, 2008

are astringents like Stolin harmful to angina patients who are on coronary dialators?

By ashketchum — On Oct 02, 2007

can I use astringent or a tretinoin product once a week? because I have other toner.

By ashketchum — On Oct 02, 2007

can I use astringent after cleansing my face with facial scrub?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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