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Witch Hazel

What is witch hazel?

Witch hazel is an extract from the bark of a plant called Hamamelis virginiana. It has been used for skin care for centuries.

5 reasons why witch hazel is so good for your skin.

  • It cleans skin and removes oil without being drying.
  • It tones and contracts pores so that they appear smaller (dermatologists call this ‘astringent’, which means to contract tissue. In this case it is contracting your pores).
  • It has anti-inflammatory properties to help sooth inflamed or red facial skin.
  • It has proven antiseptic benefits, helping to fight Staph bacteria, Candida yeast and viruses such as herpes.
  • It contains antioxidants to help fight damage to skin from free radicals due to environmental stress.

The two biggest reasons that witch hazel is so popular in skin care today is that it helps reduce the appearance of pores and that it cleans skin without drying.

As a dermatologist, I know that clean skin is better able to absorb actives in your therapeutic skin care products. Whether your skin care routine is trying to fix acne or fight the signs of skin aging, know that dirt, oil, dead cells, makeup and product residue will block absorption. Using a witch hazel toner, such as my Naturally Hydrating Pore Minimizing Toner, after cleansing your skin will help to get your skin even cleaner. It tones your pores to reduce the appearance of their size at the same time. 

Witch hazel is also present in my medicated Salicylic Acid and Glycolic Acid Acne Treatment Pads, both Regular Strength and the Extra-Strength Acne Treatment Pads. 

In addition, skin usually looks smoother, and more radiant and dewy when it is really clean – another benefit of witch hazel.

Witch hazel has historically been a favorite medicinal plant for good reason.  

What are the top home remedy and folk medicine uses of witch hazel?

Witch hazel bark has been shown to have the following benefits when applied to the skin:

  • It acts as a topical antioxidant much like green tea. It contains polyphenolic compounds that may protect skin from sunburn and photoaging. Of course, you still need sunscreen.
  • It offers an anti-inflammatory benefit after sunburn, meaning it can soothe sunburn pain and redness.
  • It can help soothe irritated skin. It has been shown to soothe redness and lower the loss of your body’s natural moisture when applied to irritated skin.
  • It has some weak effectiveness against some of the common germs such as Staph, Candida, and viruses like the herpes virus and influenza.
  • People have used it for years as a non-irritating skin toner to help remove skin oils. In my opinion, it beats alcohol for that job on sensitive skin.
  • It has claimed benefits for psoriasis, eczema, bug bites, poison oak/ivy too.
  • Witch hazel has also been touted as helping heal bruises.
  • People have claimed that it helps treat varicose veins, postpartum vaginal discomfort, and hemorrhoids.

I don’t think there is any real evidence for these last 3 claims though. Just the application of something that’s cooling to the skin will constrict blood vessels to reduce engorged vessles, redness and swelling. I could not find any good evidence for resolution of bruising with the use of witch hazel, though the anti-inflammatory effect theoretically may help with pain and swelling from a bruise.

What brands of witch hazel are best?

You can't extrapolate the results of scientific laboratory studies and folk medicine remedies when it comes to the use of modern commercial preparations of witch hazel. The reason is that,

  • Folk remedies using witch hazel are often based on home preparations of witch hazel. Traditionally, witch hazel was used by Native Americans after it was prepared in a decoction. A decoction is the boiling of something, like the bark of the witch hazel plant, to extract many of the components, including the tannins (with all the good antioxidants), the essential oils, and the saponins (soap-like fraction).
  • Commercially produced witch hazel is distilled, which is different. It also contains alcohol, often more alcohol than witch hazel.
  • Scientific studies are mostly done on concentrated fractions of the witch hazel components. This means that you can’t exactly equate the results.

That said, I love witch hazel, and have used it since I was a teen. I therefore source the certified organic witch hazel extract that I use in my Naturally Hydrating Pore Minimizing Toner from the highest quality producer. It is made from the bark and twigs of Hamamelis virginiana and contains very little alcohol compared with most commercially sold witch hazel. It's also very pure. I want only the best ingredients for my Naturally Hydrating Pore Minimizing Toner, and for the complicated and sensitive complexions that depend on my information and products. 

References:

Reuter J, Wölfle U, Korting HC, Schempp C., . Which plant for which skin disease? Part 2: Dermatophytes, chronic venous insufficiency, photoprotection, actinic keratoses, vitiligo, hair loss, cosmetic indications. [Article in English, German] J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. 2010 Nov;8(11):866-73. doi: 10.1111/j.1610-0387.2010.07472.x

Masaki H, Atsumi T, Sakurai H., Protective activity of hamamelitannin on cell damage induced by superoxide anion radicals in murine dermal fibroblasts.Biol Pharm Bull. 1995 Jan;18(1):59-63.

Hughes-Formella BJ, Filbry A, Gassmueller J, Rippke F., Anti-inflammatory efficacy of topical preparations with 10% hamamelis distillate in a UV erythema test. Skin Pharmacol Appl Skin Physiol. 2002 Mar-Apr;15(2):125-32.

Hughes-Formella BJ, Bohnsack K, Rippke F, Benner G, Rudolph M, Tausch I, Gassmueller J., Anti-inflammatory effect of hamamelis lotion in a UVB erythema test., Dermatology. 1998;196(3):316-22.

Deters A, Dauer A, Schnetz E, Fartasch M, Hensel A., High molecular compounds (polysaccharides and proanthocyanidins) from Hamamelis virginiana bark: influence on human skin keratinocyte proliferation and differentiation and influence on irritated skin.Phytochemistry. 2001 Nov;58(6):949-58.

Hörmann HP1, Korting HC., Evidence for the efficacy and safety of topical herbal drugs in dermatology: Part I: Anti-inflammatory agents., Phytomedicine. 1994 Sep;1(2):161-71. doi: 10.1016/S0944-7113(11)80036-X.

Gloor M, Reichling J, Wasik B, Holzgang HE., Antiseptic effect of a topical dermatological formulation that contains Hamamelis distillate and urea., Forsch Komplementarmed Klass Naturheilkd. 2002 Jun;9(3):153-9.

Erdelmeier CA, Cinatl J Jr, Rabenau H, Doerr HW, Biber A, Koch E., Antiviral and antiphlogistic activities of Hamamelis virginiana bark., Planta Med. 1996 Jun;62(3):241-5.

Theisen LL, Erdelmeier CA, Spoden GA, Boukhallouk F, Sausy A, Florin L, Muller CP., Tannins from Hamamelis virginiana bark extract: characterization and improvement of the antiviral efficacy against influenza A virus and human papillomavirus., PLoS One. 2014 Jan 31;9(1):e88062. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088062. eCollection 2014.