Hamamelis Virginiana, better known as witch hazel, is a plant found in North America that has been used in traditional to soothe skin irritation and inflammation (Mosby’s Handbook of Herbal and Natural Supplements). It’s got a lot of anti-abilities: anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-oxidant. It’s also been shown in studies with animals to have a vasoconstrictive effect, making it beneficial to people with varicose veins (Archives of Dermatology). Reports vary on whether it’s safe to ingest or will cause GI tract and liver damage.
In folk medicine, witch hazel is used as an anti-inflammatory because it contains tannins, which has astringent properties and binds and precipitates proteins (NYU Medical Center, Cornell University). The tannins are removed in the distillation process for commercially available witch hazel extract, but it’s still believed to have soothing properties.
In a double-blind study with 41 people, researchers found that a 10% solution of distilled witch hazel helped to treat inflammation in UV-erythema. However, it wasn’t as effective as 1% hydrocortisone (Journal of the German Society of Dermatology). Another study testing UVB-erythema when included in an after-sun lotion found similar results (Dermatology). And the proanthocyanidins in it were found to have soothing and anti-inflammatory effects, while also reduceing transepidermal water loss (Phytochemistry). In studies with rats it’s been shown to reduce adjuvant-induced paw swelling (Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology). And other studies have found reason to think that witch hazel might help atopic dermatitis (Archives of Dermatology).
In a study with 28 herbs, witch hazel was found to have the best free-radical scavenger products against the cytotoxicant peroxynitrite (Phytotherapy Research). In studies on mouse skin it was found to have antioxidant effects (Journal of Inflammation). One study done in vitro hypothesized that witch hazel polyphenols work with cells in a very particular way as an antioxidant. By creating prooxidative challenges, the extract causes an endogenous detoxifying reaction (Chemical Research in Toxicology). So, the tannins essentially kickstart your internal detoxifying system. Still, some studies suggest witch hazel is not the most effective antioxidant out there, saying green tea extract, for example, is better (Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry).[Read more: Spotlight On: Green Tea]
Antiviral & Antibacterial
Witch hazel has shown antibacterial behavior that’s being explored in treatment of diseases like herpes. One study suggested that the proanthocyanidins may have more of an effect intreatment than the anti-inflammatory and wound-healing tannins. A combination of the two is a potent healer, the study says (Natural Product Research Consultants, Inc.). However, this is the most-cited study with few others being performed — which means more research needs to be done.
Witch hazel has also been shown to work against periodontal bacteria — which is bacteria that affects the structures around teeth in the mouth. This study suggests it as a topical medication (Phytotherapy Research). Once again, this particular usage of witch hazel is not as well studied as its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Native American populations have used witch hazel in folk medicine for a long time and studies show that it’s often quite effective. As an anti-inflammatory it can reduce UV-erythma and soothe skin. It’s also an antioxidant that is hypothesized to work by creating a prooxidative challenge that causes the internal detoxifying system to kick in. As for antibacterial and anti-viral properties, the beginning studies are really promising and further studies will confirm how well witch hazel works. Results vary about whether it causes damage when ingested. There may be some allergic reactions, but it’s otherwise beneficial when used topically.
Witch hazel is particularly effective as an astringent, so if you’re looking to get some on your skin, consider these:[Read More: Daily Question: Do You Really Need a Toner?]
- Thayers Witch Hazel Alcohol-Free Rose w/Aloe Vera ($8.65, Amazon.com)
- Dickinson’s Witch Hazel Formula Towelettes with Aloe ($3.99, Amazon.com)
- Humphreys Homeopathic Remedies Witch Hazel Astringent ($8.27, Amazon.com)