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Introduction

Witch hazel is a type of flowering plant in the family called Hamamelidaceae, located in North America, Japan, and China.

Historically, native Americans used extracts of witch hazel for medicinal purposes such as treating swellings, inflammation, and tumors.

This substance is now a popular topical home remedy for various skin ailments, including irritated skin, sunburn, insect bites, and for minor wounds, bruises, and swelling.

It is also now an added ingredient in many facial toners, makeup removers, skin cleansers, and other skincare products.

However, witch hazel is not just a topical treatment, and is also added to herbal teas for oral consumption in small amounts as a natural treatment for a variety of health conditions.

1. May Have Anti-Aging Effects

Witch hazel has been measured to exhibit high antioxidant activities in scientific assessments, speculated to be due to its high content of polyphenols.

In particular, flavonoids are thought to prevent the formation of reactive oxygen species by inhibiting enzymes that mediate their production, and also by acting as free radical scavengers and upregulating antioxidant defences [1].

This may prevent the production of prooxidant and pro-inflammatory molecules that would normally induce cell damage and accelerate aging processes [2].

Witch hazel could also make a potential anti-aging treatment via the inhibition of collagenase and elastase enzymes [3]. This can aid the maintenance of collagen and elastin content in the skin, helping to keep the skin looking plump and youthful.

2. May Prevent and Treat Acne

Witch hazel contains up to 10% tannins, which contribute to its astringent properties. In other words, this causes the contraction of skin cells that make the skin less oily.

Witch hazel has even been used topically as an astringent and anti-bacterial treatment for skin to alleviate inflammation caused by acne and eczema [4].

This may prevent acne-causing bacteria from entering the skins pores.

3. May Help Skin Irritation

Evidence suggests that 40-50% of people report some degree of skin sensitivity, such as having regular cases of dryness or flushing of the skin [5].

This points to the need for the development of personal skin products designed to prevent and treat skin irritation.

Available studies suggest that witch hazel extract within skin creams are effective in reducing skin inflammation and treating redness [6].

Witch hazel has also seen positive results – ~25% improvement – when tested in ‘aftersun’ creams to help reduce skin redness after exposure to ultraviolet radiation [7].

The reasons for the positive effects on skin irritation are not conclusive, but the tannic acid content of witch hazel likely plays a key role as this protects the skin from inflammation against external irritations [8].

4. Protects the Scalp

A sensitive scalp is a common clinical problem for dermatologists, especially in people with hair loss or sensitivity to hair products.

Studies that use shampoo’s containing witch hazel extract report improvements in subjective experiences of skin irritation, and it is common that these products are rated from “good to excellent”.

It is thought that the main active components for scalp protection within witch hazel are the flavonoids and tannins, which both present a natural source of antioxidants [9].

Witch hazel may also help relieve inflammation, which could be useful in reducing scalp sensitivity caused by conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.

Many people also use this product as a natural remedy for dandruff, however this relationship is yet to be explored.

5. May Treat Haemorrhoids

Haemorrhoids are swollen veins inside or outside the anus and rectum, that can lead to pain, itching, and rectal bleeding.

~75% of people experience this condition at some point in their lives, and it is recommended to use products to make it more tolerable.

Although its effects on treating haemorrhoids has not been directly studied, the anti-inflammatory properties of witch hazel creams have been mentioned by some researchers to relieve skin irritations and itching for this condition [10].

Safety and Side Effects

Witch hazel appears to be a relatively safe substance, but adequate studies regarding its safety have not yet been performed.

A good sign is that the prevalence of side effects is extremely rare, especially with topical applications.

However, certain manufacturers of skincare products containing witch hazel have recently been warned by the Food and Drug Administration that they should not claim their products are safe due to a lack of supporting evidence.

If witch hazel is to be consumed or applied topically, be sure to use the products accordingly based on the label’s instructions – as no current research indicates a safe or unsafe dosage.

In addition, ingesting over 20ml of witch hazel every day is associated with stomach irritation and vomiting [11]. Those consuming witch hazel in drinks should ensure they do not exceed this limit.

The use of witch hazel products is also not advised during pregnancy and lactation due to the high content of tannins in commercial products which can upset the stomach.

Conclusion

Witch hazel is used as a topical and oral solution for a variety of skin conditions.

Its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, such as polyphenols, may be useful in preventing or treating skin aging, acne, skin irritation, scalp sensitivity, and hemorrhoids.

However, research on this substance is very limited and there is no conclusive benefit for its use in preventing or treating any condition.

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This article has been reviewed and fact-checked by a certified nutritionist, and only uses information from credible academic sources.