What Is Witch Hazel?
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a shrub that grows on the eastern coast of North America. It has leathery leaves and yellow, stringy flowers that bloom in the fall .
Witch hazel trees grow on rocky slopes near stream beds, in ravines and in forest understories, and can reach heights of up to 13 meters .
Native Americans also showed early European settlers how to use witch hazel decoctions (boiled from leaves and twigs) to treat insect bites, sore muscles, cuts, rashes, sunburn, hemorrhoids, bruises, inflammation, and sore muscles .
Witch hazel is FDA-approved for external use and can be purchased over the counter in the form of creams, infused pads, and liquids .
It should be noted that, in general, the scientific evidence for the benefits of witch hazel is still preliminary, and requires further studies (with larger groups of human participants) to fully validate them.
Components of Witch Hazel
Polyphenolic molecules contain phenols .
A subset of these molecules, commonly known as tannins, are what give the plant its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, blood vessel- narrowing (vasoconstrictive), and skin-tightening (astringent) effects. Tannins make up between 3 to 12% of the leaves and bark of witch hazel [5, 6].
These tannins include catechins, gallotannins, cyanidin, and proanthocyanidins .
Mechanism of Action
Researchers believe that the antioxidant effects of witch hazel come from the activity of gallate esters (a specific chemical structure attached to tannins), as well as flavonoids, which protect DNA from damage by eliminating free radicals [5, 7, 8, 9].
Elastin and collagen proteins are produced by skin cells and are essential for giving the skin its flexibility and strength. Witch hazel inhibits the enzymes that break down elastin and collagen (elastase and collagenase), which helps to keep the skin intact and flexible, and also promotes healing [10, 8].
The polyphenols extracted from witch hazel can also inhibit myeloperoxidase, an enzyme known to slow wound healing .
One tannin in witch hazel extracts, hamamelitannin, can counteract the effects of tumor necrosis factor (a signaling protein involved in inflammation and cell death), possibly reducing swelling, itchiness, and rashes .
Health Benefits of Witch Hazel
1) Witch Hazel Helps Heal Sunburn
Researchers used UV radiation to give small patches of “sunburns” to 30 participants, which were then treated either with regular sun lotion or a lotion containing witch hazel extracts. The lotions containing witch hazel reduced skin inflammation more effectively during the 48 hours after UV exposure than the other treatments .
2) Witch Hazel Can Relieve Skin Problems
One study (RCT) on 309 children between the ages of 27 days and 11 years old showed that an ointment containing witch hazel was equally effective as dexpanthenol in improving skin problems such as minor cuts, diaper rash, and other skin inflammation .
3) Witch Hazel Can Expedite Wound Healing
One cell-based study found that witch hazel may improve the healing of ruptured skin by inhibiting the activity of certain enzymes that impair wound healing (myeloperoxidase and collagenase) .
4) Witch Hazel May Reduce Swelling
Swelling in the body is usually caused by a buildup of fluid (a condition also known as edema). For example, long periods of standing can result in swollen ankles, and fluid buildup during sleep can cause puffy eyes. One study found that a witch hazel extract (200 mg/kg) significantly reduced swelling in swollen rat paws .
5) Witch Hazel May Improve Acne
An analysis of the ingredients of 52 acne medications found that witch hazel is commonly found in these products, due to its astringent property that reduces the size of pores .
One study with 30 participants found that using an over-the-counter skin care product containing witch hazel water significantly improved acne symptoms over 6 weeks (open-label trial) .
6) Witch Hazel Is an Antioxidant
One cell study found that witch hazel extract protected skin cells from oxidative damage. It especially protected fibroblasts, the cells that produce the elastin and collagen needed to keep the skin flexible and strong .
7) Witch Hazel Kills Bacteria on Skin, Teeth, and Gums
Witch hazel killed common skin bacteria (such as Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans) in cell studies, as well as in 15 healthy human subjects .
Several cell studies show witch hazel extract killed several types of bacteria that grow on teeth (such as Porphyromonas gingivalis and Capnocytophaga gingivalis). Eliminating these bacteria helps prevent plaque, gingivitis, and other oral diseases [20, 21].
8) Witch Hazel Relieves Insect Bites
A study with 100 healthy human subjects (DB-RCT) found that products containing witch hazel reduced skin redness (erythema) following mosquito bites .
9) Witch Hazel May Improve Sensitive or Itchy Scalp
An observational study of 1,373 patients with irritated or itchy scalps found that using witch hazel products for 4 weeks significantly improved symptoms in the majority of patients .
10) Witch Hazel Reduces Growth of Cancer Cells
Cell studies show some components of witch hazel extract (products of gallic acid) reduced the growth of human colon cancer cells. These compounds also acted as antioxidants, protecting DNA from free radical damage [5, 24].
11) Witch Hazel Components May Protect DNA from Mutation
Witch hazel extract prevented DNA mutations in bacteria exposed to common mutation-causing chemicals (such as nitroaromatic compounds). This suggests that witch hazel may also prevent similar mutations in human cells, which would not only help keep cells healthy but could also potentially prevent cancerous cells from forming .
12) Witch Hazel May Fight Harmful Viruses
A cell-based study found that an extract of witch hazel bark may have antiviral properties against the common herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), otherwise known as oral herpes .
A cell study found that large tannin molecules extracted from witch hazel bark may prevent human papillomavirus virus (HPV) infection .
Another cell study showed witch hazel extract inhibited the early life cycle stages of influenza A virus (IAV) strains by blocking receptor binding, which prevented the virus from infecting cells .
13) Witch Hazel Reduces Vaginal Dryness in Postmenopausal Women
A clinical (non-controlled study) study on 20 postmenopausal women between the ages of 54 to 76 found that applying a moisturizing cream containing witch hazel significantly improved vaginal dryness in 80% of participants .
External use of witch hazel is very safe, although some users with sensitive skin may experience an allergic reaction. However, one study suggests that allergic reactions like these are very rare [29, 2].
Excessive oral intake of witch hazel liquids may cause nausea, vomiting, or more serious digestive problems.
A safe and easy-to-use decoction is made at home by boiling 5 to 10 grams of witch hazel flower or twig in 0.24 L (1 cup) of water .
When using an over-the-counter witch hazel alcohol extract, soak a cloth with the extract and apply it to the affected area.
witch hazel leaves can also be eaten or be made into a tea, although there is currently no scientific evidence supporting its beneficial effects when taken this way.
Limitations and Caveats
Witch hazel water, purchased over the counter, does not contain tannins and therefore lacks the astringent (skin tightening) effects and some other healing properties .
According to one randomized control trial, witch hazel creams are ineffective in relieving childhood eczema .
Similarly, a study (DB-RCT) in 72 human participants showed hydrocortisone cream is a more effective treatment for eczema than witch hazel extract .
While components of witch hazel have anti-cancer properties in cell culture, in vivo studies in animal or human participants have not yet been performed.
More scientific research is needed on the efficacy of witch hazel as a treatment for hemorrhoids, as this potential benefit is currently only supported by its historical use in traditional medicine and a few users’ personal experiences.
One user who suffered from recurring rashes in skin folds found witch hazel cream to be the best way to stop itchiness and reduce rashes.
One user who suffered from hemorrhoids claimed that a witch hazel-infused pad was more effective than Preparation H for relieving pain.
One user reported using witch hazel to relieve canker sores, to stop insect bites from itching, to speed up the healing of cuts, and also as an aftershave.
One user who struggled with acne for many years found witch hazel “helped her skin to be clearer than it’s ever been since I’ve had acne.”
However, one user found that using witch hazel made their acne worse, and suggested that it should not be used continually if improvements are not seen.