Today, we have hundreds of different beauty products available to us — acne washes, toners, scrubs and so on — but what did people use thousands of years ago before commercial chemicals existed to help heal their skin? When it comes to natural skin care, one time-honored medicinal plant is witch hazel, which American Indians relied on for fighting swelling, sores and infections.
There may be no plant more beneficial to your skin, as research showcases the many advantages witch hazel provides. For instance, thanks to its astringent properties, it’s one of the most effective natural acne treatments known to man — and it’s even been shown to help protect against skin cancer!
So if you’re looking for cleaner, healthier skin, look no further than witch hazel and its seemingly infinite benefits for your epidermis.
What Is Witch Hazel?
Witch hazel (which has the species name Hamamelis virginiana), a type of plant native to North America, is a member of the Hamamelidaceae plant family. Sometimes also called winterbloom, the virginiana bark and leaves are used to make a skin-healing astringent that’s capable of naturally reducing acne, blisters, insect bites, poison ivy, inflammation and much more.
The most popular use for witch hazel is for skin care, since its strong antioxidant and astringent properties are perfect for killing bacteria that lives within skin’s pores, stopping cellular damage that can lead to skin cancer, preventing signs of aging, and speeding up healing.
Because of its effectiveness, today, you’ll find witch hazel extract added to a variety of over-the-counter beauty and medicinal products: anti-aging serums, shaving cream and aftershave, bug repellent, nail treatments, hemorrhoid products, and shampoo, just to name a few.
How Witch Hazel Works
How can witch hazel do so much? High levels of healing active ingredients reduce inflammation, cellular damage and swelling, while also soothing wounds.
The bark, twigs and leaves of the plant are used to extract active constituents called polyphenols and tannins. They’re then added to either alcohol or water to make a concentrated product called witch hazel water, Hamamelis water or distilled witch hazel extract. The extract can be used topically (on the surface of the skin) or taken internally just like medicine in order to help stop symptoms from diarrhea, colds, mucus colitis, vomiting, coughing, the flu and more.
Tannins are responsible for making witch hazel extract a natural astringent, since they remove excess oil from skin. This is the reason why witch hazel is one of the most popular natural acne treatments worldwide and is used in dozens of over-the-counter treatment gels, washes and lotions. When it comes to the products that you apply directly to your skin, you always want to treat the surface of your body how you would the inside: Avoid as many chemicals and toxins as possible. Witch hazel offers benefits over other beauty products because it’s completely natural, free of environmental pollutants, irritating ingredients, fake fragrances and other contaminants.
In addition to tannins, witch hazel is high in compounds called “gallate esters,” which include proanthocyanidins, hydrolyzable tannins (galloylated sugars) and methyl gallate. Witch hazel extract is considered to be polyphenolic and has been shown to help inhibit cell proliferation in cancerous human cells. Studies show that it is capable of stopping mutated cell cycles and inducing apoptosis (death of dangerous cells). (1)
Because witch hazel is a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, it’s effective as a “free radical scavenger,” meaning it helps protect against DNA damage and tumor growth. Oxidative stress and free radical damage build up over time from exposure to things like UV light, pollution, a poor diet, stress and so on. Plants like witch hazel that are high in polyphenols are the same kind used to create anti-aging nutritional supplements that slow down disease development by protecting cells. (2)
Common Witch Hazel Uses
The skin is our largest and most vulnerable organ, so it could use all the support it can get. Skin is our natural barrier to the outside world and provides us with protection against UV radiation, chemicals in our food supply, bacteria and other germs, and environmental pollutants.
All of the “stress” that our bodies deal with every day, both internally and externally, show up on our skin in the form of aging, puffiness, infections, inflammation and sensitivities. That’s why we rely on eating and using natural antioxidants and anti-inflammatories to help curb inflamed and diseased cells.
Herbal plant therapies for skin disorders have been used for thousands of years, and today many traditional herbs are being reintroduced, studied extensively and experiencing a resurgence in popularity since many chemical treatments don’t always work or they have harsh side effects. As the authors of the book “Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects” point out, more and more people are turning to the use of herbs for the following reasons: the side effects of chemical drugs, wanting to return to nature, being a part of the green revolution, and wanting to use more organic and safe products. (3)
Witch hazel has been used for centuries to naturally help treat and prevent:
- skin sores
- redness and swelling
- ingrown hairs
- psoriasis or eczema
- oily skin
- excess sweating
- varicose veins
- cracked or blistered skin
- insect bites
- poison ivy
- irritated scalp
- sunburn and melanoma
- razor burn
- mucous membrane inflammation
- allergic reactions
The most popular way to use witch hazel extract is to dilute it with a carrier oil (like coconut or jojoba oil) and then apply it directly to the skin, either as a serum, lotion, toner or Homemade Face Wash. Doctors and holistic healers recommend it for itching, pain, redness, swelling (inflammation) and other wounds, even for people with sensitivities to most topical treatments.
But the benefits of witch hazel aren’t limited to the skin — it’s also an antioxidant and has antibacterial properties, which means it can fight symptoms caused by all kinds of illnesses. (4) It’s used for soothing sore throats, toothaches, coughs, hemorrhoids, ear infections and allergies.
Witch Hazel Benefits — for Skin, Hair, Teeth and More
Witch hazel products include Hamamelis water, distilled witch hazel extract and witch hazel tea. Ideally, purchase a pure organic witch hazel, and always check that the ingredient label lists the correct species name — Hamamelis virginiana.
For sensitive or dry skin, you might want to use a non-alcoholic witch hazel water over an extract, since alcohol can add to dryness and scabbing.
1. Reduce Acne
As a natural home remedy for acne, applying witch hazel to acne-prone skin can help slow down inflammation, redness, oiliness and bleeding. As a natural cleanser, it’s capable of reducing bacteria growth on the skin and speeds up the time needed to heal infections or scabs. (5)
Another benefit for sensitive skin is that it reduces the look of pores (although no product can actually shrink pores) and helps stop excess oil production, sweating, and development of blackheads or whiteheads, which can contribute to breakouts and tempt you to pick at your skin! (6)
Instead of opening up a pimple and making the problem worse, put witch hazel directly on the skin wherever you notice a zit forming or where acne tends to break out. It’s even more effective when used in combination with other antibacterials like tea tree oil, coconut oil or apple cider vinegar.
Skip irritating acne products and turn to witch hazel to lower the severity of blemishes forming under the skin, prevent blackheads caused by dried sebum buildup in pores, and stop swelling and redness if you already picked at your acne. Witch hazel can curb signs of past irritations and deal with skin infections gently.
Dab witch hazel on your skin with a clean cotton ball or cotton pads up to several times per day anywhere you experience irritation, starting slowly and giving your skin time to adjust.
2. Fight Signs of Aging and Damage from Sun Exposure
If you’re looking for a natural way to tighten the skin and slow down signs of aging like scars, redness, discoloration, dryness and puffiness around the eyes, then look no further than witch hazel. Witch hazel tightens skin and is protective against skin cancer, melanoma and other damage caused by UV light because of its protective polyphenols and tannin antioxidants. These inhibit the proliferation of melanoma cells and help protect healthy skin cells into older age. (7)
Keep your skin free from irritating chemical products that can alter oil production and increase dryness. Witch hazel has been shown to help protect collagen and skin elasticity just as well as many commercial beauty products. You can easily blend witch hazel with vitamin E oil and other natural ingredients to make your own Homemade Anti-Aging Serum. Then apply it to discolored skin, bruises, old acne marks and bites to help fade their appearance and reverse damage. Combine it with other skin-saving oils like evening primrose, frankincense and tea tree oils for even better results.
Witch hazel’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties make it a great way to preserve skin’s elasticity, saving your complexion and helping you deal with the effects of environmental stress on your skin. To lower eye puffiness and inflammation, apply diluted witch hazel to the area around the eyes before bed, being careful not to get any in the eyes. To prevent varicose veins from developing, add witch hazel to a cloth or swab and rub it into the skin wherever you see bruising and veins forming.
3. Treat Insect Bites
Many bug repellents and commercial products used for treating insect bites contain witch hazel. Wondering how to get rid of mosquito bites? People turn to witch hazel to reduce the effects of bug bites, such as pain and swelling from stings, allergies and irritations.
Certain studies have found that applying witch hazel cream to skin irritations can curb symptoms just as well as synthetic chemical creams, including dexpanthenol, which is often used to fight skin irritations in children. (8) It can also be used to help speed up healing in scabs or minor cuts because witch hazel extract contains isoproply alcohol, which is another natural disinfecting ingredient that kills bacteria and helps prevent infections.
4. Cleanse Hair and Protect the Scalp
Use witch hazel on your hair to help reduce oil buildup — which leaves your hair shinier, healthier and more volumized. It’s also great for removing hair odors, helping with an irritated scalp, or speeding up healing from any bites or acne at the base of the neck when you’re prone to sweating.
One study conducted by the Center for Dermatology and Disease in Zurich, Switzerland, found that shampoo containing witch hazel extract helped soothe patients’ irritated scalps, redness, itching and inflammation. After testing the effects of witch hazel on 1,373 patients, a percentage of patients reported improvement in symptoms and better tolerance of other hair products. (9)
Add several drops to your shampoo or make your own hair wash using coconut oil, argan oil, witch hazel, and other cleansing essential oils like lemon or orange oil.
5. Prevent Ingrown Hairs and Rashes
After shaving, you can apply witch hazel to any part of the body to slow bleeding from nicks or cuts, prevent bacteria growth and infections within hair follicles, soothe razor burn, and prevent ingrown hairs from forming. Some people also like to the toner along with other healing essential oils to skin after waxing to reduce pain, swelling and bleeding.
6. Stop Ear Infections from Developing
Since witch hazel is an effective antibacterial, and “swimmer’s ear” or other ear infections are usually caused by bacterial infections, it’s a natural way to treat irritations within the ear canal. To make a natural ear infection remedy, try adding witch hazel extract to an eye dropper to insert several drops into each ear several times a day.
Witch hazel helps clear up bacteria overgrowth and infections within the ear; dry up oil, pus and excess sweat; break up wax; and even remove odor. To clean the outside of the ears, apply several drops to a swab and rub around the inside of the ears.
7. Soothe a Sore Throat
Some people like sipping on witch hazel tea (not witch hazel water or a drink made with extract, which contains isopropyl alcohol) to soothe an irritated, infected or sore throat. The natural astringent properties of witch hazel make it beneficial for fighting illnesses that affect the throat, while its soothing properties lower pain and discomfort caused by coughs, strep throat, sore throat, sinus infections, tonsillitis or other throat problems. You can add pure witch hazel (alcohol-free) to a tea mixture with honey to further soothe an inflamed throat.
8. Stop Pet Odor and Bug Bites
Stop excess bacteria from forming on the surface of your pet’s skin, including in wounds or bites, which can lead to odor. Witch hazel is non-irritating to pets, helps prevent them from getting bug bites by repelling mosquitoes and other insects, can slow down itching or bleeding, and helps cleanse their skin. (10)
9. Treat Hemorrhoids
Witch hazel also acts as a hemorrhoids home remedy. You can apply witch hazel water to the skin to help lower pain and inflammation caused by uncomfortable hemorrhoids. It’s useful for relieving itching, irritation, bleeding and burning from hemorrhoids as well. (11)
Most experts recommend using hazel water (Hamamelis liquid extract diluted with water) up to six times a day on irritated skin or after every bowel movement.
10. Protect Your Mouth, Lips and Gums
If you have blisters on your lips, inner cheeks or gums, turn to witch hazel to speed healing and get rid of pain and swelling. It’s safe to apply the extract to the inside of your mouth to slow down bleeding, blisters, sores, bad breath odors and infections of the gums, especially when combined with other healing oils like coconut oil or peppermint oil.
An easy way to use witch hazel to protect your mouth is to add some to my Homemade Probiotic Toothpaste. You can also use a teaspoon of witch hazel tea with several drops of wintergreen, clove and myrrh oils as a mouthwash, which helps relieve pain from toothaches or teething in infants, prevent infection after oral surgery, and fight bleeding and inflammation from mouth sores.
Potential Witch Hazel Side Effects and Precautions
Most adults and children react well to using witch hazel on their skin and don’t experience any side effects. But there’s always a chance for an allergic reaction or other irritations, especially if you have sensitive skin and spend lots of time in the sun.
To be on the safe side, do a skin patch test first, applying a small amount to a patch of skin on your arm or leg to make sure you don’t have a bad reaction.
When it comes to taking it internally, it’s considered safe for most people, including pregnant women, although it’s capable of causing minor indigestion or an upset stomach in some people. Keep your dosage low and always follow directions, since taking high doses has been linked to liver problems in some rare cases.
Read Next: Top 4 Essential Oils for Acne
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