The Health Benefits of Witch Hazel

This astringent is used to treat a variety of skin ailments

Witch hazel

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

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Witch hazel is a natural remedy made from a plant, Hamamelis virginiana. Native Americans used it to soothe skin problems. It's one of the few plants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved as an ingredient for over-the-counter medicines.

Read on to learn more about this medicinal plant with a magical-sounding name, how to use it, and possible side effects.

Health Benefits

Inside witch hazel's leaves, bark, and twigs, there are medicinal chemicals called tannins. If you rub these chemicals on your skin, they reduce swelling and fight bacteria.

That's why people have used witch hazel for centuries to soothe chapped, scraped, and irritated skin. It can help treat many kinds of minor skin problems, including:

  • Acne
  • Bruises
  • Burns, including sunburn 
  • Diaper rash and other types of skin irritation
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Insect bites 
  • Scalp problems
  • Varicose veins

Some beauty experts suggest using witch hazel as an inexpensive way to reduce under-eye puffiness. Many cosmetic companies use witch hazel to make beauty aids like facial toners and wipes, acne treatments, pore reducers, shampoos, and aftershave.

The FDA has only approved witch hazel for topical use (applying it to your skin). However, people have claimed that drinking teas made with the plant's bark and leaves can cure diarrhea, dysentery, symptoms such as coughing or vomiting blood, even cancer. There are no studies that prove this works or is safe.

Here's a look at key findings from studies that have been done.

Sunburn

According to a study published in the Journal of the German Society of Dermatology, witch hazel may be helpful in treating sunburn. Researchers reviewed clinical trials of plant extracts used to treat skin conditions. The authors concluded that applying witch hazel to sunburned skin eases inflammation because it contains antioxidant polyphenols.

Polyphenols are compounds you can also get from eating fruit, vegetables, dark chocolate, or drinking tea or wine. Polyphenols protect against oxidative stress caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight. UV radiation is estimated to cause 80% of skin damage due to environmental factors.

Skin Conditions in Children

In a 2007 study published in the European Journal of Pediatrics, researchers tested witch hazel on 309 children. The kids had minor skin problems like diaper rash, itching, redness, and swelling.

The researchers treated 78 of the children with dexpanthenol, an ingredient in many moisturizers. They used witch hazel to treat the other 231 kids. Doctors and parents rated how well the products worked on the children and how well the kids tolerated the treatments.

The study found the children tolerated them well and both treatments were very effective. 99% of the doctors and 97% of the parents rated witch hazel either "excellent" or "good."

Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids occur when the veins of your anus and lower rectum become swollen or inflamed. This can cause itching, burning, pain, and bleeding. The condition is common. About 20% of Americans and half of adults over the age of 50 have hemorrhoids.

Witch hazel is a well-known folk remedy used to treat the condition. While there is very little evidence to prove it works, many doctors still advise patients with minor hemorrhoid problems to try witch hazel.

Directions on the labels of witch hazel products advise you to rinse after each bowel movement. Gently pat yourself dry with toilet paper or a soft cloth. Then apply a gel or ointment containing witch hazel to your rectum.

You can also use moist witch hazel pads or wipes after each bowel movement. The tannins in witch hazel can help ease your symptoms.

Possible Side Effects

Studies show that allergic reactions to witch hazel are rare. Healthcare providers consider witch hazel safe when applied to the skin, but not when swallowed. Ingesting witch hazel can cause problems like nausea, vomiting, and liver damage.

Witch hazel is not recommended for people with rosacea, a skin condition that causes redness and swollen bumps to form on your face. If you have dry or sensitive skin, you should check with your doctor before using witch hazel.

Dosage and Preparations

Witch hazel is sold as ointments, gels, and pads. Some of these products contain alcohol, which can dry and irritate your skin. Even alcohol-free options can do this if you use them too much.

For this reason, some product labels advise not to use witch hazel more than six times a day. So it's a good idea to watch how your skin reacts. Some people can use witch hazel a handful of times a day, others only occasionally.

What to Look For

You can buy witch hazel products in most drug, natural food, and grocery stores. Look for alcohol-free formulas, which are gentler on the skin. Witch hazel is also sold as a liquid or medicated pads soaked in the fluid.

Summary

For centuries, people have used witch hazel to soothe minor skin problems like bug bites, diaper rash, and hemorrhoids. The remedy comes from a North American shrub. The plant contains chemicals that ease redness, itching, and inflammation.

Witch hazel is one of the few plants that meet the FDA's standards for safety and effectiveness. The FDA has only approved it for topical use on the skin. Swallowing witch hazel could cause nausea, vomiting, and liver damage.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is witch hazel safe to ingest?

    No. The chemicals in many witch hazel products could cause nausea, vomiting, and possibly even liver damage. If you or your child swallow witch hazel, contact poison control.

  • Why is witch hazel recommended after giving birth?

    Witch hazel can soothe pain and swelling of the perineum, the skin between the vagina and anus. Doctors may have to cut this area during labor (an episiotomy). Sometimes it tears. To ease pain and swelling, you can apply a witch hazel pad to the area. Or you can add one to the top of your sanitary pad each time you change it.

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