Witch hazels are a group of flowering plants that grow in North America, Japan, and China. There are several varieties, but most people are talking about Hamamelis virginiana when they refer to witch hazel. The tall shrub or small tree has light yellow flowers appear in the fall. Constituents of the bark, leaves, and twigs — in particular, tannins but also natural antioxidants — are thought to possess anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and astringent properties. Native Americans have long used witch hazel extracts to make tonics. Today, witch hazel is one of the few plant products that meets the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards for safety and effectiveness. Creams, ointments, toners, and witch hazel water contain this natural product. Though a number of medicinal uses are not supported by scientific evidence, the widespread traditional use of witch hazel suggests it is at least safe to use.
Research shows witch hazel ointment can benefit skin irritations caused by sun exposure, diaper rash, insect bites, and localized inflammation. It can also help with greasy hair and sensitive scalp problems. Its astringent properties protect the underlying layers of skin by waterproofing the external layers. Studies show mild antioxidant effects that help protect against the damaging effects of ultraviolet light.
Preparations from witch hazel bark have long been used as an acne treatment. The product is considered safe to use on the skin and can be applied directly to spots to speed healing. The tannins provide natural astringent properties with a mild antibacterial effect. The skin's pores contract upon application, which probably helps prevent the entry of bacteria.
Clinical trials indicate that creams containing witch hazel can be mildly effective in relieving some of the symptoms of skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, including inflammation, itching, and redness. Most experts believe the antioxidants and tannins in witch hazel are the active ingredients that offer these benefits.
Witch hazel is an effective moisturizer. Investigation shows applying the ointment can reduce dryness and roughness of aging skin when used twice a day for at least four weeks. It improves the effectiveness of the skin barrier, reducing moisture loss. Some people find witch hazel helps relieve dry eyes, though it can be irritating.
The astringent properties of witch hazel can help heal bruises when applied over the injured area. The small blood vessels around the bruise contract and reduce the bleeding, which speeds healing. This same effect can also reduce swelling following a sprain.
Some experts compare witch hazel mouthwash to processed antiseptic options. It may reduce plaque, when compared to not using mouthwash, but not as much as the more conventional options. It could also help ease inflammation of the throat, gums and mucous membranes when gargled.
The discomfort of hemorrhoids is caused by swelling of the veins around the anus and rectum. Witch hazel-containing ointments applied to the area can reduce inflammation and swelling, thereby improving the irritation, itching, and pain.
Some obstetrics practitioners apply witch hazel cream to the area of the episiotomy — the vaginal cut made to facilitate the birth — to reduce pain, swelling, and bruising. Research shows it can be as effective as ointments containing hydrocortisone and a local anesthetic. Consuming witch hazel preparations by mouth when pregnant has not been studied for safety, though ointments and creams are considered safe.
A few studies show a mild improvement of labial herpes (cold sores) with the application of witch hazel ointment. However, more research still needs to be carried out to confirm any significant health benefits.
Phlebitis and chronic venous insufficiency cause abnormally dilated veins just under the surface of the skin. This relatively common condition can lead to persistent discomfort. The tannins in topical witch hazel preparations act as astringents that can soothe the inflammation and irritation.
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