What Is Witch Hazel Exactly?
Witch hazel (which has the species name Hamamelis virginiana), a type of plant native to North America and parts of Asia, is a member of the Hamamelidaceae plant family. Sometimes also called winterbloom, the leaves and bark from the plant 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 on the skin, 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. 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, hemorroid 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 human cancerous cell. Studies show that witch hazel is capable of stopping mutated cell cycles and inducing apoptosis (death of dangerous cells).
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.
Proven Benefits of Witch Hazel
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 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.
Witch hazel has been used for centuries to naturally help heal 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
- sun damage and melanoma
- razor burn
- mucous membrane inflammation
- allergic reactions
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