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Witch hazel seems to have its detractors amongst the normally sweet and generous Truth In Aging community. It has recently been accused of being a skin irritant, a red flag for rosacea, and just too mediocre to justify inclusion in expensive potions such as E’shee’s serum. I was beginning to wonder if witch hazel deserves such a bad rap.
Witch hazel is generally distilled from the bark and leaves of the eponymous tree (the posh botanical name is hamamelis virginiana). Its is primarily an astringent, a chemical compound that shrinks or constrict body tissues. Because it performs this action on blood vessels, it is used as the active ingredient in many hemorrhoid medications. My own experience with E’shee’s serum is that it does diminish thread veins and I attribute this to the high doses of witch hazel and horse chestnut.
Rosacea sufferers are routinely told to avoid astringents. Also the International Rosacea Foundations says that witch hazel could make matters worse, although its explanation – the pore closing action may result in oils being trapped under the skin – is a little lame. On a personal note, I have a tendency towards rosacea but have never traced it to the use of astringents. One of the issues with this skin condition is that the triggers are highly individual.
As far as witch hazel being a skin irritant goes, the overwhelming evidence seems to be au contraire. A distinction should be made between the extract and a bottle of “witch hazel” that can be bought at any drugstore and used as a cheap toner. The latter is very likely to have been mixed with harsh alcohols that could indeed be irritating.
Witch hazel extract, on the other hand, is a skin soother. It was widely used by American Indians as a medicinal plant. The bark was used by to treat ulcers of the skin, sores, sore muscles, cuts, bruises, and insect bites. (source)
Even so, does it justify a place in my expensive potions and lotions? The best thing about witch hazel is that it has tannins and flavenols that recently started to attract the interest of scientists. These properties have confirmed witch hazel as an antioxidant (source). And there are components that make it a potent anti-inflammatory.
In a recent study, Japanese researchers sought plant compounds that protect cells in skin tissue from damage against harmful forms of oxygen. Witch hazel was found to have strong activity against reactive oxygen in skin tissue. The scientists proposed that witch hazel extracts should be further researched for their potential application in anti-aging or anti-wrinkling products to apply to the skin.
Rosacea sufferers should proceed with caution, but the rest of us can with confidence.