The acne industry is worth $21 billion a year worldwide. Every year facial cleansers and wipes become ever more complicated and intricate. Endless money and ever more scientists are pumped in daily to finally create the perfect acne treatment.
Yet incredibly all their efforts have failed to match the barks and leaves of one American plant. This natural remedy is unheard of among teenage acne patients but the Native Americans have utilised its never-ending properties for hundreds of years.
The amazing plant in question is witch hazel. Also known as hamamelis, witch hazel is a genus of flowering plants with 5 species found worldwide; 3 in the USA, and one each in China and Japan. The North American varieties are occasionally known as winterbloom and often stand 3 to 8 metres tall. The three specific North American species are also known as Snapping Hazel, Spotted Alder, and Tobacco Wood. As you can see from the picture to the left, it grows in attractive blossoms of yellow to orange-red flowers.
What really matters is witch hazel’s extensive usage as a natural remedy for skin conditions. It started when Theron T. Pond, resident of New York, met with a tribe of Indians known as the Oneida tribe then located in Central New York.
He discovered that for burns, boils and wounds of almost every description, the Indians were using a ‘tea’ made by their Medicine Man from a species of plant known as witch hazel. The Medicine Man created the extract by steeping the shrub in an ordinary teakettle. He obtained a liquid which was coloured but as clear as water, and had a peculiar aroma found from in no other plant.
Mr Pond then spent months working with the Medicine man to perfect the mixture of alcohol and the distillation, to create the original witch hazel cleanser: “Pond’s Extract”. That was in the 1840s. Nowadays, witch hazel is used as a foundation in many toners, cleansers, clarifying products and makeup removers by pharmaceutical companies such as Estée Lauder, L’Oreal, Revlon and Neutrogena.
You can also buy topical cleansers with witch hazel as the main ingredient, and as we will now discuss, there’s a goldmine of glowing studies for witch hazel, against all manner of skin conditions.
Witch hazel is bursting with antioxidants…
All plants contain at least small amounts of antioxidants; a plant needs them for defence against UV light, diseases, and in some cases, tiny predators such as insects or bacteria. Witch hazel however, is on a whole other level.
The witch hazel leaves and bark from which the extract is distilled contain up to 10% tannins by weight. Tannins are a type of polyphenol antioxidant which has been shown in many studies to reduce inflammation and irritation when applied topically.
Specifically, the bark contains the unique hamamelitannins, while the leaves contain ellagitannins. The presence of ellagitannins is especially interesting as they are known to have strong antioxidant activity; this study examined ellagitannins from red raspberries and cloudberries and concluded that “cloudberry and red raspberry ellagitannins were highly effective as radical scavengers”.
This study tested hamamelitannins from witch hazel bark. It found that “hamamelitannin and gallic acid showed potent scavenging activities against all active oxygens tested”, or in other words, it effectively destroyed free radicals. Furthermore, this study was performed on cells exposed to UVB radiation from sunlight, a common source of the free radicals behind acne in humans.
Witch hazel contains many other antioxidants and natural compounds according to this study, including gallic acid, catechins, proanthocyanins, flavonoids (kaempferol, quercetin), essential oils (carvacrol, eugenol, hexenol), choline, and saponins. Applying these antioxidants topically is terrific for acne since they deactivate free radicals on the surface of the skin. Free radicals lead to blocked pores through damage to sebum and acne itself through inflammation.
…which have proven free radical hunting powers
Tons of studies have demonstrated witch hazel’s strong antioxidant powers overall. A series of three studies from 1993, 1994, and 1995 examined the extract of both witch hazel leaf and bark, extracted with alcohol.
The extracts were applied to a wide variety of free radicals, and a variety of promising results were obtained. The scientists commented that witch hazel had antioxidant activity comparable to superoxide dismutase, one of the most powerful antioxidants in the human body. They claimed that witch hazel had a high affinity for human cells and cell membranes and hence was highly equipped to defend them against reactive oxygen species (free radicals).
Witch hazel was also tested on guinea pig skin and found to have a large suppressive activity on peroxidation, which is excellent news, because peroxidation of the oil (sebum) on human skin is a major cause of acne. Witch hazel had a synergistic effect with vitamin E; it enhanced its antioxidant powers. Vitamin E is the most important antioxidant for preventing acne
Interestingly, the bark extract was found to have stronger antioxidant powers than the leaf, though both were effective. Hamamelitannins were specifically noted to effectively protect skin cells against injury from active free radicals. That’s as close to stating “it’s an effective acne treatment” as you can get without actually saying it.
Topical antioxidants are a major development in the pharmaceutical skincare industry, but witch hazel is a ready-made version found in nature. Furthermore, it has a complexity and variety of both known and still unknown antioxidants that pharmaceutical scientists will likely not match for some time. Different antioxidants tackle different free radicals (though with substantial overlap), so a large variety gives you the best possible chance to prevent acne.
Witch hazel grants eternal youth?
Witch hazel has also been shown to tackle aging, which may partly be due to the inhibition of free radicals by antioxidants, or other plant compounds that improve collagen synthesis, lessen inflammation, improve resistance of cells to damage, or function mysteriously. In 2005 a clinical study was performed with a witch hazel ointment, which studied dry aging skin in 89 patients with a minimum age of 50 years. Patients were treated with Hametum (witch hazel) ointment, applied twice daily for a total of four weeks.
At the conclusion of the study there was “a significant and clinically relevant improvement of skin sebum content and moisture”. The improvement of symptoms was statistically significant for every variable tested, which included skin tautness, skin roughness, and itching. A pronounced improvement was noted after just two weeks of witch hazel treatment.
Also, there were no side effects; the tolerability of the skin was noted as being very good.
In addition to the aging reversal, the scientists commented that witch hazel had potential wound healing properties. They commented that the observed effects of witch hazel could be caused by “the healing promoting action of the hamamelis (witch hazel) distillate contained in the ointment”. It’s possible that this could translate to healing old and drying acne faster.
Witch hazel is strongly anti-inflammatory
The ability of witch hazel to inhibit inflammatory chemicals in the skin, chemicals such as interleukin-8, IL-6, and TNF-a which are common causes of acne, is one of its strongest points.
Our first study from 1993 combined witch hazel with an aftersun lotion to create a 10% witch hazel solution and tested its anti-inflammatory powers against several other aftersun lotions which didn’t contain WH. The test subjects were 30 healthy volunteers with mild sunburn. One group was treated with the witch hazel aftersun while other groups received aftersun lotions without witch hazel. Both groups were examined 7hrs, 24 hrs, and 48hrs after the initial sunburn.
After 7 hours, the witch hazel successfully suppressed sunburn symptoms by roughly 20% and by 48hrs this had increased to 27%. Meanwhile, the other lotions suppressed sunburn symptoms by a mere 11-15%.
According to the scientists: “Significant differences were noted between hamamelis and these lotions”. They reached a promising conclusion: “The results provide evidence for the topical use of hamamelis distillate for the treatment of minor inflammatory skin diseases which do not need treatment with potent corticosteroids”. Acne vulgaris is exactly that: a minor inflammatory skin disease. Another study from 1998 also demonstrated that witch hazel could combat inflammation caused by excessive sun exposure.
A more recent study from 2001 tested the anti-inflammatory properties of witch hazel against human skin that had been deliberately irritated with sodium lauryl sulphate, which is a controversial ingredient in many shampoos and personal care products. In fact, SLS is often blamed by many for causing acne itself.
Scientists applied SLS to the forearms of 15 healthy volunteers, and compared witch hazel to several products without witch hazel. Apparently, the witch hazel caused significant reductions in skin redness after seven days. The reduction in inflammation was comparable to the drug hydrocortisone, which was also tested.
The history of witch hazel is promising
As we discussed earlier, the Native Americans used witch hazel bark extract for a wide variety of ailments, and many are indicative of its anti-inflammatory properties.
The Osage tribe of the Midwest used witch hazel bark to treat sores and skin ulcers, and the Iroquoi brewed a tea to treat dysentery, colds, and coughs. The Potawatomi tribe of the Great Plains even steamed the twigs over hot rocks in their sweat lodges to soothe sore muscles.
Many different tribes produced witch hazel extract by boiling the stems of the shrub and producing a concoction which was used to treat swellings, tumours, and other inflammatory conditions. Treating eye inflammation is an especially documented usage of witch hazel extract, as is lessening the pain of ingrown toenails.
There are many other conditions which witch hazel has been used to treat: insect bites, poison ivy, psoriasis, shaving cuts, varicose veins. Not all are fully supported by scientists, but witch hazel is recommended to women to reduce and soothe inflammatory swelling and wounds resulting from childbirth, even by established national “baby clinics”. It’s unbelievable that mainstream dermatology has nothing to say about witch hazel and even dismisses it as American Indian hocus-pocus.
Witch Hazel has good antibacterial properties
Compared to the likes of tea tree oil and thyme oil, witch hazel’s antibacterial powers are not as extensively documented. Nevertheless, what experiments have been conducted are very promising.
Firstly, remember back to the tannin antioxidants we discussed earlier. The predominant tannins in witch hazel leaf extract are ellagitannins, which were examined in massive detail in this recent review from 2014.
Apparently, ellagitannins have extremely powerful antibacterial properties; they “exhibit antimicrobial activity against fungi, viruses, and importantly, bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant strains such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus”. If it’s powerful enough to kill s.aureas (the resistant strain of bacteria behind fatal MRSA infections in hospitals) then our good friend p.acnes bacteria won’t stand a chance.
Another study from 2002 examined the antibacterial properties of witch hazel in its entirety. Scientists compared the antimicrobial activity of a distillate of witch hazel to two other dermatological preparations (urea and USP 23). The study was conducted on 15 healthy volunteers.
The witch hazel showed significant antimicrobial activity on microorganisms. The scientists commented that while formulations of witch hazel are mainly used for their anti-inflammatory and hydrating properties, the antimicrobial properties were an added benefit. They commented that the antimicrobial properties of witch hazel would be useful for managing atopic dermatitis, and that’s a skin condition with similar origins to acne.
What’s very interesting is this comment: “the organisms involved in the pathogenesis of these conditions are susceptible to the hamamelis preparations”. Apparently, witch hazel is particularly effective against the bacteria behind skin conditions.
Could that apply to p.acnes bacteria? There aren’t studies directly on p.acnes and witch hazel. However, there has been a bucketload of studies that applied witch hazel to eczema patients.
One randomized double blind comparison study assessed the effectiveness of two different ointments containing witch hazel in the treatment of 22 patients with moderate or severe eczema. Patients were treated three times daily for an average of 17 days, with the treatment duration lasting between 5 to 22 days. Both treatments reduced the severity of symptoms such as desquamation (skin peeling and scaling) of the skin, redness, and itching, with desquamation showing a large reduction of 55%.
Another study was a pilot experiment which applied a cream containing witch hazel leaf extract to eczema patients twice daily for two weeks. Significant improvements were noted in symptoms such as inflammation and itching. Preliminary experiments have been conducted on dermatitis patients as well.
The only piece of evidence we lack about witch hazel’s power as an acne clearing topical treatment is a direct study on acne itself. Nevertheless, the evidence is so strong that it can tackle all the areas behind the beginning of pimples that it simply has to have some effect. Indeed, the stories on the internet are very strong. Here are some testimonials:
- Witch hazel is amazing. I bought it a few weeks ago and can already notice a difference in my skin.
- My skin is incredibly soft and clean.
- Witch hazel made my skin so clear that I cried.
- When I woke up my face was pretty clear and had some blemishes but it looks so much better than before.
- I am amazed at how much better my skin looks after one week.
If you’re looking for a natural treatment for acne then witch hazel is an excellent choice. Of course there are tons of others; on this website I’ve previously issued glowing reports about raw honey, tea tree oil, thyme oil, rose water, and more.
However, witch hazel stands out especially well in the area of antioxidants and inflammation. Its antibacterial powers are merely decent, whereas raw honey is a bacteria killing juggernaut, as are thyme oil and tea tree oil. But none of those treatments have the antioxidant levels of witch hazel. Grapeseed oil is extremely high in vitamin E, one of the most important fat-soluble antioxidants, and hence is excellent for acne. However witch hazel specialises in more diverse and specific plant antioxidants.
Therefore, witch hazel cleansers and extracts can be particularly useful if you are exposed to excessive free radicals on a daily basis. For example, you may live in city with excessive air pollution, you may be addicted to cigarettes and hence expose your face to the warping effect of the smoke daily, or you may have skin that’s vulnerable to sunlight. If antioxidants are what you want then witch hazel is a great choice. It’s also terrific for inflammation, with the moderate antibacterial powers being an added bonus.
The next question is: which is the greatest product? Well, that depends on whether you want an alcohol free product.
Many first time users report burning with distillations extracted using alcohol. The best alcohol free product is probably this Thayers Alcohol-Free Witch Hazel Toner. It’s a natural product with no harsh and unnecessary chemicals. Thayers witch hazel even contains aloe vera, another plant based acne treatment which is full of antioxidants, as well as trace nutrients, so you get a double whammy of acne-clearing power. I’ll be covering aloe vera in a future article. Applying the product is simple; simply dab some on a cotton puff.
Update 3/2/2016: here’s the article on aloe vera. Summary: it’s an excellent anti-inflammatory plant.
Witch hazel is yet another fantastic, natural topical treatment for clearing acne which has existed under our noses for thousands of years.
On this website I’ve already covered the following natural treatments: royal jelly, raw honey, thyme oil, rose water, tea tree oil, and coconut oil, and there’s a lot more to come. Update: read about the brilliance of grapeseed oil here.
All these products reduce inflammation, provide antioxidants and kill bacteria to some extent, but what’s fascinating is that they all work through different mechanisms and each contains a different array of natural antioxidants and compounds.
There are endless different choices for a natural acne treatment; there are endless opportunities for you to discover one that works for you. Everyone’s skin is different, everybody has a different diet, a different set of circumstances behind their acne. No-one can predict whether a certain plant or compound will cause a massive improvement for you.
There are so many promising options, and that’s why, if you’ve got the money, basic experimentation is one of the best acne strategies ever. Although you can’t fully cure acne without changing your diet and lifestyle, an effective topical treatment can take some of the pressure off if there are circumstances beyond your control (medical conditions, air pollution, unbeatable stress, and so on).
Witch hazel has no known side effects when applied topically, unless the tincture contains alcohol. Consuming too much witch hazel may cause nausea and dizziness, but consuming it is pointless anyway. Again, the best product is this Thayers Alcohol-Free Witch Hazel Toner.
Thanks for reading!