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Is Witch Hazel all its cracked up to be?

April 15, 2020

I’ve always liked Witch Hazel although I’ve never really analysed why.  I used to use it liberally on my acne-prone skin as a teenager and while I am not sure it did much good (I think most of my issues were internal rather than external) I’m not sure it did anything bad either.  However, what it did do is make me feel like I was doing something and that, it turned out, was enough for then.

Fast forward a few gazillion years and I’m here, staring at an email that’s come in from a client wanting a second opinion on this ingredient. Apparently another industry expert has lambasted this ingredient,  stating that most of ‘what you’ve read’ is anecdotal rather than scientific evidence.  It seems that the main concerns that this individual has with the ingredient are in relation to Witch Hazel’s tannins (that apparently are sensitising?).   Next, the alcohol which Witch Hazel is often supplied in is ‘never a good idea’ and finally that the volatile oil component of Witch Hazel contains eugenol (a bad, bad thing).

On reading this I felt a bit perplexed as there’s a lot going on here but no references (maybe the person requesting an answer to this opinion hadn’t cut and pasted the references or maybe there weren’t any, I don’t know).  There were certainly a lot of things to unpick and if I was to do this ingredient any justice and evaluate it properly I’d have to do a bit of a deep dive into some science and suspend my own bias as much as possible.  And that’s what I did.

On Witch Hazel in General. 

Hamamelis Virginia.

This herb was used by Native American Indians for burns and injuries although I don’t know how they prepared it, from which plant part , etc.  However, whatever they did made an impression as it exists in a few pharmacopoeia outside of the USA.  A monograph exists in the old British Pharmacopeia,  the German and Various Herbal Reference Books as far as I can see.  I did find though that in the US herbal ingredients are not regulated this way as they are treated as foods (I think that’s right, I’m less focused on the minutia of human law so you may want to double check that if you want to know the exact situation in the US).

It’s important to note that Witch Hazel extract isn’t just one thing.  There’s a powder made from the bark that could be brewed up in water and then strained,  there’s a bark extract made up in alcohol to get a fuller extraction there’s a leaf extract prepared in a variety of ways and there are fermented extracts.  It’s quite likely that there are  other presentations of this available as well but I couldn’t find any on this search.

The Witch Hazel I know best is the alcohol extraction, this generally contains a residual 14% ethanol carried over from the mashing up of the bark and the extraction of the phytochemical.  Bark material is quite hard and so typically needs a solvent with a bit more oomph than just water or even glycerin to soften it so that its chemistry can be collected, alcohol is just the thing.  I did find a paper on my travels that found the concentration of one of the Witch Hazel extracts, Hamamelitannin, to be 31 times stronger in the bark than the leaf and 87 times stronger than in the stem.

So from that we should address the alcohol part.

Alcohol (as in ethanol in this case) can be very drying to the skin.  During these COVID19 times most of us who have partaken in the alcohol sanitiser ritual will attest to that fact.  Alcohol can denature your skin proteins which is not a nice thing to have happen. When this happens it feels irritating although it’s important to note that alcohol is not a dermal allergen or sensitiser (people don’t become allergic to it).  Think of alcohol like you would think of a carpet burn. If you keep rubbing your skin at reasonable speed across a carpet you’ll get a burn because of the physical abrasion.  You could keep on doing that and it would keep on being irritating, your skin would probably not ‘get used’ to it although you may become less sensitised to that sensation (conditioning). However, you would not say ‘oh I can’t rub my skin on the carpet as I’m allergic to it’ would you?  Alcohol is the same but it applies its abrasion via chemical means.  The carpet rubs off your skin indiscriminately, alcohol messes up your proteins in a targeted and knowable way.

Not only does alcohol mess with your proteins, it’s also got solvency properties which is a double edged sword.  One of the reasons that alcohol is used with herbs is for its capacity to capture and hold onto plant chemicals so that they may be available to the skin or body (if you ingest them).  However, alcohols solvency doesn’t stop there, one reason why alcohol is a carcinogen is because of its ability to dissolve membranes (the protein thing above) but also because it opens the door (be that the skin or internal organs) to other things we ingest or apply with it.  So, if you have alcohol in your skincare, be aware that everything else in your skincare has now got options on an easy passage through to the deeper skin layers, whether the other chemicals take that ride or not will depend on their chemistry, abundance and the product type.  I mention this as there are various mentions of Witch Hazel in skincare formulations that have caused people to become irritated.  While it may be that Witch Hazel is inherently irritating,  I have my suspicions that the alcohol effect may be skewing things here – you can’t have super active Witch Hazel without alcohol plus most Witch Hazel formulations are targeted at ‘problem’ skin which may already have a vulnerable or compromised barrier. So are formulations with Witch Hazel in sometimes irritating because of the Witch Hazel or because of these other things? It’s not that easy after all…

So back to alcohol.

Sounds like a shit of an ingredient.

Well, it is and it isn’t. While I’d never advocate for a 100% alcohol rinse of the skin every-day,  it’s easy to find evidence to support the safe use of ethanol in cosmetic formulations.  Take the World Health Organisations work on hand sanitisers for goodness sake!  They found that adding only 0.5% of Glycerin to a 70% Ethanol hand wash was enough to counter the drying effects of the product while bringing no detriment to the antimicrobial action of the product.  I feel that if we can do that then most cosmetic products are not at risk  of being irritating because of alcohol. However I  definitely would check my formula to make sure there’s nothing likely to cause issues should it go on a road trip through the dermis because of ethanol.

In summary, the comment about ‘alcohol never being a good idea’ seems impractical given that alcohol actually helps us access many plant chemicals and forms the basis for practically all herbal medicines as far as I can see (either than or my herbalist is an alcoholic 🙂 )

Next, Tannins.

So apparently, the tannins in Witch Hazel are sensitising although I’m not sure from the piece I read whether that means all the tannins or just some.  The comment also suggests that Witch Hazel extract is around 8-12% of these chemicals which I guess could be quite a lot of sensitising active if you use Witch Hazel neat (which I used to do).  By the way, most cosmetic formulations use Witch Hazel diluted, using maybe 1-20% in a formula unless it happens to be a Witch Hazel Toner where you literally can just go all out with this as the only ingredient (Witch Hazel, residual water, Alcohol, preservative).

What are Witch Hazel Tannins then?

SORRY ABOUT ALL THE LINKS BUT THIS BIT IS IMPORTANT. 

I like to name my chemicals as that’s always a good plan if you want to enable other people to actually critically analyse your data.  So it may be good to dive into this tannins situation a bit more personally.

According to Cosmetic Ingredient Review data (I’ve linked to this three times in total as it’s a really important paper) Witch Hazel contains between 3-12% Tannins (leaf less, bark more).

Apparently there are two families of tannins in Witch Hazel: Hydrolizable and Condensed.

Hydrolizable tannins are based on Gallic or Ellagic Acid.  

Chemically these phenolics are linked to a sugar molecule that can be split off by hydrolysis hence their name.  This paper also states that these are usually yellow/ brown in colour. 

Gallic and Ellagic Acid are well known cosmetic tannins.  Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG) is from the same family and its this that makes Green Tea so great.  Gallic acid was found in all thirty of these Aurevedic plants in this study so I’d be pretty surprised to find out that it was a bad guy.

Ellagic Acid is even nicer (my bias is showing here, I love sugar) as that’s found in lots of sweet fruits like Strawberries, Raspberries and Cranberries.

Then there is the Hamemelitannins which are abundant in Witch Hazel (as you would expect from the name). These are Gallic Acid types and these are powerful antioxidants as seen here. 

These Hamemelitannins get to the heart of what makes Witch Hazel special and different to other antioxidant rich extracts.  These have been found to be very powerful at protecting cells against superoxide anion as seen here and this free radical is important in dermatology because it’s the one that causes most extrinsic (environmental or premature) cell ageing.   It’s not often that Witch Hazel is touted as anti-ageing but based on the evidence there’s no reason why it couldn’t be sold in that way.

Condensed Tannins. 

Condensed Tannins are described here on your helpful Wikipedia page.  These proanthocyanidins oxidise too Anthocyanins and are typically the chemistry that gives fruit and vegetables its rainbow of colours.   I’m wondering if it is these that are being referenced as being lost in the distillation process in the comments I was reading.  I don’t know for sure but whatever the case, there’s still a lot of antioxidant activity going on in Witch Hazel after the extract is made to make this a valid (and active) tannin-rich active.

Witch Hazel Whole Chemistry.

Here’s a link to the whole chemical make-up of Witch Hazel and its range of extracts. As you can see this is quite a complex beast, not unusual for a natural ‘active’.  I think there were 168 constituents found in the volatile fraction of the bark which gives you some idea of how crazy it is to try and analyse this and other herbs to find out what, precisely is going on and that’s what I’m going to talk about now.

In the case against Witch Hazel we have evidence that people have developed allergic reactions to Witch Hazel Distillates from cosmetic application of Witch Hazel products.  The Cosmetic Ingredient Review that I’ve linked to above highlights the case of a 31 year old woman who tested positive for a Witch Hazel allergy.   However, it becomes less surprising that allergies can and do happen when you take note of the fact that a) this is an active for helping to bring somewhat dysfunctional or sub-optimal skin back to normal and b) it’s often presented in alcohol which helps the actives to penetrate deeper than they otherwise would and c) Unlike many herbal actives that are typically present in cosmetics at no more than 5% at best, Witch Hazel is often incorporated at up to 10-20% or even as the whole product and d) this is a very complex and very active herbal extract.

So is Witch Hazel Chemistry (tannins) bad?

Look, I’m having a very hard time in finding anything to justify that position on.  I do wonder if maybe there’s been a misunderstanding of some of the science data.  There have been a few toxicological studies where the tannins from Witch Hazel have been isolated and concentrated then applied to cells. While antioxidant results were amazing, even showing tumour suppression and other such effects, there was, in some studies some cell toxicity reported.  However, if you read the study as it was intended this is unsurprising and totally irrelevant to a topical cosmetic application.

And finally Eugenol.

Aaahhhh eugenol…

Now again if we look at the Cosmetic Ingredient Review data we get the information we need to work out whether a) this is present and b) if it is present, does it pose a threat.

CIR data shows that the volatile oil fraction of Witch Hazel extract is only 0.05-0.1% of the total extract.  Anyone who has used Witch Hazel will know it has some volatile oil in it as the extract has a distinctive smell but learning that the smell is coming from a maximum of 0.1% ‘essential oil’ is but a bit ‘wow’ and also quite reassuring in terms of potential irritation potential.

So Eugenol, this is the active component in Clove. It’s what makes Clove so good at mould busting.  However, Clove contains over 70% Eugenol,  Witch Hazel contains next to nothing.

In terms of whether this is good, bad or indifferent for skin I turn to Robert Tisserand’s ‘Essential Oil Safety’.  Here I am reminded that Eugenol isn’t the best thing to put on your skin with gay abandon but neither is it the worst.  A sensible 0.5% max dermal use level is cited by the books authors.  That said, we must note that the EU legislators have listed Eugenol as one of their 26 Fragrance Allergens and as such, it should be listed if present at over 0.01% in a wash-off and 0.001% in a leave-on product.

So how much Eugenol could you get from using Witch Hazel?

Let’s say Volatile oil fraction was at the highest end of the range – 0.1%.

Let’s say we use Witch Hazel extract neat.

So we have 0.1% of Volatile oil on our face.

Now if we look back at the CIR data we see that Eugenol typically makes up 0% of the Leaf extract (less commonly used) but a whopping 2.41% of the bark extract (typical).

So now our 0.1% of volatile contains 2.41% of Eugenol which equates to 0.00241%

If we were using Bark Extract neat and if that bark extract contained Eugenol at the higher level in an extract with the maximum volatile concentration for a leave-on application we would have a notifiable level of Eugenol in our finished product.  It would need to go onto the label so that people could see it and decide if the product was right for them – typically people with fragrance allergies may avoid anything with listed fragrance allergens.

However, if this worst-case scenario extract was formulated into a cosmetic designed for rinse off, there would be no need for notification.  Also, if this extract was used for leave-on at concentrations of up to 80% we would not have to notify anyone.

That doesn’t seem like a massive risk to me whichever way you spin the data.

So what’s the bottom line for Witch Hazel?

As far as I can see there is, has never been and should continue to be no problem in using this ingredient either as an ingredient or as a product in skincare for leave on and/or rinse-off applications. I just can’t really find anything compelling me to suggest otherwise and have, instead found quite a lot of data to support the use of Witch Hazel as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory,  for environmental protection (again, based on antioxidant) and even as a moisturising active.

Maybe my bias towards liking this ingredient got the better of me of maybe the science speaks for its self.

Answers on a postcard…

Amanda x

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