Witch Hazel - A Traditional and Useful Treatment for Skin Problems

Witch hazel flowers in the winter
Witch hazel flowers in the winter | Source

What is Witch Hazel?

Witch hazel extract is a traditional treatment for skin problems that is still used today. It’s made from the leaves and bark of the witch hazel plant. This shrub or small tree grows wild in the eastern part of Canada and the United States. Boiling the stems of the plant in water produces a liquid that can be used as an astringent, a substance that shrinks tissues. Astringents can relieve the pain caused by swelling. The term "witch hazel" is commonly used for both the plant and its extract.

The witch hazel shrub was once used as a medicinal plant by the native peoples of North America. The extract was a popular folk medicine in the past and is sold in drug stores today. It's used for conditions such as insect stings and bites, bruises, bumps with a known cause, hemorrhoids and minor cuts and scrapes. It’s sometimes known as Hamamelis water, since Hamamelis is the first word in the scientific name of the witch hazel plant.

Witch hazel can be very useful as a treatment for minor problems. However, it's important to remember that medical treatment is required for skin swelling caused by infections, allergic reactions or major injuries. In addition, unexplained bumps and swellings or ones that don't disappear should be investigated by a doctor.

A cultivar of witch hazel
A cultivar of witch hazel | Source

Origin of the Name Witch Hazel

It's not certain how the English name of the witch hazel plant arose. The word "witch" may have come from the middle English word "wiche", which means bendable or pliant. When immigrants arrived in North America from Britain, some of them used the witch hazel's flexible branches to dowse for water. It's thought that the plant reminded them of the wych elm in Britain, whose branches were also used for dowsing. It's also been suggested that the word "witch" was chosen because dowsing seemed like a magical process.

The origin of the "hazel" part of the plant's name is easier to explain. People probably thought that the plant was a type of hazel because its leaves look similar to hazel leaves. The two plants aren't closely related, however.

Witch hazel leaves
Witch hazel leaves | Source

The Witch Hazel or Hamamelis Plant

The most widespread species of witch hazel in North America is Hamamelis virginiana. It has oval leaves with a wavy edge. The yellow, scented flowers are produced in the fall. They have long, narrow petals that look like tassels and remind some people of yellow spiders. Other witch hazel species flower in winter and have yellow, orange or red flowers that look very attractive against the bare branches of the shrub. An alternate name for witch hazel in North America is winterbloom. Another alternate name is snapping hazel. The seed capsules open suddenly and forcefully to release their seeds, which travel through the air and land away from the plant. This prevents overcrowding.

Witch hazel is often used as an ornamental plant. A variety of cultivars exist. The cheerful flower colours brighten up the fall and winter. Some plants have leaves which turn a lovely red, orange or golden colour in the autumn.

The leaves of the witch hazel plant are high in tannins. These are bitter tasting, astringent molecules which produce an unpleasant sensation of drying and shriveling tissue in the mouth when they are eaten in a high concentration. The leaves can be crumpled and squeezed to make a poultice to apply to irritated areas. The tannins in the leaves can stop bleeding from minor cuts by constricting capillaries. They can also be placed on stings and on itchy or swollen patches of skin to provide relief.

Witch Hazel in Bloom

Witch Hazel Extract Production

The water extract of witch hazel stems is often distilled to purify and concentrate the ingredients. The liquid is gently heated, usually by the addition of steam, so that some of its vital components vaporize. The vapour is collected and condensed, producing a liquid known as a distillate. The distillate is then added to ethyl alcohol. The result is known as "distilled witch hazel extract" - or simply as witch hazel - when it's sold in stores. The final product usually consists of about 85% witch hazel distillate and 15% ethyl alcohol and water.

How To Use The Witch Hazel Plant

Uses of Witch Hazel Extract

Witch hazel is available as a liquid, a cream and a medicated pad. People apply witch hazel to swellings caused by stings, bumps and bruises in order to reduce pain. It's also used on minor cuts and abrasions and on inflamed areas. In addition, it's used in chilled pads to soothe postpartum pain.

Hemorrhoids are caused by swollen veins. The astringent action of witch hazel may shrink external hemorrhoids and relieve pain. Witch hazel is sometimes used on other health disorders as well, such as varicose veins and sprains. It may or may not help these problems. There isn't enough evidence to recommend the use of witch hazel for these conditions yet, but it's worth trying the product to see if it helps.

Although witch hazel can soothe pain by reducing swelling, it's not a cure for the problem that caused the swelling. If witch hazel fails to help you or if your problem returns after witch hazel treatment is stopped, visit your doctor.

Other Uses of Witch Hazel

The astringent nature of witch hazel is well known by people familiar with the extract. Witch hazel may be an anti-inflammatory substance in addition to being an astringent, however. It's added to some eye drops in order to relieve sore or irritated eyes.

Witch hazel in its first aid formulation is generally sold in a plastic bottle in drug stores and in the pharmacy sections of other stores. The liquid in this bottle must never be put into the eyes. This solution is far too concentrated and likely contains alcohol, which is also dangerous. Anyone who wants to use eye drops should buy a bottle of sterile liquid intended for the eyes, uses the drops in small quantities and follows the instructions on the dropper bottle carefully.

Witch hazel is sometimes used as a cleanser and toner and is added to products such as after-shave lotions. It produces a refreshing and tightening sensation in the skin and stops bleeding from small cuts. It's also added to some mouthwashes and is thought to be mildly antibacterial.

Witch hazel flowers
Witch hazel flowers | Source

Witch Hazel for Acne, Psoriasis and Eczema

Some people try using witch hazel to help acne, but the results seem to be mixed. In some instances the witch hazel helps, but in others it either doesn't help or makes the skin look worse. Unfortunately, the effects of witch hazel haven't been widely explored by scientists, so sometimes anecdotal and personal evidence for its benefits or disadvantages is all that's available.

Deciding whether witch hazel is helpful or harmful for a particular problem is complicated by the fact that the extract is often mixed with alcohol. If witch hazel irritates acne, the alcohol rather than the witch hazel extract may be responsible. An alcohol-free product should be tested to see whether it's effective before discarding the witch hazel treatment.

Some people say that witch hazel helps their psoriasis or eczema. It's a good idea to try a version of witch hazel that is free of alcohol if you have one of these disorders and want to see if witch hazel helps. It's also a good idea to check the effect of witch hazel on a small section of the irritated area first before applying it to the rest of the problem area.

A Dermatologist's View of Witch Hazel

Safety

Witch hazel is safe when applied to the skin but may not be safe when taken internally. Not enough is known about its action inside the body. It contains many different chemicals, some of which may be harmful when ingested. Large quantities of witch hazel can cause stomach upset and may damage the liver. Even small quantities may be harmful, however.

The NIH (National Institutes of Health) classifies witch hazel as slightly toxic. Some people do take small doses of witch hazel internally (specially formulated as a drink), but I don't think this is worth the risk. The extract is usually recommended for external use only and should be kept out of the reach of children and pets.

Another case where caution is needed is with the use of eye drops. Anything that's put in the eyes must be sterile and safe. Preparing a home treatment for the eyes is definitely not advisable. Only commercial products that have been formulated for eye treatment should be used. In addition, witch hazel should be used cautiously if you have acne, psoriasis or eczema until you know that the extract is helpful or at least harmless for your condition instead of being harmful.

Showcasing Your Witch Hazel

An Ancient Remedy for Today

It's interesting that old remedies like witch hazel are still popular and widely available today. They make good additions to a first aid kit or medicine cabinet and can be very helpful for minor problems. Remember, though, that witch hazel is a treatment for symptoms rather than a cure for a disorder. If the combination of witch hazel and the body's own healing mechanisms doesn't cure a problem, a doctor should be consulted.

© 2012 Linda Crampton

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Comments 38 comments

writer20 profile image

writer20 4 years ago from Southern Nevada

Great hub to read. I wonder it Witch Hazel is any for R/A swelling fingers?

Voted up, useful and interesting, Joyce.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Joyce. Thanks for the comment and the votes! I've never seen any reference which shows that witch hazel works for RA swelling, I'm afraid.


chrissieklinger profile image

chrissieklinger 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

I tried witch hazel for my face years ago but it may have had alcohol, I may have to try it again and see if it helps. Voted up and useful!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the votes, Chrissie. Yes, it's sometimes hard to decide how helpful witch hazel is for a skin problem because the alcohol that's mixed with the extract may be affecting the skin!


Ericdierker profile image

Ericdierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

I liked reading this. Astringents make sense for exterior applications. I don't really recall hearing that Native Americans ingested the stuff. I ponder, what the effect of an astringent is on my tummy?


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Ericdierker. Thanks for the visit and the comment. I have read that Native Americans took witch hazel internally in the form of a tea, but as I say in my hub this isn't considered to be a good idea today and can hurt the stomach. The action of a large quantity of an astringent on stomach tissue certainly doesn't sound pleasant!


Just Ask Susan profile image

Just Ask Susan 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

I have witch hazel in my medicine cabinet but cannot remember what I bought it for. My husband gets these little bumps on his arms from the sun and they're really itchy. He usually uses hydrocortisone cream but I may have him try the witch hazel. Very informative hub on witch hazel. Up, useful and interesting.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment and the votes, Susan. I have witch hazel in my medicine cabinet, too. It's useful stuff!


kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 4 years ago from Massachusetts

Hi my friend great information on witch hazel and it's many uses, my mom use to use all the time when we were kids .

Well done ! Vote up and more !!!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the comment, Tom. I don't remember my family using witch hazel when I was a child, but we certainly use it now we are adults! I appreciate the votes.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi Alicia, I have used Witch Hazel lots of times and its really good, especially on bruises when I twist my ankle, really interesting hub and great info thanks, voted up! nell


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Nell. It's very interesting to hear that witch hazel works on your bruises. I've never used it for this purpose. Thanks for the comment, the information and the vote!


moonlake profile image

moonlake 4 years ago from America

I always keep witch hazel around. I need it with all he mosquitoes we have. Voted up and more.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, moonlake. Witch hazel does work well on mosquito bites! Thank you very much for the votes.


drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

I'm familiar with witch hazel, Alicia, because it is a very old remedy that has been around even longer than me. Thanks for enlarging my sphere of knowledge concerning its history. Well done, m'dear.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, drbj. I didn't start using witch hazel until a few years ago, but I love the stuff now!


Movie Master profile image

Movie Master 4 years ago from United Kingdom

Hi Alicia, I had heard that Witch hazel has some great healing qualities but have never used it - thank you for this interesting information, it certainly is something I will buy now and I am sure I will find plenty of uses for it!

Voted up, best wishes Lesley


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the visit, the comment and the vote, Lesley. I'm sure you will find witch hazel very useful! Best wishes to you, as well.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

Witch Hazel was a common household remedy for many things back in the 50's. I remember my mother mentioning this to her friends and encouraging them to use it for cuts, etc. I am going to have to look this up next time I am at the store. Voted up.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the visit and the vote, teaches. Yes, witch hazel is an old remedy, but it's still very useful!


theraggededge profile image

theraggededge 4 years ago from Wales

My mother always had a bottle in the bathroom cabinet. I think she used it as a cleanser or skin tonic. I remember being dabbed with it but don't know why - probably a bruise or scrape (ouch!). I think we used it in place of iodine.

Interesting information. Thank you.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, theraggededge. My mother never used witch hazel when she was treating my wounds, as far as I can remember. I'm glad that I discovered it as an adult.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

Hi Alicia,

Some of these old fashioned remedies turn out to be factually based when tested as is the case with witch hazel. I really enjoyed that first video where the person shows what the trees/shrubs and leaves look like for accurate identifying purposes. This information + yours is good to know. Voted up, useful, interesting and will share. Thanks!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Peggy. Yes, I find it very interesting when traditional folk medicines are found to be effective today! Thank you very much for the comment, the votes and the share.


sgbrown profile image

sgbrown 4 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

Great information. I have heard of witch hazel but I wasn't aware of all it's uses. It sound like I need to pick some up and keep it handy around the house. Voted up and useful!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment and votes, sgbrown! Yes, witch hazel is a useful substance to have in the house. I like having it available!


cloverleaffarm profile image

cloverleaffarm 4 years ago from The Hamlet of Effingham

Great hub. Love witch hazel. I use it in many of my products for it's awesome healing benefits. Voted up and shared.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, cloverleaffarm. I appreciate the vote and the share!


David 470 profile image

David 470 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, United States

I tried using witch hazel for acne. It seems like it works to an extent -- it produces strange results, however. Initially it does not does like it will do anything, but eventually my acne gets dried up and disinigrates kind of.

Great hub! Nice to see a hub on this because I always wondered about witch hazel


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, David 470. Thanks for the comment. I've never tried using witch hazel for acne, but I've read conflicting reports about its effect. Some people love it for this use while other people say that it doesn't work. Thank you for sharing your experience.


Kathryn Stratford profile image

Kathryn Stratford 3 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

This is very informative article on witch hazel! I was expecting just a little bit of information, and you actually expanded my knowledge of the plant and the uses for witch hazel. It is in some things I didn't realize.

Thanks for sharing this with us.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Kathryn! I appreciate your comment.


ologsinquito profile image

ologsinquito 2 years ago from USA

This item has become so common that I think we tend to take it for granted. But it seems as if it should be a first line of defense for many common skin problems.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Yes, witch hazel is a useful substance. Thanks for commenting, ologsinquito.


Arachnea profile image

Arachnea 2 years ago from Texas USA

I've used witch hazel for sunburn and mosquito bites for years. Very well presented information and useful hub.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Arachnea. It's interesting to hear how helpful witch hazel has been for you!


midget38 profile image

midget38 16 months ago from Singapore

I use it often too. It's quite effective.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 16 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for commenting and for sharing the information, midget38.

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