Witch Hazel: A Traditional and Useful Treatment for Skin Problems
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 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.
Origin of the Plant's Name
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.
The 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 flowers have a pleasant scent and are produced in the fall. They have long and 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 the plant 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 of the young plants.
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
Commercial Production of the Extract
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 the 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. The use of the extract on cuts worries me a little due to the risk of infection. It's generally easy to stop a small cut from bleeding by putting a little pressure on it with a sterile cover of some kind. The extract is also 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. The extract 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 the extract 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 Extract
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 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 extract 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 a product irritates acne, the alcohol rather than the witch hazel may be responsible. An alcohol-free product should be tested to see whether it's effective before discarding the treatment.
Some people say that witch hazel helps their psoriasis or eczema. It's a good idea to try a version of the extract 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 the extract 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
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 the Witch Hazel in Your Garden
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.
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- "Witch Hazel: Which Claims are True?" Berkeley Wellness. http://www.berkeleywellness.com/self-care/home-remedies/article/witch-hazel-which-claims-are-true (accessed September 11, 2017).
- "Witch Hazel." WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-227-witch%20hazel.aspx?activeingredientid=227 (accessed September 10, 2017).
- "Witch Hazel." Toxnet. https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/a?dbs+hsdb:@term+@DOCNO+4354 (accessed September 11, 2017)
© 2012 Linda Crampton