Witch Hazel and a Possible Treatment for Minor 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, or a substance that shrinks tissues. Astringents may relieve the pain caused by local and minor swelling on the skin. 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, 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 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 has 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 belongs to the order Saxifragales and the family Hamamelidaceae. Hazel trees belong to the order Fagales and the family Betulaceae, which is sometimes known as the birch family.
The Hamamelis or Witch Hazel Plant
The most widespread species of witch hazel in North America is Hamamelis virginiana. It's known as the common or the eastern witch hazel. It has oval leaves with a wavy edge. The yellow flowers have a pleasant scent and are produced in the late fall and early winter. They have long and narrow petals that look like tassels and remind some people of yellow spiders. Vernal or Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) flowers in winter and has yellow, orange, or red flowers that look very attractive against the bare branches of the shrub. It's native to the Ozark Plateau.
An alternate name for witch hazels 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.
The flowers of witch hazel are adapted for insect pollination. For a long time, researchers were puzzled about how the flowers could be pollinated in winter when no insects appear to be active. Scientists have now discovered that owlet moths are active and that they pollinate witch hazel flowers.
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 that turn a lovely red, orange, or golden colour in the autumn.
Tannins in Witch Hazel
The leaves of a witch hazel plant are high in tannins. These are bitter tasting, astringent molecules that produce an unpleasant sensation of drying and shriveling tissue in the mouth when they are eaten in a high concentration. The leaves are sometimes crumpled and squeezed to make a poultice to apply to irritated areas. The tannins in the leaves may stop bleeding from minor cuts by constricting capillaries. The leaves are also placed on stings and on itchy or swollen patches of skin to provide relief. As mentioned below, the potential for infection should always be considered when something is placed on an open wound.
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 often consists of about 85% witch hazel distillate and 15% ethyl alcohol and water.
Witch hazel may soothe pain by reducing swelling and irritation, but it doesn't cure the cause of the problem. If the extract fails to help you or if the problem returns after the treatment is stopped, visit your doctor. You should also visit a doctor if you have questions about the potential effects of witch hazel on your condition.
Uses of the Extract
Witch hazel is available as a liquid, a cream, an ointment, 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, the extract is used in chilled pads to soothe postpartum pain.
The use of the extract on cuts worries me a little due to the risk of infection. The alcohol in a witch hazel solution may reduce this risk. It's generally easy to stop a small cut from bleeding by putting a little pressure on it with a sterile dressing of some kind, however.
Hemorrhoids are caused by swollen veins. The astringent action of witch hazel may shrink external hemorrhoids and relieve pain. Anyone who is experiencing bleeding from the anus should visit a doctor to check that the blood is coming form hemorrhoids and not another source.
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. Waiting to see if witch hazel works shouldn't delay a doctor's visit for a major problem, however.
WebMD says that witch hazel is "possibly effective" for minor bleeding, mild skin irritation, and the temporary relief of hemorrhoids.
Other Uses of Witch Hazel Extract
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 may be mildly antibacterial and anti-inflammatory.
Witch hazel in its first aid formulation is sometimes sold in a plastic bottle in drug stores and in the pharmacy sections of other stores. The liquid in this bottle must never be allowed to enter the mouth or the eyes. The solution is far too concentrated for safety and likely contains alcohol, which may also be dangerous. It's considered to be safe for skin application, although it's always possible that a particular individual may be sensitive to one of the components in the liquid.
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 are 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 problem area as a whole.
Witch hazel is said to be 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 when taken internally. The extract is recommended for external use only and should be kept out of the reach of children and pets.
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.
An Ancient Remedy for Today
It's interesting that old remedies like witch hazel are still popular and widely available today. A witch hazel preparation could make a good addition to a first aid kit or medicine cabinet and may be helpful for minor problems. Remember, though, that the preparation 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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2012 Linda Crampton