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Witch Hazel Plants and Possible Help for Minor Skin Problems

Linda Crampton has an honors degree in biology. She is very interested in plant chemicals and their actions and benefits in the human body.

Witch hazel flowers in the winter

Witch hazel flowers in the winter

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 may 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.

A cultivar of witch hazel that has orange flowers

A cultivar of witch hazel that has orange flowers

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 a few species of owlet moths are active at that time of year and that they pollinate witch hazel flowers.

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

Tannins in Witch Hazel

The leaves of a witch hazel plant are high in tannins. These are bitter tasting, astringent chemicals that produce an unpleasant sensation of drying and shriveling tissue in the mouth when they are eaten in a high concentration. Tannins are found in many plants or their products, including cranberries, tea, coffee, and wine.

Witch hazel 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 vapor 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.

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.

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.

Safety Concerns

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.

References

  • Hamamelis or witch hazel facts from the Royal Horticultural Society (plus tips for growing the plants)
  • Information about witch hazel plants from the Missouri Botanical Garden
  • "Witch Hazel: Which Claims are True?" from Berkeley Wellness, University of California
  • Facts about tannins from the U.S. Forest Service
  • Witch hazel effects on health from WebMD

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

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 31, 2015:

Thanks for commenting and for sharing the information, midget38.

Michelle Liew from Singapore on July 31, 2015:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 13, 2014:

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

Tanya Jones from Texas USA on September 13, 2014:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 04, 2014:

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

ologsinquito from USA on August 04, 2014:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 20, 2013:

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

Kathryn from Windsor, Connecticut on March 20, 2013:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 28, 2012:

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.

David 470 from Pennsylvania, United States on July 28, 2012:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 28, 2012:

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

Healing Herbalist from The Hamlet of Effingham on July 28, 2012:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 28, 2012:

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!

Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on July 28, 2012:

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!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 28, 2012:

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.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 28, 2012:

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!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 23, 2012:

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.

Bev G from Wales, UK on July 23, 2012:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 23, 2012:

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

Dianna Mendez on July 23, 2012:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 23, 2012:

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.

Movie Master from United Kingdom on July 23, 2012:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 22, 2012:

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!

drbj and sherry from south Florida on July 22, 2012:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 22, 2012:

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

moonlake from America on July 22, 2012:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 22, 2012:

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!

Nell Rose from England on July 22, 2012:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 22, 2012:

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.

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on July 22, 2012:

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 !!!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 22, 2012:

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

Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on July 22, 2012:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 21, 2012:

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!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 21, 2012:

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?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 21, 2012:

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!

chrissieklinger from Pennsylvania on July 21, 2012:

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!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 21, 2012:

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.

Joyce Haragsim from Southern Nevada on July 21, 2012:

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

Voted up, useful and interesting, Joyce.