Witch hazel is a native North American shrub grown in low damp woods. Its other common names include winterbloom, wych-hazel, snapping hazel, tobacco wood, hamamelis and striped alder. The word “witch” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon “wych” meaning “flexible,” as the branches could be bent to make bows. It produces yellow flowers in the fall and typically grows to between 8 and 20 feet tall. The leaves, twigs and bark contain tannins and a volatile oil which is distilled to make witch hazel extract. Witch hazel is used to treat a variety of ailments, from sore feet and hemorrhoids to sunburn and headaches. However, relatively little clinical research into witch hazel has been done in the United States, and its use requires caution as it should not be ingested.
Witch hazel is used to treat many medical conditions. Its astringent properties promote the healing of skin and the reduction of swelling and inflammation. It is used to treat insect stings, oily skin, sunburn, windburn, eczema, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, acne and mouth and throat infections. It rapidly stops bleeding and is used to stop inwardly-bleeding piles as well as heals bruises. Tightening the skin proteins to repair the skin, witch hazel also protects against infection, as seen in the treatment of skin lesions. Research from Asia shows that the tannins in witch hazel account for its strong antioxidant properties.
Gels and Creams
Witch hazel is available in various forms but is usually administered as a liquid, gel or cream. An infusion of witch hazel, preserving the tannin astringents, is either mixed into a gel ointment base or used directly to treat a wound. It may be used as a compress to treat bruises, headaches, wounds, sores and hemorrhoids. Witch hazel pads and suppositories are also effective postpartum treatments. The soothing antibacterial properties of witch hazel calm inflammation and promote healing. Witch hazel can be used by women to treat hemorrhoids during pregnancy.
Witch hazel infusions are gargled to treat throat and mouth infections. However, care must be taken not to swallow the solution, as the tannin content can cause digestive complaints. Teas are brewed from leaves and twigs which are dried, then sold commercially in health food stores. However, their medical effectiveness and safety have not been investigated. Witch hazel contains small amounts of safrole, a potentially cancer-causing substance banned from foods by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the 1960s. As of 2000, research had yet to be conducted into the danger of safrole in witch hazel products.
Adverse Side Effects
Witch hazel should only be used externally. Undistilled witch hazel contains tannins which cause digestive irritation. If ingested, nausea, vomiting, constipation and impactions may occur. Extreme consumption can cause liver damage. Distilled witch hazel — hamamelis water or witch hazel distillate — does not contain tannins and is most commonly used directly on the skin. However, it can cause minor skin irritation in some individuals. If this occurs, it should be diluted to lessen its astringent effects. Be cautious when using witch hazel and, if pregnant, consult a physician before using the product.
References and ResourcesDrugs.com: Complete Witch Hazel Information
Hort.purdue.edu: Witch-Hazel; A.F. Sievers; April 3, 1998
Encyclopedia.com: Witch Hazel; Liz Swain and Rebecca Frey; 2005
Mayo Clinic: Postpartum Care: What to Expect After a Vaginal Birth; February 27, 2010
AmericanPregnancy.org: Pregnancy and Hemorrhoids; February 2007