17 Unexpected Benefits of Witch Hazel

February 24, 2016 at 8:56 PM

Although the name might sound like a sinister potion of the medieval times, with hazel actually refers to two things: the first is a genus of a plant family and the second is an astringent anti-inflammatory compound.

Witch hazel is a genus of the plant family Hamamelidaceae, which is mostly found in North America, Japan and China. The three species of witch hazel found in North America are H. ovalis, H. virginiana and H. vernalis, these species are occasionally referred to as winterbloom.

The compound that is extracted from the bark of North American witch hazel especially Hamamelis virginiana is a natural astringent and it is also called witch hazel (1). Witch hazel has many health and skin benefits and because of this it is used by many pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies. Witch hazel should not be used internally and it is manufactured and recommended for external use only (2).

Benefits of witch hazel

Witch hazel has been used for its medicinal properties for a long time. The astringent is derived from the leaves and bark of the shrub Hamamelis virginiana. Witch hazel despite its wicked name is very useful for the common problems that we all face on daily bases like pimples, acne and bug bites. Witch hazel is a natural alternative to many drugs used for rashes, sunburns, blisters and many other conditions.

Bleeding finger

The best part about using witch hazel is that it is natural and lacks all the harmful side effects that most artificially synthesized drugs may cause. 

  • Natural astringent: Astringent comes from the Latin word adstringere that means “to bind fast”. Astringent is a chemical compound that helps constrict or shrink blood vessels. Witch hazel contains high concentration of tannins that is an excellent astringent. Witch hazel due to this properties is used in cosmetic products and by pharmaceutical companies. The tannins in witch hazel helps dissolve dirt from skin, close pores and remove excess oil from skin. Making the use of witch hazel a part of your daily cleansing routine not only helps clear up your face but also prevents further blemishes and blackheads (3).
  • Relives hemorrhoids: Hemorrhoids are swollen blood vessels at the lowest part of the rectum. Sometimes the wall of blood vessels become so thin and stretches that they might bleed during bowl movements. Hemorrhoids can be internal or external. The internal hemorrhoids lie within the rectum while the external hemorrhoids lie at the anus region and are painful. Some common creams used to provide relief for hemorrhoids have witch hazel in them. Witch hazel suppositories can be used to treat hemorrhoids. Witch hazel helps to reduce swelling and constrict the blood vessels, it also helps relive the burning and itching sensation (4).
  • Post hair removal: The worst part about hair removal is the itching bumps after hair removal. Dabbing a little witch hazel after hair removal helps reduce inflammation and prevents those irritating bumps. Witch hazel prevents bleeding post wax hair removal. The alcohol in witch hazel kills the germs and prevents infection in hair follicles. Witch hazel also helps sooth razor burns and gives the skin a brighter look (5).
  • Stops bleeding: Witch hazel has been used for centuries to heal wounds and prevent infection. Witch hazel contains a concentrated amount of tannins that constricts the blood vessels and stops the bleeding. Witch hazel also helps reduce swelling and take the sting out of the wound. Witch hazel helps tighten the skin around the wound that helps it heal faster (6). The alcohol in witch hazel disinfects the wound. Witch hazel is a great thing to have in your first aid kit if you have hyper active kids that always seem to be getting cuts and scrapes.
  • Helps damaged gums: Bleeding and swollen gums are a sign of periodontal disease. Bleeding gums are a source of irritation and may get infected. Swollen gums if left untreated can ultimately lead to loosening of teeth. When people think about dental health their main focus is on preventing cavities but they should also pay attention to their gums. Using decoction of witch hazel as oral rinses helps reduced swelling and stops the bleeding by constricting the blood vessels. Witch hazel also helps kill germs. Witch hazel also helps with the healing of mouth ulcers (7).
  • Alleviates diaper rash: Diaper rash is a result of wet or infrequent changed diapers. Diaper rash appears as a patch of red inflamed skin on the baby’s bottom. Diaper rash can make the baby irritable that in turn makes the parents worried. Witch hazel is a natural treatment for diaper rash. Witch hazel is made from herbs so it’s safe for babies (8). Witch hazel helps reduce inflammation and helps sooth the itching and burning due to the rash. Witch hazel helps the skin heal faster and relives the baby’s discomfort and the parent’s worry.
  • Cools down sunburns: Sunburn is red, inflamed and painful skin that feels hot to touch. Sunburns occur due to prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays either from the sun or artificial sources like tanning beds. Sunburns can lead to dry and flaking skin. Witch hazel can work wonders on sunburns. Witch hazel helps reduce the inflammation and take away the sting of the burn. Witch hazel helps moisturize the skin and prevent flaking and peeling. Mixture of Aloe Vera and witch hazel is a specialist for treating sunburns (9).
  • Soothes bug bites and bee stings: Most bug bites cause mild swelling, pain, sting and discomfort. Most of the time the reaction to a bug bite or sting resolves within a day or two but some people might experience a prolonged reaction. Witch hazel is a natural remedy for soothing bug bites. Dapping a little witch hazel with cotton on the affect site can help reduce the inflammation, prevent further infection and sooth away the sting. Witch hazel also works wonder for pain and itching due to poison ivy. Having witch hazel in your bag when you go camping can be very useful (10).
  • Lightens blemishes and bruises: Blemishes are the minor marks on the skin that are a result of acne. Blemishes on the face are perceived as a mark of imperfection and people try a lot of things to get rid of them. Witch hazel is a natural answer to the problem of blemishes. Witch hazel also helps prevent the formation of bruises by constricting the blood vessels and reducing inflammation. Witch hazel helps fade the discoloration and also helps faster healing of skin. Witch hazel not only reduces blemishes but also prevents the formation of new ones (11).
  • Relief for varicose veins: Varicose veins are twisted, gnarled and enlarged veins near the surface of the skin. Varicose veins mostly occur at weight dependent areas like legs and ankles. The one-way valves of the veins become damaged and cause pooling of blood. Varicose veins are sometimes referred to as spider veins. Varicose veins are not a serious problem but it can lead to various complications if left untreated. Elevate your legs and take a terry cloth soaked in witch hazel and place it on the affected site. The high tannins content of witch hazel helps constrict the vessels and reduce the swelling (12).
  • Brightens area around eyes: Bags under the eyes are due to mild swelling or puffiness and they become more common with age. With age the tissue around the eyes including the muscles supporting the eyelids weaken. This may cause mild accumulation of fluid around the eyes that gives them a puffy appearance. Under eye bags give the face a tired and unhealthy look that is a cause of concern from a cosmetic point of view. Using cotton pads socked in witch hazel on your eyes or massaging witch hazel cream around your eyes can help reduce the puffiness and give them a brighter look.
  • Soothes a sore throat: Sore throat is one of the most common health complaints, especially during winter when respiratory diseases are at their peak. We have all experienced sore throat and itching, raw and burning sensation at the back of your throat is usually the first sign that the flu is on its way. Gargles with witch hazel decoction help alleviate sore throat. Witch hazel helps sooth the burning sensation and fights the bacterial that might be the cause of sore throat. Witch hazel helps reduce swelling and helps dry up the excess mucus (13).
  • Helps with chicken pox blisters: Chicken pox is an infectious disease that is cause by varicella zoster virus. The symptoms are mostly flu-like that include mild fever, sore throat, headache, skin rash and blisters. Chicken box mostly occurs in children. Witch hazel is a natural treatment of chicken pox. Due to its astringent properties witch hazel helps reduce itching and give the skin a cool feeling. Witch hazel also promotes the shrinkage of the blisters due to its anti-inflammatory action. Dab witch hazel with a cotton pad on the blisters throughout the day as needed (14).
  • Helps rejuvenate dry skin: Dry skin is the enemy of every girl especially in the winter. When makeup is applied on dry skin the result is less than satisfactory. Dry skin can lead to rashes, cuts and marks. Dryness can make your skin itchy and uncomfortable. Witch hazel helps return moisture to your skin and gives it a healthy glow. The essential oils in witch hazel rejuvenate the skin. When we wash our face with soap the pH of skin is altered, using witch hazel after washing your face can help restore the pH and impart a glow to your skin (15).
  • Helps fight dandruff: Dandruff is common chronic skin conditions that cause the flaking of the skin of the scalp. Although dandruff is not a serious condition but can be a cause of embarrassment and self-consciousness. Mild dandruff can be controlled by shampooing and conditioning of hair but in stubborn cases medicated shampoos or oils need to be used. The essential oils in witch hazel help nourish the scalp and rejuvenate the dry scalp skin. Using witch hazel as a conditioner after shampooing can help fight dandruff and give the hair a shining look (16).
  • Acne relief: Acne is a skin condition that occurs as a result of plugged hair follicles with oil and dead skin cells. Acne is one of the most devastating problems for a teenager. Acne mostly affects the face and neck. People with acne may suffer from social shyness or low self-esteem due to dissatisfaction with their appearance. Witch hazel is not only good for treating acne but also works wonders on acne scars. Witch hazel helps reduce redness, remove excess oil, decrease inflammation and pore size. Using witch hazel has a part of your daily cleansing routine can help treat acne. After washing your face, just put some witch hazel on a cotton pad and wipe it over your face. When you look at the cotton you may see some dirt and oil that has been dissolved by the witch hazel. For acne scar treatment you may also want to try olive oil. Here is a detailed guide on how to do it (17).
  • Helps clear up external otitis (swimmer's ear): Swimmer's ear refers to the infection of the outer ear canal that in medical terms is called otitis externa. This often occurs when moisture remains in your ear after swimming. The moisture helps provide the bacteria with a favorable environment for growth. The symptoms include redness of ear, pain, itching and fluid discharge from the ear. Witch hazel can be used in form of eardrops to clear up swimmers ear. A few drops of witch hazel placed in the external ear canal can help kill the bacteria, remove excess oil and breakdown the wax clogging the ear. After putting witch hazel in to the external ear, allow it to drain and then gently clean the ear with a cotton swab (18). 

Composition of witch hazel

Witch hazel is extracted from the bark of North American witch hazel. Witch hazel has been used for its properties as an astringent for centuries. The composition of witch hazel mainly includes calcium oxalate, gallotannins and safrole. Witch hazel also contains some essential oils like carvacrol and eugenol that are the main reason for its cosmetic properties. The pH of witch hazel is between 3.0 and 5.0 (acidic pH). Antioxidants like flavonoids are also present in witch hazel. Tannins is the main chemical compound that imparts astringent properties in witch hazel (19).

History of witch hazel

Witch hazel has been used for centuries for its healing properties. It was discovered by the Native Americans. Witch hazel has golden yellow flowers that can bloom in the dead of winter and this may have been the first thing to clue the Native Americans about its unusualness. Witch hazel, the name has a magic ring to it. Modern witches thought that witch hazel was a magical herb that had occult powers, which can keep away evil and mend broken hearts. Early Puritan settlers in New England adopted witch hazel as a remedy of sore muscles from the Native Americans. From here the use of witch hazel as an astringent and anti-inflammatory agent gained popularity and became well established in United States.  

Preparation of witch hazel

Witch hazel has been used for centuries as a poultice to heal and prevent infection of wound and cuts. It has also been well used for its anti-inflammatory properties. Before pharmaceutical companies started making witch hazel commercially, people used to make it themselves.

Witch hazel has a long history of medical use and now due to pharmaceutical companies witch hazel ointments and creams are easily available. Freshly cut and partially dried twigs of Hamamelis virginiana are distilled to get a clear and colorless distillate. 86% distillate of witch hazel is mixed with 14% of pure ethyl alcohol and distilled in a closed distillation process. Witch hazel can also be made at home by using fresh twigs from the witch hazel shrub. The leaves and flowers should be stripped off the twigs.

The twigs should be place in a large stainless steel pot and covered with distilled water. Now bring the contents to a boil. After boiling for a few minutes reduce the heat to a simmer and let it stew uncovered for about 8 hours. Add water to the pot frequently to keep the twigs submerged in water. After 8 hours when the twigs are soft, strain the witch hazel extract and place in a tight capped bottle. This extract can last up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator.

To make this extract shelf stable for long term storage measure the witch hazel extract and add a half the amount of alcohol from the pharmacy. If you keep this in a tight bottle and away from heat and moisture it can last about a year.  

Different forms of witch hazel available

Witch hazel is well known for its uses as an astringent and anti-inflammatory agent. Witch hazel can be used as a remedy for numerous ailments and be administered as required. The most commonly used form of witch hazel is ointment that is used to treat skin conditions. Gargles with a decoction of witch hazel can be used to relive the sting of mouth ulcers. Tincture can be used directly of the affected area of skin. Poultice of witch hazel can be applied to sores and wounds to prevent infection and help them heal. Witch hazel can be applied along with a cool compress to reduce swelling. Suppositories of witch hazel can be used to relive hemorrhoids. Essential oils are mixed in witch hazel gel or cream for cosmetic uses.

Storage of witch hazel

Witch hazel is an herbal concoction that is used for the treatment of many different ailments. Witch hazel should be stored at room temperature and away from moisture and heat. The heat can alter the chemical composition of witch hazel that can reduce its effectiveness. It should be kept out of reach of children and pets. Witch hazel when expired should not be poured down toilets and drains. Contact your local pharmacist for the proper disposal methods of witch hazel. 

Side effects and precautions when using witch hazel

Where there is good there has to be bad as well to bring balance to the world. Witch hazel has an abundance of health and skin benefits but along with all its benefits it also has a few side effects. While the side effects of witch hazel are not many or sever, they should be kept in mind while using it.

Pregnant belly

Witch hazel is a natural astringent that is used as an anti-inflammatory agent, to relive acne, to treat dandruff and so on. But it’s a universal law that even an excess of anything good is bad, so while witch hazel is chock full of goodness it is still not a good idea to use it excessively or to frequently. Following below are the few main side effects and precautions that should be considered before using witch hazel:

  • Allergic reaction: Allergic reaction occurs when the body triggers an immune reaction in response to an invader (antigen). The symptoms of allergic reaction can range from mild skin rash and itching to sever breathing difficulty and dizziness. Although allergic reactions to witch hazel are not that common but people with history of other allergic reactions should be cautious (20).
  • Upset stomach: Witch hazel has been recommended for external use only. The tannins content within the witch hazel can cause an upset stomach. The symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, stomach ache and diarrhea. Due to this it is advised to avoid the internal use of witch hazel. People with liver or kidney disease should take cautions while using witch hazel (21).
  • Pregnancy or breastfeeding: There is not much information on use of witch hazel during pregnancy or while lactating. But to be on the side of cation it is recommended to avoid it during pregnancy (22).

The takeaway from this witch hazel article

Witch hazel actually refers to two different things - a genus of the Hamamelidaceae plant family and an astringent anti-inflammatory compound. It has lots of health benefits. It can be used as hemorrhoid relief and to stop bleeding. It also has some soothing effect on skin (hair), burns and/or varicose veins. On the other hand you should be careful when using witch hazel as it also has some side effects, such as allergic reactions or upset stomach. It is also not recommended for pregnant or breast feeding women. Due to possible interactions with other medical drugs you should never use witch hazel without prior consent of your physician. 

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Written by: Michal Vilímovský (EN)
Education: Physician
Article resources:

See numbered references in the article.

Image resources:

Pixabay.com and Dollarphotoclub.com

Published: February 24, 2016 at 8:56 PM
Next scheduled update: February 24, 2018 at 8:56 PM
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