What is Witch Hazel?

Learn how to treat a wide variety of skin ailments with this simple but effective herb.

  • "National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs" is a reference you will keep at the ready, connecting 72 of the world's most common and useful medicinal herbs with the body systems they help and heal.
    Photo Courtesy National Geographic
  • Witch Hazel
    Witch hazel is an effective treatment for acne, insect bites, blisters and sunburns.
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  • Witch Hazel

For most of the year, it can be easy to miss witch hazel amid the pines, oaks, hickories and maples of its native eastern North American woodlands. But come November, when these larger trees have lost their leaves and gone to seed, smaller, shrubbier witch hazel bursts into bloom. Explosions of pale yellow flowers crowd its slender branches and often last well into December.

Despite its name, the plant has little to do with witches. The “witch” of witch hazel is likely derived from the Anglo-Saxon wych, meaning “pliant” or “bendable.” It refers to the plant’s historical use as a divining rod (or witching stick) to locate underground sources of water or precious minerals. Witch hazel’s real magic, however, lies in its mild astringent and antiseptic properties, which are useful for treating inflamed or irritated skin.

Health Benefits of Witch Hazel

Household first-aid kits have long included distilled witch hazel water, one of the few widely available commercial medicines made from a wild native plant. Witch hazel is a classic astringent—the tannins in its leaves, bark and twigs help treat a variety of skin conditions. Various preparations of witch hazel are used topically to stop bleeding from minor cuts and abrasions; calm inflamed mucous membranes and skin, such as with eczema; and decrease the size and symptoms associated with varicose veins and hemorrhoids.

Witch hazel contains many types of tannins, including catechins (also present in green tea and chocolate), which have potent antioxidant properties and may be antiviral and anti-inflammatory. In a clinical study, researchers used a witch hazel ointment on 231 children with diaper rash, skin inflammation and minor skin injuries, and a pharmaceutical ointment on 78 children with similar conditions. The dose and duration of treatment were left to the discretion of the primary care physician for each child, and symptoms were rated over the course of seven to 10 days. Both the witch hazel and the pharmaceutical ointment improved skin appearance and symptoms over the treatment period.

How to Use Witch Hazel

EXTRACT: Many forms of witch hazel begin with a distillation of the leaves, bark and/or twigs. This liquid is added to ointments or creams and then applied to the skin.

LIQUID: Witch hazel water is made by soaking plant parts in water and distilling the mixture. Alcohol is added to keep the distillate from spoiling. Tinctures and other preparations used by herbal medicine practitioners are usually stronger than distilled witch hazel water.

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