Witch hazel has a long, impressive history as an anti-inflammatory, topical extract useful for skin toning, cleaning, calming and healing. The first successful mass-produced American skincare product, debuted in 1846, was “Golden Treasure,” later renamed Pond’s Cold Cream. It was based on wild-harvested witch hazel, which company chemists learned about from Native Americans in New York state.
Today, witch hazel’s many uses make it the most popular topical botanical in the world. It is part of the base used in toners, cleaners and makeup removers made by large skincare companies including Revlon, Neutrogena, L’Oreal and Estée Lauder.
The North American shrub known as witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) grows abundantly in the eastern and Midwestern U.S., and in southern Canada. It is characterized by a brilliant orange or yellow blossoms that resemble exploding fireworks, and a unique, aggressive method of propagation: its seed capsules erupt explosively in autumn, flinging seeds up to 30 feet.
Apart from its medicinal uses, the Mohegan tribe taught English settlers how to use witch hazel saplings for dowsing – the sticks, Native American lore has it, bend downward to indicate underground water sources.
Historians believe the name witch hazel probably derives from some combination of “wicke” the old English term for “lively”; and “wych” the traditional Anglo-Saxon term for “bend.”
Most of the U.S. supply comes from wildlands in the northeast U.S., collected by harvesters who have gathered it for generations. The twigs are collected during the winter, then steamed in factories to release and concentrate the pungent extract.
This extract is then usually mixed with alcohol and purified water, often along with other skin-conditioning ingredients such as aloe and rosewater. Alcohol-free water-based preparations of witch hazel are available as well. It is also sold in ointments and creams. All of these versions are commonly available over-the-counter in drug stores and online.
Witch Hazel Is Your Skin’s Best Friend
The skin is our largest, most exposed and most environmentally abused organ. Witch hazel can be a powerful ally in its defense and healing.
Witch hazel can alleviate a wide variety of skin conditions, including:
- Swelling and discoloration: Witch hazel extract is a rich source of astringent compounds that can make proteins in skin cells draw more tightly together, shrinking pores and constricting capillaries near the skin’s surface. It also inhibits production of IL-8, a blood-borne inflammatory factor that increases as we age (1). Puffiness or “bags” under the eyes can be treated by dabbing the area before bedtime with a cotton ball dipped in a water-alcohol solution of witch hazel.
- Varicose veins: The German Commission E, which evaluates herbal medicines for effectiveness, has approved the use of witch hazel to treat varicose veins (2). The Commission suggests applying an ointment at least three times daily for two or more weeks to see noticeable results.
- Hemorrhoids: Commission E has also approved treating the swollen veins characteristic of hemorrhoids with witch hazel (2). Disposable pads pre-soaked in a witch hazel solution are created specifically for this purpose.
- Irritation: A study in the European Journal of Pediatrics (3) compared witch hazel to dexpanthenol ointment, a common synthetic topical medication, to treat minor skin injuries, diaper rash or local inflammation in children. While both ointments provided relief, the witch hazel was judged by both physicians and parents to have fewer side effects. The authors concluded that witch hazel is “an effective and safe treatment” for “certain skin disorders” in children up to age 11. (Adults might have experienced similar results, but this study was of children only.)
- Sunburn: A study in the journal Dermatology (4) found that a 10 percent witch hazel lotion reduced sunburn irritation roughly twice as well as other commonly used sunburn lotions. And a German study (5) concluded that witch hazel’s “antioxidant polyphenolic compounds” appear to protect the skin from “sunburn and photoaging.”
- Scalp problems: The International Journal of Trichologypublished a study (6) that examined the effects of a witch hazel-based shampoo on subjects with “sensitive scalps” including inflammatory conditions known as “red scalp” and “scalp burnout.” Researchers found reduced inflammation after four weeks in a majority of patients.
- Bug bites and stings: Herbalist James Duke reported (7) that Native Americans typically applied witch hazel extract to insect bites and stings to reduce both itching and swelling. Today, some herbalists recommend making a paste with a small amount of baking soda and applying this directly to the irritated area. A safe, effective insect repellant can be made from a half-and-half solution of a witch hazel water-alcohol solution (the kind commonly available in drug stores) and distilled water, along with roughly 30 drops of an essential oil such as citronella, clove, rosemary, eucalyptus, lavender or mint. Combine in a spray bottle and shake well before applying.
- Stretch marks: Witch hazel has traditionally been used to both lighten the color and reduce the skin puckering characteristic of post-pregnancy stretch marks.
- Bleeding: Witch hazel’s skin tightening and blood-vessel-constricting effects make it a quick, effective remedy to stop bleeding from minor cuts and abrasions. A dab of witch hazel can be an effective, natural alternative to a styptic pencil, which uses aluminum sulfate to stop blood flow.
- General skin problems: Unfortunately, there are relatively few high-quality studies on the use of witch hazel to treat specific skin conditions. But considering that it is inexpensive and generally safe, there’s no harm in trying it to alleviate a variety of other skin problems for which it is traditionally used. These include acne, bruises, ingrown hairs, oily skin, poison ivy inflammation and razor burn.
Possible Side Effects Of Witch Hazel
The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database lists witch hazel water as “Likely Safe” when it is used “topically and appropriately.” If you have unusually sensitive skin, apply a small amount of a water infusion or ointment and wait 12 hours to see if irritation develops.
Some herbal guides recommend drinking various dilutions of witch hazel to treat throat or stomach conditions. But tannin-rich astringent extracts can be irritating to the digestive tract, and some sources have even suggested they could be carcinogenic. Do not take witch hazel orally without consulting a physician who has training in herbal medicine.
Dr. Weil’s Thoughts About Witch Hazel
It’s no wonder that Native Americans prized witch hazel so highly. I too regard it as indispensable. This time-honored topical agent can help alleviate many skin conditions. Whenever the skin is cut, abraded, irritated, itchy or burned or simply in need of refreshment, a witch hazel lotion, alcohol-water solution or alcohol-free toner can usually provide relief.
If you enjoy creating your own medicinal concoctions, you can try mixing a commercial witch hazel liquid product with a “carrier” cream such as coconut or jojoba oil, experimenting with proportions until you find a combination that’s to your liking.
If you want to make your own witch hazel skin tonic from scratch, ethnobotanist Dawn Combs recommends harvesting and drying bark and twigs from wild plants in the early spring or late fall, or purchasing the dried bark online.
Then, in a saucepan, combine ½ pound witch hazel bark and enough distilled water to cover the bark with an inch of water. Simmer 20 minutes, then let cool. Strain, and mix with vodka or pure grain alcohol at a ratio of two to one; for example, two cups witch-hazel water to a cup of vodka. This tonic lasts up to two years if stored in an airtight bottle in a cool, dry place.
You can use this as you would a commercial witch hazel preparation: splashing or spraying onto problematic skin, or mixing it with a carrier oil to make an ointment.
If you want to use witch hazel on large areas on a regular basis (as opposed to, say, as occasional first aid on insect stings or small cuts), it’s worthwhile seeking out an alcohol-free version to avoid excessively drying out the skin. These are widely available online.
Reviewed by Russ Greenfield, M.D., May 2017
- Thring TS, Hili P, Naughton DP. Antioxidant and potential anti-inflammatory activity of extracts and formulations of white tea, rose, and witch hazel on primary human dermal fibroblast cells. Journal of Inflammation (London, England). 2011;8:27. doi:10.1186/1476-9255-8-27.
- “Witch Hazel” Kaiser Permanente, Updated 28 Apr. 2015. Web. Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.
- Wolff HH, Kieser M. Hamamelis in children with skin disorders and skin injuries: results of an observational study. Eur J Pediatr. 2007;166(9):943-8.
- Hughes-formella BJ, Bohnsack K, Rippke F, et al. Anti-inflammatory effect of hamamelis lotion in a UVB erythema test. Dermatology (Basel). 1998;196(3):316-22.
- Reuter J, Wölfle U, Korting HC, Schempp C. Which plant for which skin disease? Part 2: Dermatophytes, chronic venous insufficiency, photoprotection, actinic keratoses, vitiligo, hair loss, cosmetic indications. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. 2010;8(11):866-73.
- Trüeb RM. North American Virginian Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana): Based Scalp Care and Protection for Sensitive Scalp, Red Scalp, and Scalp Burn-Out. Int J Trichology. 2014;6(3):100-3.
- Duke JA. CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1985, 221.
- Korting HC, Schäfer-korting M, Klövekorn W, Klövekorn G, Martin C, Laux P. Comparative efficacy of hamamelis distillate and hydrocortisone cream in atopic eczema. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 1995;48(6):461-5.