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What is Witch Hazel?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Witch hazel is a low growing shrub native to North America. It has a long history of use medicinally, and cultivation of the bush has spread to Europe for this purpose. Preparations of it ranging from tinctures to soothing creams are available in most drug stores, as well as specialty stores for skin care. The plant acts as an astringent, firming and tightening tissue and acting to reduce itching and irritation. Other properties have also been ascribed to witch hazel, making it an excellent all-purpose addition to the medicine cabinet.

Four species of witch hazel are included in the genus Hamamelis. All of the plants have simple alternating leaves with wavy edges, and bright yellow flowers that appear in the fall. Simultaneously, the fruit of the flowers from the previous year matures. When the seeds have fully ripened, the pods crack open explosively, ejecting the seeds into the surrounding area. This trait has led to another common name, snapping hazel.

Some people erroneously believe that the plant name is related to witches. In fact, the origins are a bit more mundane. The “witch” is merely a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word wych, meaning flexible. The branches of this plant are well known for their pliancy. However, the plant does have some mystical associations, since the branches are said to make very suitable dowsing rods.

Distillations, tinctures, and teas of the witch hazel plant have been used for hundreds of years to treat a wide assortment of ailments. To create a distillation, the plant is steamed to extract the valuable volatile oils. Tinctures are made with bark suspended in alcohol to leach out its useful compounds, and teas are made with leaves, bark, and flowers boiled in water. For internal applications, tea is used. Tinctures and distillations are intended for external use.

Research conducted on witch hazel suggests that it acts in a number of ways. As an astringent, it can pull the irritation out of insect bites, sun burns, and sore muscles. It can also be used as a toner on the face and body, or to soothe irritated tissue. It also appears to have some surface numbing properties, which is why it is used on sore muscles. Some skincare lotions and creams contain witch hazel, as do shaving products. It can also be purchased in the form of a pure extract or tincture.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is witch hazel?

Witch hazel is a plant native to North America, known scientifically as Hamamelis virginiana. It's a deciduous shrub or small tree that blooms with fragrant yellow flowers in the late fall. The extract from its bark, twigs, and leaves is used for its soothing, astringent properties in skincare and medicinal products.

How is witch hazel used in skincare?

Witch hazel is widely used in skincare for its ability to tighten skin and reduce inflammation, which can help with acne, bruises, and hemorrhoids. Its astringent properties make it a popular ingredient in toners and cleansers to remove excess oil and shrink pores, according to dermatological studies.

Can witch hazel be ingested?

While witch hazel is commonly applied topically, it is not recommended for ingestion. The tannins present in witch hazel can cause stomach irritation and other digestive issues if consumed. Always follow product guidelines and consult with a healthcare provider before using witch hazel in any form other than directed.

Is witch hazel sustainable and how is it sourced?

Witch hazel is generally considered a sustainable plant as it is native to North America and grows abundantly in the wild. It is harvested by cutting branches from the shrub, which typically regrows. Responsible sourcing practices ensure that the plant continues to thrive without depleting natural populations.

Are there any side effects to using witch hazel?

Witch hazel is generally safe for most people when used on the skin. However, some individuals may experience irritation or allergic reactions, particularly if they have sensitive skin. It's always advisable to perform a patch test before using a new witch hazel product extensively.

What differentiates witch hazel from other natural astringents?

Witch hazel is unique among natural astringents due to its high concentration of tannins, which contribute to its potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. This makes it particularly effective for soothing skin irritations and reducing swelling compared to other astringents like rose water or green tea.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By amypollick — On Jun 29, 2011

Witch hazel is also good for acne. It's not as strong as some preparations, and can really help a mild case. I used witch hazel a lot as a teenager and I always liked the way it made my skin feel. It dried out the zits without drying my skin.

Also good for bug bites.

By anon171350 — On Apr 30, 2011

i want to know what type of witch hazel cream use for hemorrhoids? can anyone give me the correct type of witch hazel cream (i want the name of the cream), please? --greefin

By anon102649 — On Aug 09, 2010

witch hazel grows in abundance in eastern conn. and western Rhode Island. Dickinsons in Hampton, Conn. seems to have the contracts to take the raw material in this part of the country.

By anon92966 — On Jul 01, 2010

Research it. You can find different sizes. I found a whole pound for 20.00. But you have to look.

By anon60310 — On Jan 13, 2010

anon38807 I have the information you need to locate fresh herbs. I am from southern Missouri. The woods is where to find witch hazel. Research goods from the woods they are an established supplier of products that are harvested locally from sustainable grounds. check them out

By anon38807 — On Jul 28, 2009

Looking for the raw witch hazel herb. does anyone know where one can locate this? I used to be able to locate this at my local natural health food store but they no longer carry this.

Anyone have any leads?

By ivanka — On Aug 31, 2008

It is said that Native Americans were the first to figure out the medicinal properties of witch hazel. They used the bark to reduce inflammation.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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