Witch hazel

Does witch hazel possess magical powers?

The Irish Times
Health Supplement, p. 13
10 March 2009

DOES IT WORK? WITCH HAZEL is an extract made from a small tree that is native to North America. Its name comes from the Old English term “ice”, meaning “bendable”, and refers to the way its branches were used as divining rods. The tree doesn’t have anything to do with witches, nor is it related to hazelnuts.

The original formulation of Pond’s Cold Cream was made by TT Pond in 1846 using a witch hazel extract. Pond learned about the extract from Native Americans living around New York and went on to establish the successful cosmetics company.

The plant material is typically steam distilled and mixed with alcohol to give “witch hazel water”, also called “Hamamelis water”, from the tree’s Latin name. Although the water is sometimes diluted and taken orally, most authorities recommend that witch hazel only be used for external application.

Topical remedies are used to stop minor bleeding or soothe insect bites, sunburn and general itchiness. They have also been recommended to treat haemorrhoids, varicose veins, muscular pain and bruising.

Evidence from studies 

A number of compounds have been purified from witch hazel extracts. Some of these are “tannins” which have astringent properties. An astringent is a compound which causes a drying sensation on the skin or in the mouth. Some teas and red wines contain astringent tannins. When applied to the skin, astringents cause a tightening of the tissues, which can stop bleeding and dry up any discharges.

Alcohol itself, used in most extracts, is also an astringent and may contribute some of the effects of the extracts. Other compounds found in witch hazel extracts have anti-inflammatory activity and can act as antioxidants. These may contribute to the general healthiness of skin.

Despite witch hazel’s long traditional use, relatively few controlled trials have examined its effectiveness. Most of the studies conducted did not use control groups. These showed that patients with a variety of skin conditions improved while using witch hazel. However, a control group is necessary to determine if the benefits were caused by the extract or the skin’s own healing mechanisms.

Two controlled, double-blind studies were conducted with people suffering from haemorrhoids. In both studies, people were randomly assigned to one of three ointments containing either witch hazel, hydrocortisone or another medication. In both studies all three ointments were similarly effective, with witch hazel better at reducing itching in one of the studies.

Three small controlled studies have been conducted for atopic eczema (a recurring form of irritating skin inflammation). People were randomly assigned to creams containing either witch hazel, hydrocortisone or no medication. Improvements were found with all the creams, but hydrocortisone was always more effective and the witch hazel and unmedicated creams were similarly effective.

In another study for the treatment of dermatitis, witch hazel cream was as effective as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory cream.

Problematic aspects 

Topical use of witch hazel is very safe, although it may, on rare occasions, cause minor skin irritations. Witch hazel water, as well as creams and ointments, should not be consumed.

A witch hazel tea is available and believed to be safe, although the high level of tannins can cause stomach and intestinal problems for some people.


Witch hazel creams and ointments have a long tradition of use. These creams contain astringents which can relieve minor cuts and skin irritations. Pads and dressings containing witch hazel are available and believed to relieve itching and oozing of minor wounds. Some of the evidence suggests that the benefits of these products have as much to do with the alcohol or non-medicinal components of the creams and ointments.

When used to treat haemorrhoids, witch hazel is at least as effective as other pharmaceutical applications. When used for minor cuts, bruises and skin irritations, witch hazel may bring relief for some people. For more chronic or severe skin conditions, its effectiveness has not been demonstrated and professional advice should be sought.

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