It might be enough that the fragrant, tasseled blossoms of witch hazel burst into life in the dead of winter when the rest of the plant world lies dormant. But, witch hazel is more than a gift to the senses. Traditionally, it’s been valued for treating a host of ills and discomforts, including cold sores, hemorrhoids, and just about every rash that makes a body itch. Studies have not yet confirmed these claims, but you might still consider trying it.
Native Americans tapped into the medicinal properties of witch hazel long before Pilgrims stepped onto the rock. They used it to stop bleeding and inflammation, and to treat everything from muscle aches to tumors. It’s written that the Mohicans introduced witch hazel to settlers, who adopted it eagerly.
Witch hazel continues to be used widely today, as a homeopathic medicine, in commercial products such as Preparation H, in hemorrhoidal pads, and in products that relieve discomfort of the perineum after childbirth.
What Is Witch Hazel?
Witch hazel is a deciduous tree or bush that explodes with masses of aromatic yellow flowers during late fall and winter. Three species of witch hazel are native to North America. The most common, Hamamelis virginiana, grows widely east of the Mississippi river.
After the leaves and bark of witch hazel are boiled or steamed, the distillate is often blended with alcohol. The resulting extract is commonly referred to as witch hazel water. You can also make a tea from the leaves and bark of witch hazel.
The Active Chemicals
Witch hazel has high tannic acid content, a chemical that’s found in many plants. Tannic acid is essential to wine and coffee, as well as cheeses and teas. Have you ever eaten a very unripe banana? If so, you may recall that it tasted slightly bitter and made your mouth feel dry and puckery. That’s the astringent effect of tannic acid.
Tannic acid is believed to protect our skin by fighting bacteria. It has anti-inflammatory properties, which may make it useful in treating rashes and minor burns. As an astringent, tannic acid is thought to constrict the skin and blood vessels, which can reduce bleeding.
Witch hazel also contains several volatile oils, including safrole and catechin, which are believed to have antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.
Witch hazel is a common ingredient in homeopathic products, personal care products, and cosmetics. But very few clinical studies, at least studies large enough to be valid, provide strong support for the healing properties of witch hazel. In many European countries, however, it’s approved for the treatment of:
- wounds, burns, and inflammation of the skin
- inflammation of the mucous membranes
- varicose veins
How to Use Witch Hazel
Witch hazel may be useful in closing pores and protecting the skin from bacteria that cause pimples.
You can relieve uncomfortable, unsightly cold sores by dabbing a cotton ball in witch hazel and applying it to the cold sore several times a day. Scientists in Germany conducted tests that showed that witch hazel has antiviral properties that may inhibit the spread of cold sores.
Like other forms of dermatitis, you may be able to soothe diaper rash and reduce inflammation by cleansing the irritated area regularly with witch hazel diluted with water. Some parents include witch hazel when they make their own moist baby wipes.
Witch hazel may reduce itching and discomfort associated with raw, oozing eczema, according to holistic experts.
You may find that witch hazel provides relief from itching, pain, and bleeding associated hemorrhoids. As an astringent, witch hazel may actually shrink the hemorrhoids.
Influenza A Virus
The German research on the virus that causes cold sores also found that the antiviral properties in witch hazel had a positive effect in treating influenza A virus, which is sometimes called bird flu.
Wounds and Burns
Witch hazel may help heal skin conditions in several ways. As an astringent, it tightens the skin and blood vessels, which reduces bleeding. As an anti-inflammatory, witch hazel may help tame pain and irritation.
Some people have found that using compresses of witch hazel and cool water, or massaging witch hazel cream into bulging varicose veins, can both shrink the veins and relieve discomfort and itching.
In an article published in Phytomedicine, researchers reported that there were virtually no side effects in the majority of individuals using witch hazel. Occasionally, people using witch hazel experience a mild rash. Because witch hazel has high tannin content, it can irritate the stomach when taken orally.