For hundreds of years, various cultures have used plants to help alleviate symptoms of different illnesses that people are experiencing. One prime example of a plant that has consistently remained in use is witch hazel. Originally utilized by Native Americans, this plant has gained a reputation for helping soothe pain in various situations.
What Is Witch Hazel?
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a shrub that can grow up to 5 meters (16.4 feet) tall and 5 meters wide.1 The name is believed to be derived from the Middle English words “wicke,” which means lively, or “wych,” an old Anglo-Saxon word for bend.2
One of the defining characteristics of witch hazel is its long flowering periods, which can last between four and six weeks. The blooms have long, spidery petals that emit a spicy fragrance, and the color can range from yellow to orange or red, and even purple.3
In addition, witch hazel has long been a part of traditional medicine among Native Americans. In the next section, you can learn about the various ways this plant is used, and how you can use witch hazel to your own advantage.
Potential Benefits of the Witch Hazel Plant
Witch hazel has been used by Native Americans in various ways throughout history. The Osage, for example, applied witch hazel bark on their skin to help ease skin ulcers and sores. The Potawatomi, on the other hand, steamed the twigs over hot rocks to help with sore muscles.4
That being said, currently there’s little evidence to support the effectiveness of these treatments. However, actual studies performed with the plant have indicated that witch hazel may be good for conditions such as:5
- Acne — Tannins found in witch hazel have astringent properties6 that may help treat acne.
- Chronic Venous Insufficiency (CVI) — CVI is a condition wherein the venous wall in the leg veins do not function properly, thus impeding blood from returning to the heart.7 In this regard, witch hazel may help due to its tannin content that may help soothe inflammation.8
- Dermatitis — A 2013 study from Advances in Dermatology and Allergology stated that applying witch hazel extract on the area affected with dermatitis may help reduce inflammation.9
- Overall skin health — A study published in Chemical Research in Toxicology suggests that the various compounds found in witch hazel work together to help fight free radicals that may damage your skin. Researchers noted that the plant was even able to help inhibit the growth of SK-Mel 28 melanoma cells.10
Witch Hazel Side Effects To Be Aware Of
Witch hazel products (natural or otherwise) are generally safe to use as long as instructions are followed carefully. Be sure to visit a doctor first and discuss your intention of using witch hazel. If you develop any form of allergic reaction, such as rashes, itching, swelling, breathing problems and dizziness, stop using witch hazel immediately and return to your doctor for treatment.11
Growing and Storing Witch Hazel at Home
Growing your own witch hazel at home ensures that you have a fresh supply of the plant whenever you need it. Fortunately, it’s quite easy to grow, so even inexperienced gardeners can gain practical experience in this hobby.
Start by making sure your garden has enough space, because a fully mature witch hazel shrub can grow very tall and wide. Witch hazel can grow in different types of soil, but to produce the best blooms, moist soil is preferred.12 In addition, make sure that the pH level of the soil is acidic to neutral (4.5 to 6.5).13
When watering the shrub, only do so during dry periods.14 However, be aware that witch hazel will take time to grow — a fully mature shrub will take around six years when grown from seed.15 Even better, the plant is not bothered by serious pests or diseases.16
When harvesting witch hazel, simply strip the plant’s twigs in small patches just as the leaves are sprouting during early spring. Afterward, spread them out, then strip the bark once fully dry. The strips can be stored in a container for later use if you plan to make witch hazel water.17
Make Your Own Witch Hazel Water
Witch hazel is known for its anti-inflammatory components that may help with various topical issues such as acne, sunburns, insect bites and hemorrhoids. However, you can’t just apply the plant directly on your skin. You will have to make a homemade decoction to fully utilize witch hazel’s beneficial compounds. Follow this procedure to make a water decoction that will suit a variety of situations:18
- Prune a handful of twigs and small branches from your witch hazel shrub.
- Peel and scrape the twigs, then cut them into small pieces.
- Place the chopped twigs and bark into a pot, then cover the contents with water.
- Bring the pot to a boil, then cover it, reduce heat and simmer for at least half an hour.
- Allow to cool overnight, then strain into a glass jar.
- Refrigerate and use within a few days.
The Various Uses of Witch Hazel
Once you have your witch hazel water, you can apply it in several ways. The Healthy Home Economist recommends these applications, which clinical studies have shown to be helpful:19
- Dab it on acne — The water may help dry up and act as an astringent20 to clear blemishes by reducing inflammation.
- Use it for hemorrhoids — Witch hazel has vasoconstrictive properties21 that may help soothe hemorrhoids and act as an astringent to stop them from bleeding.
- Relieve varicose veins — Wrapping a cloth soaked with witch hazel water in the affected leg may help reduce pain caused by varicose veins. Also, some studies have shown that, when taken orally, witch hazel may improve capillary flow and vascular tone.22
- Ease painful sunburn — Applying witch hazel on sunburns23 may help minimize peeling and the associated pain.
Other ways to maximize your witch hazel decoction is by applying it on minor wounds and cuts to help speed up healing. This is also the same reason why the herb is added to aftershave lotions.24 The anti-inflammatory qualities of witch hazel may also help ease hemorrhoidal, anal and vaginal itching.25
If You Have the Patience, Grow Your Own Witch Hazel
As mentioned earlier, growing witch hazel is easy, but it can take years before your plant can fully mature. Aside from having a natural source for your witch hazel water decoction, you will also have a beautiful plant that can add color and brighten up the atmosphere in your garden.
Frequently Asked Questions About Witch Hazel
Q: Where can you buy witch hazel?
A: Witch hazel products can be conveniently purchased at the store or online. However, it’s preferable to grow your own witch hazel plant. If you don’t have the resources to do so, make sure that the product you’re purchasing comes from a reputable manufacturer.
Q: How can you use witch hazel?
A: You can make a remedy by boiling witch hazel twigs and bark in water. This decoction can be applied topically to help eliminate acne, ease varicose veins or relieve sunburn. Do not use witch hazel orally without first checking with your health care provider; before using it topically, do a skin-patch test to make sure you are not allergic to it.
Q: What is witch hazel good for?
A: Witch hazel may be helpful with inflammation-related conditions such as acne, chronic venous insufficiency and dermatitis.26
Q: Does witch hazel help with acne?
A: Yes. Published data suggests that witch hazel may be useful against acne due to its tannin content.27