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Witch-Hazel: Nature’s Magic Potion

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Witch-Hazel: Nature’s Magic Potion

Walk into your local drugstore sometime and take a look around. On every shelf — especially in the back where the pharmacist fills prescriptions — you’ll find chemical remedies for just about every imaginable ailment, all developed by pharmaceutical companies who invest hundreds of billions of dollars in the name of making massive profits. It may seem hard to believe, then, that one of the most effective remedies in the drug store sells for only a few dollars.

The Flowering Shrub
Witch-hazel has existed in its commercial form for about 150 years, but has been in use for much longer. It looks unassuming in its clear plastic bottle, like it could be just plain water. Actually, though, it’s an extract produced from the leaves and bark of witch-hazel plants, Hamamelis virginiana— one of three species of deciduous flowering shrubs found in North America, both in the wild and as ornamental garden shrubs. The plant features shiny, green oval leaves ranging in length from just under two inches to just over six and arranged alternately along the branches. Yellow or orange flowers appear on the plant in the fall or winter, depending on the species. It occurs naturally throughout the eastern half of the United States and Canada.

What’s In A Name?
Though witch-hazel’s healing powers are pretty magical, the word “witch” in its name actually has nothing to do with witches. Rather, it comes from the Old English word “wiche,” which meant “pliant” or “bendable.” The term had been used in the names of several plant species in Europe for hundreds of years before it was applied to the genus Hamamelis in North America. Other popular names for witch-hazel include “snapping hazel” and “winterbloom.”

Witch-hazel’s medicinal properties were well known to Native Americans, who used it for a variety of purposes, including to treat swelling, inflammation, tumors, and other skin ailments.  Puritan colonists got wind of the plant’s potential almost as soon as they arrived in North America, and began making their own witch-hazel extracts. By the mid-19th Century, companies had begun to produce extracts of the plant for commercial sale.

By now you’re probably thinking, “All that is well and good, but what does witch hazel actually do?”  Here is a list of 10 topical uses and why you should keep a bottle of witch hazel in your medicine cabinet:

  1. Soothes razor burn – Because of its natural astringent properties, witch hazel is popularly used by both men and women as a soothing post-shave treatment. Just wet hands with witch hazel, rub together, and tap on affected skin like after shave.
  2. Provides hemorrhoid relief – Witch hazel is effective at easing the itching, swelling, and pain of hemorrhoids.  Just apply to affected areas with a cotton pad to get relief.
  3. Treats skin irritations – Because of its drying and anti-itch properties, witch hazel can be used to soothe irritated skin caused by poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.
  4. Heals bruises – Witch hazel can help fade discoloration and speed up the healing process of bruises. Just apply to bruises with cotton ball.
  5. Treats acne – Witch hazel’s astringent properties help remove impurities from pores and keep skin clear. Apply after cleansing.
  6. Soothes and heals eczema – Applying witch hazel to affected areas helps to treat the skin condition.
  7. Treats varicose veins – Soak a soft cloth in witch hazel and lay over varicose veins to temporarily reduce swelling and pain.
  8. Provides post-natal relief to new mothers – Dab affected areas with witch hazel to reduce swelling and fight bacteria.
  9. Cools sunburn – Witch hazel combined with aloe can soothe painful sunburn. The anti-inflammatory powers aid in healing sunburned skin. Just apply to affected areas.
  10. Treats bug bites – Applying witch hazel with a cotton pad to insect bites helps reduce swelling, sting and itch.

Because of its healing properties, you’ll find witch-hazel extract as an active ingredient in many over-the-counter applications, including acne preparations, hemorrhoid creams, aftershave lotions, treatments for poison ivy and insect bites, and even eye drops.

Witch-hazel extract can be easily made at home, if you have access to the plant. You just have to boil about a pound of the twigs in two gallons of water. Because witch-hazel is so inexpensive and easy to get, though, most people don’t bother.

How do you use witch hazel?

Jamie McLeod contributed to research and information for this story.

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22 comments

1 Renae Randall { 12.04.16 at 4:08 pm }

my friend is having iron treatments with an IV medication and some lesions have been popping up on her scalp. her hair is already fragile. can she dab some of it on those to dry up the lesions?

2 Kris H { 12.04.16 at 4:02 pm }

My mother had an old piano with real ivory keys. It had been shipped around the tip of South America from New York to San Diego for her mother in the early 1900’s. She religiously cleaned the ivory every week but I never knew why.She always used witch hazel. Perhaps the witch hazel was supposed to prevent yellowing?

3 Jean { 05.14.15 at 11:26 am }

Could I use it on my goats? They have little bumps on there udder, it looks like they have been bit by an insect. I was told it could be a virus and to give them an antibiotic for 3 days. Would the Witch Hazel be safe to use on them?

4 Tricia { 05.11.15 at 10:56 pm }

@Frances, I discovered it years ago when my son’s pediatrician recommended it for prickly heat. I use it as a makeup remover/skin cleaner & you can get a bottle for 1.00 at most drug/grocery stores.

5 Jaime McLeod { 05.14.12 at 9:19 am }

No, Chris, Witch Hazel is for topical use only.

6 Chris { 05.11.12 at 9:06 pm }

Can it be imbibed?

7 Jaime McLeod { 05.07.12 at 11:06 am }

Frances,
Witch-hazel could help this, but there are no guarantees. It certainly won’t hurt. Buy a bottle and give it a try. As mentioned in the article, it is very inexpensive, so you’ve got nothing to lose. Good luck!

8 FRANCES { 05.04.12 at 12:11 pm }

Hello everyone, my skin breaks out and starts to itch terribly after just moments (literally) in the sun, will this help relieve the itching? In my sleep I scratch the skin and wake up with bloodied raw spots, will this help that too does anyone know?
Thanks for ANY help 🙂 Fran

9 Sandi Dutton { 05.04.12 at 7:29 am }

Witch Hazel has been a stable in my home for over 40 years. My mother-in-law told me about when my children were babies. If applied to what you will know will be a bruise, it will not turn black and blue. Of course, application afterward works wonders also. Takes the soreness out of strained muscles and minor cuts. I recommend it to strangers, especially the elders that have thin skin that is bruised and have open sores. Can not say enough good about it.

10 Jaime McLeod { 05.04.12 at 8:43 am }

Norma, You could try it and you might see some impact, but usually it is indicated for skin issues more than joint issues. Let us know what you find out.

11 norma reed { 05.04.12 at 6:29 am }

Does Witch Hazel help with arthritis of the knee?

12 Jaime McLeod { 05.04.12 at 8:41 am }

Renee – I don’t think there would be any harm in that.

13 Renee { 05.04.12 at 1:49 am }

I am wondering, can you add an essential oil to the bottle? I went and bought some of this today, thanks to this article! I have it on almost ALL of my body! After I had 5 kids, I have some vein issues, among other things… lol… But, I noticed the smell is not appealing. Any suggestions?

14 Betsy { 05.03.12 at 9:06 am }

The plants can readily be found at nurseries. It is lovely and easy to grow.

15 Shaari :) { 05.03.12 at 8:34 am }

The flowers are bright and amazingly like an explosion of confetti that bloom very early spring before the leaves come out. It’s a great deciduous shrub in the Pacific Northwest

16 CHAK { 05.03.12 at 7:35 am }

It is cool that we are still speaking some words in as Old English. This product works great for ‘roids.

17 trenkle toes { 05.02.12 at 10:19 pm }

Can does anyone know if you can buy witch – hazel seeds? I’ve never seen this plant in nurseries, I live in Maryland. Guess I need to do some research on how to purchase seeds or a plant.

18 Peter Harmen Burke { 05.02.12 at 5:02 pm }

I use it after I shave ,.,.

19 Ali { 05.02.12 at 10:56 am }

Great stuff! I love using this on my face and eyes first thing in the morning as an astringent, just splash on and let dry, then apply moisturizer.
Be sure to contain the plant if you are going to plant it in back yard…it can be very invasive and will be kill everything else off.

20 Susan Morrison { 05.02.12 at 10:04 am }

Thank you for this article. I’ve always wondered what witch hazel could be used for besides an astringent & now I know. I’ll be using it more often now!

21 Eleanor { 05.02.12 at 9:36 am }

Thanks for the artical I amgoing to get a plant at the nursery and plant it in my yard. It sounds like it will be real pretty and I can use it for all my bumps and bruises. ruddi2@msn.com

22 Eleanor { 05.02.12 at 9:30 am }

What a good artical I am going to find a plant a nursury and plant it in my yard. Sounds like it will be a pretty shrub. I can use the leaves for all my bumps and bruises. thanks for the artical ruddi2@msn.com

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