Witch hazel extract is derived from the bark, twigs, and leaves of the Hamemelis virginiana shrub native to North America. The extract has astringent and anti-inflammatory properties and is a popular ingredient in natural skin care preparations. The extract is often used to treat acne, diaper rash, skin rash, and varicose veins. The ingredient also is used in lotions, shaving creams, hemorrhoid creams, eye drops, astringents, toners, and facial cleansers.
The medicinal properties of witch hazel were first discovered and used by the Native American Indians. They steamed the twigs and bark of the plant, using them to treat swelling, skin rashes, insect bites, tumors, and to stop internal and external bleeding. The leaves also could be used to make a witch hazel tea to take internally to treat dysentery and colds. The crooked twigs of the witch hazel shrub were sometimes used to dowse for water as well, which may have contributed to its name.
In the 1800s, Theron T. Pond learned of witch hazel’s healing properties from the Native American Indians. He created the first widely available commercial preparation of witch hazel extract, known as “Pond’s Extract.” Today, witch hazel is widely available throughout the world in many forms.
The main ingredients in the extract are tannins, flavonoids, gallic acid, catechins, and volatile oils. Tannins contract the skin, help stop bleeding, and have an overall astringent effect. It is widely believed that tannins are the key to the healing properties of witch hazel. The highest concentration of tannins occurs in witch hazel bark, of which very little is contained in commercial witch hazel alcohol mixtures sold in drug stores.
The witch hazel extract commonly carried in US drug stores and pharmacies can be used as an astringent and to treat skin rashes and inflammation. Although these products contain very little of the tannins thought to be responsible for the astringent properties of witch hazel, some of other ingredients may have valuable healing and therapeutic effects. In Europe, witch hazel products are made from the more highly concentrated bark and contain more tannins.
The astringent effect of witch hazel extract makes it a popular ingredient in hemorrhoid cream. In addition to its most obvious use, hemorrhoid cream also has been used to reduce puffiness under the eyes. Although witch hazel is not commonly taken internally, witch hazel tea has been used to treat internal bleeding and diarrhea. Since witch hazel grows in the wild in much of the US, some people make their own tea from the leaves or make their own home remedies using the bark and twigs. It’s important to note that drug store witch hazel extract should only be used topically, never internally.