Don’t let the name deter you – witch hazel is a good witch!
Actually, the “witch” part comes from the Old English “wice,” meaning “pliant” or “bendable.” “Hazel” is the name of an English shrub (Ulmus glabra) with very flexible branches. This hazel twig was used in early Anglo-Saxon times for divining rods (dowsing) to find underground water and came to have a certain mystical quality (though this is unrelated to the word “witch” derived from “wicce,” a female sorceress). When Puritans came to America, they gave the name, witch hazel, to another bendable shrub, Hamamelis virginiana, which they had learned about from the Mohegans, the Native North Americans who taught them how to use the Y-shaped twigs for dowsing.
The Mohegans also used the bark and leaves from this shrub medicinally, as a topical astringent for many skin problems, including tumors, eye inflammations, burns, hemorrhoids, colds sores. Today, we know that witch hazel contains chemicals called tannins that have astringent properties that help to reduce swelling, repair broken skin, fight bacteria and much more.
Which witch hazel is best?
Most drug store varieties of witch hazel contain more alcohol than witch hazel – as well as other artificial ingredients – and thus, little or no tannins and other important constituents like flavonoids, catechins, essential oils, choline, saponins and bitters.
Look for brands like Mountain rose, Dickenson’s, Humphrey’s, Thayer’s which are made with distilled witch hazel extract and no more than 14% alcohol. This makes it more soothing and lacks the alcohol sting and scent of other types. Sometimes other natural ingredients are added like aloe vera, lemongrass, rose petal, citrus extract. Thayer’s makes alcohol-free versions which are recommended for very sensitive or dry skin.
Witch hazel, used topically and in small doses, carries very little, if any, health risk. However, if taken internally, its high tannin content can lead to digestive complaints, such that, in rare cases, liver damage is possible following long-term use. Internal use of high tannin herbs like witch hazel can also cause harmful interactions with many drugs, including blood thinners, alkaloid drugs like atropine and codeine. Thus, internal use, even gargling, is not recommended.
As with many herbal remedies, some people, like pregnant or breast feeding women, may be more sensitive and should consult with their doctor before using. Let your doctor know if you experience symptoms like leg swelling, breathing problems, chest tightness or pain, hives, new rashes or irritations, though these are rare. In general, if external use results in minor skin irritation, just dilute the amount of witch hazel.
What to do with witch hazel
Skin care. Witch hazel is an ingredient in many facial cleansers and skin toning products because of it tannin content, which are astringents, as well as other components with antioxidant and antibacterial properties. Astringents can dry and tighten tissue which may help with acne and oily skin. Antioxidants help battle aging by neutralizing harmful free radials produced by pollution and other toxins. Dab a little on with a cotton ball after washing.
Varicose veins. Soak a terry cloth in witch hazel to make a compress. Apply to the legs for about 15 minutes to reduce discomfort of varicose veins. Best to prop up legs straight out to decrease blood pressure and maximize effectiveness of the treatment.
For the hair. Works nicely pre-shampoo to help add shine to hair and de-frizz, but also to help with dandruff. Keep a spray bottle of witch hazel in the bathroom to work into the scalp before showering and then wash out in the shower.
Deodorant. Avoid aluminum in commercial deodorants. Soak a large cotton ball or pad in witch hazel and dab liberally under the arms. Let dry before dressing. Or put witch hazel in a spray bottle with a few drops lavender essential oil; shake well before using.
Anti-itch. Add 2-3 drops of lavender essential oil to a small bottle of witch hazel to use on bug bites, poison ivy or other itchy areas. Carry it with you, if you plan to spend the day outdoors.
Stretch marks. Apply witch hazel directly to stretch marks to lighten color and tighten skin.
Bruise relief. To help reduce the appearance and pain of a bruise, soak a cloth in witch hazel and apply several times a day. The bruise should vanish within a few days.
Sunburn or razor burn. A spray bottle of witch hazel kept in the fridge can help cool and sooth a burn.
Brighten around eyes. One of the most popular uses for witch hazel is to treat discoloration and puffiness under and around the eyes is. Take 2 cotton pads soaked in witch hazel, wring out the excess and place under eyes and let sit in place for about 10 minutes. Take care not to get any of this natural astringent in the eyes!
Stop bleeding. Witch hazel naturally tightens skin and promotes healing. Apply to minor cuts and scrapes to cleanse the cut, protect against infection, and speed healing.
Hemorrhoid relief. Mix witch hazel with a carrier like aloe vera gel and apply to affected areas to ease the pain, itching, swelling and bleeding of hemorrhoids.
Ease headaches. A cold compress of witch hazel can ease a headache.
Soothe diaper rash. Anti-inflammatory properties of witch hazel make it an effective and safe remedy for soothing diaper rash pain. Apply regularly with a cotton ball.
Moisturizing skin. Witch hazel helps clean your skin without stripping away the natural moisture. It also seals moisture into the skin.
Refining and shrinking pores. Simply apply a thin coat of witch hazel after washing your face twice a day to shrink pores. Use regularly for best results.