What is witch hazel, and what is it used for?
Witch hazel, or Hamamelis virginiana, is a tree native to North America. Indigenous Americans have used witch hazel for various conditions including hemorrhoids, sore muscles, insect bites, cuts, rashes, sunburn, and bruises.
Witch hazel extracts and witch hazel water, also known as hamamelis water, are distilled from the dried leaves, bark, and twigs of the witch hazel tree, and are available over the counter (OTC).
Witch hazel is primarily used for relieving pain, itching, burning and irritation caused by hemorrhoids or difficult bowel movements. The therapeutic effect of witch hazel comes from the chemicals it contains, including flavonoids and tannins which have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, skin-tightening (astringent) and vasoconstrictive properties. The alcohol content in witch hazel extract preparations likely provides antibacterial effects.
Witch hazel promotes wound healing by inhibiting elastase and collagenase, the enzymes which break down elastin and collagen that keep the skin intact, flexible and strong. Witch hazel reduces tissue damage from free radicals and by constricting the blood vessels locally, it reduces swelling and itching caused by inflammation.
Suggested topical uses of witch hazel include:
- Irritation from hemorrhoids
- Anorectal irritation and cleansing
- Skin and mucous membrane inflammation and irritation
- Vaginal irritation
People also take witch hazel orally for various conditions including diarrhea, mucous colitis, vomiting blood, coughing up blood, tuberculosis, colds, eye inflammation, varicose veins, fevers, tumors, and cancer. Witch hazel is likely effective for its topical uses, however, there is little scientific evidence to support any of the other uses.