The term witch hazel is used to refer to a number of plants in the same family, but where herbal remedies are concerned, the focus is typically on hamamelis virginiana, which is native to North America and has been used in North American folk medicine for generations.
Unlike many of the other herbs discussed on this site, witch hazel is not typically consumed as a tea. Or at all. In most cases, the bark and leaves of this plant are used to make ointments, which are then applied directly to the skin.
Witch hazel has been hailed as a breakthrough natural remedy for the treatment of a host of skin conditions and other inflammatory disorders. In this guide, we’ll see if there is any truth to those claims.
What is Witch Hazel?
Witch hazel has a history rooted in traditional medicine and this, along with its name, has seen it been ascribed magical properties. It is one of the many herbs used in Wiccan rituals and has an almost mystical quality to it.
However, the name witch stems from an Old English word that translates as pliable. It doesn’t have anything to do with magic and spells.
The plant also has a history of use in divination (the art of using sticks to locate water), which is just as questionable.
But we’re not here to pass judgment on this plant’s supposed magical properties. Instead, we’re going to take a look at the compounds found within, compounds that could improve your skin and help with a range of ailments.
The Health Benefits of Witch Hazel
Witch hazel could benefit your health in numerous ways, many of which are backed by actual, peer-reviewed studies. It’s a potent plant, a partial panacea, and while it’s not going to help you locate wells or avoid evil spirits, it could improve your skin, digestion, and much more.
It Can Help with Eczema and Acne
Witch hazel is an anti-inflammatory. It contains powerful natural compounds that reduce inflammation in the body, neutralising free radicals and limiting the damage these rebellious compounds can cause.
Free radicals can build up over time, leading to chronic inflammation and a host of chronic diseases, but anti-inflammatory substances like witch hazel can eradicate them, keeping you safe and healthy.
When applied to the skin, witch hazel could reduce the spread and discomfort of eczema and psoriasis and may also help with acne. Many natural creams contain extracts of witch hazel for this very reason. (1)
It Can Reduce Irritation
When applied directly to the skin, witch hazel can help reduce dryness, irritation, and inflammation. The mechanism is the same as discussed above, with research suggesting that irritation can be reduced by 27% from the benchmark. (2)
If you have sensitive skin that is constantly inflamed, a little witch hazel can help. Luckily, the shelves in your local pharmacy are filled with creams that contain up to 10% extracts of this potent plant.
It Can Help with Hair and Scalp Issues
In addition to skin creams, witch hazel is also added to hair products, as it may help reduce irritation on dry, inflamed, and sensitive scalps. If you have a condition like eczema or you are suffering from occasional bouts of irritation caused by the weather, central heating, shampoo, or hair treatments, a hair product that contains an extract of witch hazel could help.
By the same token, it may help to treat dandruff. However, when it comes to this common problem, there are many more effective treatments on the market, including ones that offer very few side effects and have a stronger and more instant impact.
It Could Help with a Sore Throat
Gargling with a very small amount of witch hazel diluted in water could help soothe your sore throat. Some believe these benefits are provided by the anti-inflammatory effects of the plant. However, very little scientific research exists to back it up.
It is a Strong Antibacterial
The tannins in witch hazel have been studied for their benefits in neutralizing a host of viral infections, with some very positive results. In fact, witch hazel has proved beneficial in treatment of some influenza viruses and other complaints caused by viral infections. (3)
It’s worth noting, however, that these studies were performed under controlled conditions in test tubes. Going from that to a real-world practical use is a huge step, and we’re a long way from knowing for certain whether witch hazel extracts can help kill flu germs in or on humans.
How to Use Witch Hazel
Witch hazel is safe for most individuals, and they can use it freely with minimal side effects. It is available in ointments applied to the skin, but the variations in extract strength and dose mean you should always read the label and follow the instructions.
If you notice any issues, including rashes or irritation, stop using it immediately. Although safe in most users, it’s possible to be allergic to witch hazel, and it can cause some complications if this is the case. To avoid serious allergic reactions, use a very small amount to begin with. This will allow you to assess tolerance and take action if an issue arises.
If you have any serious skin conditions or pre-existing medical conditions, you should speak with a medical professional first.
Can You Drink Witch Hazel?
Witch hazel can be consumed in small doses, but we wouldn’t recommend it. Many of the health benefits are associated with topical use, which means you apply diluted extracts of the plant directly to your skin or scalp.
Witch hazel can cause stomach discomfort when consumed in small doses, including stomach aches and reflux, and it may also cause liver problems when consumed in large quantities. It’s not something you should be drinking as a tea. Not only is it very astringent, but when it’s consumed orally, it’s more likely to give you reflux than provide any benefits.
Many of the benefits ostensibly offered by oral consumption are provided by other herbs, all of which are safer and most of which are more effective. For instance, it’s said to help with cold and flu, but Greek mountain tea is far more effective, and it’s also safe and delicious.
Witch hazel is also said to help with digestive issues but doesn’t have the same supporting evidence behind it as miraculous plants like dandelion.
So, by all means, purchase some witch hazel ointments if you have a skin complaint and want a natural solution, but keep it away from your mouth.