Witch Hazel has been used for centuries for a wide range of purposes, but it has been especially revered for its ability to soothe skin irritations and improve skin and scalp health. It is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an ingredient in several over-the-counter skin health products.REF#2790
Learn more about this plant-based astringent and how it can be integrated into your self-care regimen for noticeable improvements in skincare and well-being.
How Witch Hazel Got Its Name
There is no single explanation for the name Witch Hazel. Hamamelis virginiana, the species native to the eastern half of North America, has pliable limbs and curly, star-shaped golden flowers that bloom in the fall after leaves have fallen. It may have first been called Witch Hazel after the old English word wych, meaning to bend.
Some believe the tree got its name because it was used by “water witches,” who used Y-shaped limbs of Witch Hazel to locate water or minerals underground, a technique European settlers learned from Native Americans.
Others imagine that a witch’s spell may have caused this deciduous bush to bloom close to Halloween.
Regardless of the name's origin, the plant has a long history of use, from relieving aching muscles to reducing under-eye puffiness to soothing the sting or itching of bug bites. In folklore, Witch Hazel is also considered a magical herb valued not only for its health properties but also for its capacity to ward off evil and mend emotional wounds.
The History of Witch Hazel in America
Witch Hazel was used widely in North America long before the Europeans arrived. Different tribes used the leaves, branches, and bark of the tree in different ways:
- Tea was brewed to support respiratory and gastrointestinal health.
- Concentrated liquid extract was rubbed on the skin to reduce swelling and ease muscle soreness. It was also mixed with water and used for soaking
- Bruised leaves were rubbed on scratches.
- Poultices containing witch hazel were applied to soothe irritated skin conditions and help relieve insect bites and stings.
- Sweat lodges used steamed twigs over hot rocks to soothe sore muscles.
By the early 19th century, Americans of European descent were discovering the benefits of Witch Hazel themselves. In 1830, an astringent made from Witch Hazel and several other plants had become a popular salve for hemorrhoids. In the early 1840s, Theron Tilden Pond, a pharmacist, teamed up with a Native American medicine man to reformulate his version of Witch Hazel distillate.
They began selling the new product in 1846 under the name “Golden Treasure” as a support for skin health among other things. They sold the company to new owners who continued making the distillate in small factories in New York. Around 1875, they opened a commercial distilling facility in Chester, Connecticut, and changed the product's name to "Pond’s Extract." The same company went on to create the first mass-marketed American-made toiletry under the tradename "Pond’s Cold Cream." However, it’s unclear whether Witch Hazel was an ingredient in this well-known toiletry.
Around 1860, a Baptist minister, Thomas Newton Dickinson started making small batches of Witch Hazel distillate, and in 1866, his son, Edward Everett Dickinson, took over the business, first selling small casks and kegs to apothecaries and then opening the first large-scale Witch Hazel distillery in Essex, Connecticut. The E.E. Dickinson & Company, as this distillery was named, was run by four generations of the Dickinson family until it was purchased in 1983 by M.K. Laboratories. The Dickinson’s Witch Hazel products still use 100% natural distilled Witch Hazel to this day.
Five Health Benefits of Witch Hazel
There has not been a lot of scientific research done on Witch Hazel, but existing studies suggest that when used as an extract, cream, lotion, or tea, it offers several potential benefits for maintaining healthy skin, supporting normal inflammatory responses, promoting oral health, and contributing to overall well-being.
It has few known side effects and is relatively inexpensive, making it a great plant-based extract to keep on hand and try out for any of the following purposes.
1. Witch Hazel May Promote Skin Health
Witch Hazel has been approved by the FDA as an ingredient for use in the formulation of skin-protectant drug products for the “relief of minor skin irritations due to insect bites, minor cuts, or minor scrapes.” It contains a high concentration of tannins, which are natural compounds known for their astringent properties.
The astringent properties contribute to the plant’s ability to tighten skin temporarily, reduce pore size, and enhance the skin's appearance, making it a good addition to any beauty regimen. They also may help manage oily skin and other skin conditions as well.
Witch Hazel also contains polyphenols, which have antioxidant properties that may prevent free radicals from damaging the skin. These antioxidants may also support a normal inflammatory response, which may alleviate mild discomfort and redness when the skin is irritated or inflamed.REF#2791
Witch Hazel can be used as a toner after washing or dabbed below the eyes to reduce puffiness and circles. Simply apply a small amount of Witch Hazel to a cotton ball or pad and apply it to your face. Follow that with a good moisturizer to keep the skin hydrated.
2. Witch Hazel May Promote Healthy Scalp
Some Witch Hazel users have reported improved scalp conditions, such as reduced tenderness and itchiness, potentially making it a good addition to your natural hair care routine. In an observational study of over 1,300 people, Witch Hazel extract reduced scalp irritation and sensitivity.REF#2792
Because of its mild cleansing properties, it is a good ingredient to include in natural hair care products. It may help remove excess oil and buildup from the scalp and hair, promoting clean and healthy locks.
If you’re suffering from a tender or itchy scalp, massage a small amount of Witch Hazel extract directly into the scalp before washing your hair. Follow with your normal shampoo and conditioner.
3. Witch Hazel Supports the Relief of Hemorrhoids
Approved by the FDA as an ingredient for use in the formulation of hemorrhoid drug products, Witch Hazel is considered one of the best natural ingredients to manage the discomfort of hemorrhoids. It has been approved for “the temporary relief of anorectal itching and discomfort associated with hemorrhoids,” as an aid “in protecting irritated anorectal areas,” and for the “temporary relief of irritation or burning.’’
You can dab a cotton ball in Witch Hazel extract and apply it directly to the affected area several times a day or purchase hemorrhoid pads or wipes that contain Witch Hazel.
4. Witch Hazel May Promote Oral Health
Because of Witch Hazel's mild astringency, the plant is used in some oral health products, such as mouthwashes and gargles. Swishing your mouth with witch hazel extract or tea may contribute to maintaining gum health and supporting overall oral hygiene. However, Witch Hazel should not be used as a substitute for regular dental care.
5. Antioxidant Properties May Support Overall Health
The antioxidants in Witch Hazel, including flavonoids and polyphenols, are known for their potential to help counteract oxidative stress by neutralizing harmful free radicals in the body that can damage cells and tissues. In addition to helping prevent skin damage, Witch Hazel may contribute to overall health and wellness.REF#2793
How to Use Witch Hazel Safely
The FDA classifies Witch Hazel as a Generally Recognized as Safe and Effective (GRASE) astringent.
There are no known serious adverse effects related to the topical use of Witch Hazel when applied to the skin in appropriate amounts.REF#2794 However, like any natural or cosmetic product, some individuals may experience side effects or sensitivities. Here are some precautions and potential side effects to be aware of when using Witch Hazel:
- Skin sensitivity: Some people may be sensitive to the topical use of Witch Hazel and experience skin irritation, redness, or rash. Perform a patch test on a small area of skin before using it more extensively.
- Allergic reactions: While rare, allergic reactions can occur.
- Dryness or tightness: Witch Hazel's astringent properties can cause a feeling of dryness or tightness, especially if you have dry or sensitive skin. If so, consider using it less frequently or following up with a moisturizer.
- Internal use: Internal consumption is not recommended. Witch Hazel products intended for external use may contain other ingredients or preservatives that are not safe for ingestion. When using it for gargling, always spit it out.
- Medication interactions: If you are taking any medications or using other topical treatments, consult with a healthcare professional before using Witch Hazel to ensure there are no potential interactions. If you use other topicals such as alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids — namely salicylic acid, retinol, and benzoyl peroxide — don’t take them within 12 hours of using Witch Hazel to avoid excessive dryness.
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding: If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, consult with a healthcare provider before using Witch Hazel products.
- Dilution: If using Witch Hazel extract or distillate directly on the skin, consider diluting it with water or other carrier oils, especially if you have sensitive skin.
Incorporating Witch Hazel into your skincare, hair care, and oral care routines can be a great choice if you are trying to take a more natural and holistic approach to wellness.
Individual reactions can vary, and it's advisable to perform patch tests before applying the extract to your skin or scalp. Also, consult with a healthcare professional if you have specific concerns or sensitivities or have pre-existing health conditions.
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