When skin conditions flare up, you'll find drug store shelves stacked with costly products for eczema, acne, burns, bites, sores and stings. While these commercial preparations may offer results, herbalists recommend using witch hazel as an alternative remedy for a large variety of skin problems. Witch hazel is generally considered safe, but as with most alternative remedies, more scientific research is needed to confirm its efficacy. Check with your health care provider before incorporating witch hazel into your skin care regimen.
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Witch hazel, also called winterbloom and Hamamelis virginiana, is found throughout North America. The perennial shrub ranges in height from eight to 15 feet and produces spidery, golden-yellow flowers in the fall and black nuts in the winter. Witch hazel's twigs, leaves and gray-brown bark are harvested, dried and used medicinally to treat a multitude of health conditions.
Native Americans traditionally used witch hazel for a variety of remedies. Topical poultices saturated in bark water commonly treated inflammation, eye infections and tumors. They also ingested witch hazel to treat hemorrhaging and heavy menstrual bleeding. European settlers recognized the value of the herb in the 18th century and brought it back to England and other European countries where its popularity spread.
Witch hazel leaves and bark contain large amounts of tannins, astringent plant compounds that have a drying or shrinking effect. According to Dr. Varro E. Tyler, author of "Honest Herbal," witch hazel's bark is 31 times richer in tannins than any other part of the plant. Varro notes, "A number of other constituents, including various flavenoid pigments are also present, but whatever astringent action the drug possesses seems to be accounted for by the tannin."
Monica K. Bedi, lead author of a 2002 "Archives of Dermatology" review of herbal use in dermatology, recommends using witch hazel remedies made straight from the bark. It appears that the distillation process depletes the quantity of tannins in commercial preparations of witch hazel.
Although the Mayo Clinic discounts the efficacy of witch hazel as a remedy for skin problems such as eczema, the University of Michigan Health System suggests that the herb may offer a minimal to moderate health benefit in treating wounds, skin ulcers, varicose veins, canker sores, cold sores, hemorrhoids and eczema. The astringent properties of witch hazel's tannins cause proteins in the skin to tighten. This produces a protective layer that supports resistance to inflammation and promotes healing.
Witch hazel also helps to repair damaged blood vessels beneath the skin's surface, soothe tender skin and prevent pain and infection. Moreover, the website Herbs 2000, claims that witch hazel yields significant benefits in healing mosquito bites, stings, burns, bedsores, sunburn, poison ivy, diaper rash and pus-filled acne.
Refrain from using witch hazel decoctions, teas and tinctures internally if you are pregnant or suffer from lower intestinal problems or stomach ulcers. According to Drugs.com, it can cause liver damage, nausea, vomiting, constipation or diarrhea when ingested in excess of 1 gram. Never take commercially prepared witch hazel internally. Used topically, the astringent action of witch hazel can cause skin peeling and dryness.