The bark, leaves, and twigs of the witch hazel shrub were widely used as medicinal treatments by native peoples of North America. Witch hazel was applied topically as a treatment for such conditions as skin wounds, insect bites, hemorrhoids, muscle aches, and back stiffness, and it was taken internally for colds, coughs, and digestive problems. It came into use among European colonists in the 1840s, when a businessman named Theron Pond marketed an extract of witch hazel under the name “Golden Treasure.”
The most common witch hazel product available in the U.S. is made from the whole twigs of the shrub. Extracts of the bark alone are used in Europe.
Witch hazel is widely marketed for direct application to the skin to relieve pain, stop bleeding, control itching, reduce symptoms of eczema, and treat muscle aches. Pads, ointments, and suppositories containing witch hazel are used for treatment of hemorrhoids. Extracts of the bark and leaf are used in Europe to treat diarrhea, inflammation of the gums, canker sores, and varicose veins. However, there is no meaningful evidence that witch hazel is actually effective for any of these conditions.
One small double-blind study is commonly cited as evidence that witch hazel is effective for treatment of eczema. This study compared topical witch hazel ointment to the drug bufexamac, and found them equally effective.1 However, bufexamac itself has not been shown effective for the treatment of eczema, and so this study proves little. A subsequent study failed to find witch hazel more effective than a placebo treatment for eczema.2
There are no other meaningful studies of witch hazel. Extremely preliminary evidence hints that it may have anti-inflammatory properties,3-5 and even weaker evidence suggests that witch hazel may increase the contractility of veins (potentially making it useful in varicose veins).6 However, this evidence is far too weak to support using witch hazel for any of these conditions.
Witch hazel preparations should be used according to label instructions.
Witch hazel appears to be a relatively safe substance, but comprehensive safety studies have not been performed. When applied to the skin, it may cause allergic reactions. Witch hazel contains tannins, which can upset the stomach. Safety in pregnant or nursing women, young children, or people with severe liver or kidney disease is not established.
1. Swoboda M, Meurer J. Treatment of atopic dermatitis with hamamelis ointment. Br J Phytother. 1991;2:128–132.
2. Korting HC, Schafer-Korting M, Klovekorn W, et al. Comparative efficacy of hamamelis distallate and hydrocortisone cream in atopic eczema. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 1995;48:461–465.
3. Korting HC, Schafer-Korting M, Hart H, et al. Anti-inflammatory activity of hamamelis distillate applied topically to the skin. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 1993;44:315–8.
4. Duwiejua M, Zeitlin IJ, Waterman PG, et al. Anti-inflammatory activity of Polygonum bistorta, Guaiacumofficinale and Hamamelis virginiana in rats. J Pharm Pharmacol. 1994;46:286–290.
5. Hughes-Formella BJ, Bohnsack K, Rippke F, et al. Anti-inflammatory effect of hamamelis lotion in a UVB erythema test. Dermatology. 1998;196:316–322.
6. Bernard P, Balansard P, Balansard G, et al. Venitonic pharmacodynamic value of galenic preparations with a base of hamamelis leaves [in French]. J Pharm Belg. 1972;27:505–512.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
Last Updated: 12/15/2015
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