by Michal Zweig
Hamamelis genus, found in Mecklenburgh Square Garden was used in early America for water divination (AKA water dowsing) both by Native Americans and colonizers. While we may think that the name refers to a ‘witch’, etymologically speaking the term is in fact derived from Middle English wych (to bend), and Old English wice; which in turn have been derived from Old Norse veikr. The H. virginiana species is indigenous to North America. It is or was found commonly in the medicine of many different indigenous Native American peoples, and continues to be used in different medicinal and commercially sold cosmetic preparations. The plant is rich in phytochemicals known as tannins, including hamamelitannin, which is characteristic of the genus. These types of phytochemicals have antioxidant activity, leading to witch hazel’s common usage in cosmetics and ‘cosmeceutical’ products. Not much clinical evidence for H. virginiana exists, nor is much toxicological data available, however, the plant is assumed to be safe so long as it is used topically.
Hamamelis, commonly known as witch hazel, is a genus containing six species of flowering plants, usually woody shrubs (with the exception of the small tree-like stature of the American species, H. virginiana) that grow to 8-13 m in height (Weber 2012; Xie et al. 2010).
Organoleptically speaking the odour and taste of the leaves are slightly astringent and slightly bitter while the cortex is odourless but tastes strongly astringent and slightly bitter (WHO Monographs on selected Medicinal Plants – Vol 2: Folium et Cortex Hamamelis, 2004).
Trunks are crooked and often multiple. The branches and twigs are characteristically zigzag. The foliage is deciduous, turning yellow in autumn. The individual leaves grow in alternate pattern along the twigs and have irregularly oval shape with wavy or toothed margins (Weber, 2012).
The fruits are capsules that appear after the flowers and split open the following year to eject two shiny black seeds (Weber 2012).
The flowers grow in clusters of three, close to the branches, and contain four oblong yellow petals. In the North American species, H. virginiana, the flowers are present from September through December, while the other North American species H. vernalis blooms in early spring (Weber, 2012).
Figure 1. Close up of Hamamelis flower.
The genus is monophyletic (in other words derived from a single ancestor), with H. mollisfrom, the Chinese species deviating first in the genus. All North American species, two of which are mentioned above, form a single clade, sister to the Asian species H. japonica Siebold & Zucc H. Within the North American clade, H. mexicana Standl. was found to be most closely related to H. vernalis Sarg. while the H. ovalis S.W. Leonard is most closely related to the H. virginiana (Xie et al. 2010). However, the taxonomy and systematics of the genus are not very well understood.
The Mohegan Indians, indigenous to North America, used the Y-shaped witch hazel twig as a tool for water dowsing or for water divination, and the rod would supposedly twitch or dip when groundwater is present. However, there is no scientific evidence that this method works (Andriote et al. 2012).
Figure 2. Hamamelis plant organ sketch.
Witch hazel also has widespread traditional medicinal usage among different Native American groups.
The American Osage Indians called it Shemba and made a poultice out of the bark to treat tumours, sores, and ulcers (Erichsen-Brown, 1979).
The American Potawatomi Indians called the plant “bwaote’ît.” Traditionally, they placed the twigs in water with hot rocks in their sweat lodges, and the steam was said to relieve sore muscles (Erichsen-Brown, 1979).
And the Iroquois Indians brewed different parts of witch hazel into a tea, sweetened with maple syrup, to treat colds (Erichsen-Brown, 1979).
Other known uses by Native North Americans are for the treatment of tumors and eye inflammations. But perhaps most relevant to witch hazel’s modern day usage, a tea made from the bark was often applied to the rectum to soothe itching and pain associated with hemorrhoids (Erichsen-Brown, 1979).
Witch hazel plant extracts are used in over-the-counter wipes and suppositories to relieve itching and pain caused by hemorrhoids (Weber, 2012).
Additionally, they are used in ‘cosmeceuticals’ and cosmetics such as facial toners, cleansers, clarifying products, and makeup removers marketed by large brand-names (Andriote, 2012).
According to WHO there is clinical data to support witch hazel’s traditional usage for skin lesions, bruises and sprains, local skin inflammation, local inflammation of mucous membranes, and varicose veins (WHO Monographs on selected Medicinal Plants – Vol 2: Folium et Cortex Hamamelis, 2004). No clinical data supports witch hazel’s clinical usage for colitis, diarrhoea, dysentery, dysmenorrhoea, eye inflammations, haematuria, kidney pains, neuralgia, nosebleeds, and excessive menstruation (WHO Monographs on selected Medicinal Plants – Vol 2: Folium et Cortex Hamamelis, 2004).
In the United States, witch hazel is one of the only herbal medicine with US Pharmacopeial standards regulated under the FDA (Andriote, 2012).
The most common preparation for witch hazel home remedies is witch hazel water, made from freshly cut, dormant twigs. The plant matter should be soaked in warm water before it is distilled, alcohol is then typically added to the distillate preparation (Witch Hazel Uses, Benefits & Side Effects, 2009).
In Middle English “wicke” meant “lively” a possible link to plants’ twigs use as dowsing sticks which bend toward the ground when water is detected below. Similarly,”wych,” is an old Anglo-Saxon word for “bend” (Andriote 2012).
In the 1540s – wice, derived from Middle English “wicke”, was used to describe trees with pliant branches (Witch Hazel).
Additionally, it might be worth noting that hazel is not a member of the genus Corylus, the hazel plant genus (Witch Hazel).
The main constituents of witch hazel extract are flavonol glycosides, cinnamic acid derivatives, calcium oxalate, safrole, gallic acids, catechins, and gallotannins (Wang et al. 2003; Duckstein et al. 2011). Additionally, its essential oil contains carvacrol and eugenol. A noteworthy and pharmacologically important phytochemical in witch hazel is hamamelitannin, so characteristic of the plant that it was named after it (Wang et al. 2003).
Figure 3. Hamamelitannin molecular structure.
When performing phytochemical analyses of witch hazel extracts, the leaves should have a minimum 3% and maximum 10% tannin constituency. Meanwhile the bark (cortex) should have a minimum 4% and maximum 10% tannin constituency (WHO Monographs on selected Medicinal Plants – Vol 2: Folium et Cortex Hamamelis, 2004).
By percentage the tannin make up of witch hazel leaves are 10% gallic acid, 1.5% hydrolysable hamamelitannin, and 88.5% condensed proanthocyanidins. The bark (cortex) tannin make up is similar but contains 65% hydrolysable hamamelitannin (WHO Monographs on selected Medicinal Plants – Vol 2: Folium et Cortex Hamamelis, 2004).
Flavonoids and tannins, antioxidant molecules, are the main principles in witch hazel extract. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) act non-specifically in the immunological pathways (but can be responsible for aging) as well as in some pathophysiological inflammation (Dzialo et al. 2016). ROS cause harm in these ways by being a source of oxidative stress. Antioxidants help the antioxidant defense the body already has in place by providing protection against the ROS. Antioxidants can help through various mechanisms such as: inhibiting ROS formation by trapping the ROS or quenching the reactive singlet oxygen on the molecule; reducing chelated metal ions (catalysts for reactions that form ROS); and protecting the other compounds with antioxidant activity. Thus the antioxidants in witch hazel could be said to potentially have anti-aging properties (Dzialo et al. 2016).
The polyphenols gallic acid and elaeocarpusin have been shown to enhance proliferation and collagen production in the fibroblasts. Stimulating collagen synthesis and reviving damaged collagen fibers is necessary to minimize wrinkles and prevent wrinkle production. The mechanism for the stimulation of collagen synthesis could potentially be explained with experiments that show epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a gallotannin (gallic acid containing tannin) in green tea, modifies expression and production in matrix metalloproteinases by protein complex activation (Dzialo et al., 2016). Hamamelitannin in witch hazel is also a gallotannin, therefore very similar in structure to the above mentioned molecules. Therefore this is a possible or similar mechanism responsible for its anti-aging properties.
Products containing witch hazel distillate (90%) have demonstrated significant antimicrobial activity. This might explain witch hazel’s use against acne, often caused by bacteria (Gloor et al. 2002).
Moreover, Hamameltannin has been shown to have inhibitory effects against endothelial tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFα) induced cell death, which is a cell-signaling protein involved in inflammation, potentially explaining UV photo-protective effects (Habtemariam 2002). This anti-inflammatory effect likely contributes to witch hazel’s effectiveness in its use in relieving hemorrhoids and associated discomfort.
Hamamelis’ astringent activity is largely attributed to its tannins. In-vitro studies have shown that ethanolic Hamamelis extracts cause cell membranes to seal and reduce capillary permeability. Higher concentrations of Hamamelis extracts caused proteins to precipitate and thicken colloidal tissues to form a thin membrane over the wound, slightly compressing the skin tissue under the wound region (WHO Monographs on selected Medicinal Plants – Vol 2: Folium et Cortex Hamamelis, 2004). If the bark has more tannins it was shown to be more astringent (WHO Monographs on selected Medicinal Plants – Vol 2: Folium et Cortex Hamamelis, 2004). This astringent activity helps anorectal discomfort such as hemorrhoids and hemorrhoidal pain (WHO Monographs on selected Medicinal Plants – Vol 2: Folium et Cortex Hamamelis, 2004).
An observational study of 309 children found witch hazel to be safe and effective on children (aged 1 month to 11 years old) with minor skin injuries (such as diaper dermatitis and localized skin inflammations) (Wolff et al. 2007).
In March 2010 the University Hospital of Zurich completed an observational study was carried out in the Dermatology department over a period of 6 months, during which witch hazel-containing products, Erol ® Energy Shampoo and Tonic, were given to individuals who had scalp irritation, with or without clinical symptoms of inflammation (Trueb, 2014). These patients had used various medicinal shampoos that did not help them. Only four weeks of using the witch hazel extract shampoo and tonic seemed to help most patients. The patients rated the tolerance of both product from good to excellent and reported general satisfaction (Trueb, 2014). However, it should be noted the the hair tonic contained rosemary, field horsetail, birch, and stinging nettle extracts as well, so the Hamamelis was one part of the herbal preparation. A second study was then performed using the same cosmeceutical on 1,373 individuals in 2013 and produced similar results (Trueb, 2014).
In another study, 33 healthy volunteers (three of whom dropped out) were exposed to UVB radiation which induced UVB erythema (or a sunburn). Two hamamelis-free after-sun lotions were compared to a witch hazel after-sun lotion made with a 10% Hamamelis distillate and an untreated control group. The results showed witch hazel to be statistically effective in treating the sunburn and inflammatory activity. More importantly, the witch hazel product (and other products) also provided benefit over untreated sunburn (Hughes-Formella et al. 1998).
In a randomized, 21-day, double-blind trial, four rectal ointments containing either a Hamamelis extract, bismuth subgallate, or a topical anaesthetic were compared. A total of 90 patients with acute stage one hemorrhoid symptoms participated in the study. Two control ointments contained the topical anesthetic and two different synthetic drugs. After treatment, all ointments used in the study were equally effective in improving anorectal patient comfort, with a slightly more positive tendency in the Hamamelis group (Knoch et al. 1992). Overall, these data provide very limited evidence for with hazel’s effectivness in treating these skin conditions.
Toxicity information is lacking on witch hazel.
Due to the high tannin concentration, it is not advisable to take witch hazel orally. External use recommended (Witch Hazel Uses, Benefits & Side Effects, 2009).
Information on use during pregnancy and nursing has not been reported (Witch Hazel Uses, Benefits & Side Effects, 2009).
Allergic reactions have been reported from external usage (Witch Hazel Uses, Benefits & Side Effects, 2009).
Centuries of traditional usage suggest that witch hazel is an effective drug for inflammation, hemorrhoids, and acne despite little available evidence. However, it is important that the preparation is used externally as there is no safety information about internal use. Despite a recorded traditional use of a witch hazel tree bark tea, the preparation for this tea is not available, so this is not a recommended usage, and it is believed that the high tannin concentrations in witch hazel could be dangerous if ingested.
Along with being a medicinal herb, witch hazel flowers have a bright yellow color that can add to the beauty of any garden when in bloom.
Andriote, John-Manuel. (2012). The Mysterious Past and Present of Witch Hazel. The Atlantic.
Duckstein, Sarina & Stintzing, Florian. (2011). Investigation on the phenolic constituents in Hamamelis virginiana leaves by HPLC-DAD and LC-MS/MS. Analytical and bioanalytical chemistry. 401. 677-88. 10.1007/s00216-011-5111-3.
Działo, Magdalena & Mierziak, Justyna & Korzun, Urszula & Preisner, Marta & Szopa, Jan & Kulma, Anna. (2016). The Potential of Plant Phenolics in Prevention and Therapy of Skin Disorders. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 17. 160. 10.3390/ijms17020160.
Erichsen-Brown, Charlotte. (1979). Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes. Dover Publications.
Gloor, M & Reichling, J & Wasik, B & Holzgang, Hans. (2002). Antiseptic Effect of a Topical Dermatological Formulation That Contains Hamamelis Distillate and Urea. Forschende Komplementärmedizin und klassische Naturheilkunde = Research in complementary and natural classical medicine. 9. 153-9. 10.1159/000064265.
Habtemariam, Solomon. (2002). Hamamelitannin from Hamamelis virginiana inhibits the tumour necrosis factor-α (TNF)-induced endothelial cell death in vitro. Toxicon : official journal of the International Society on Toxinology. 40. 83-8. 10.1016/S0041-0101(01)00195-7.
Hughes-Formella, Betsy & Bohnsack, Kerstin & Rippke, Frank & Benner, G & Rudolph, M & Tausch, Irene & Gassmueller, J. (1998). Anti-Inflammatory Effect of Hamamelis Lotion in a UVB Erythema Test. Dermatology (Basel, Switzerland). 196. 316-22. 10.1159/000017904.
Knoch, G H & Klug, W & Hübner, Wolf-Dietrich. (1992). Ointment treatment of 1st degree hemorrhoids. Comparison of the effectiveness of a phytogenic preparation with two new ointments containing synthetic drugs. Fortschritte der Medizin. 110. 135-8.
Trüeb, Ralph M. (2014). North American Virginian Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana): Based Scalp Care and Protection for Sensitive Scalp, Red Scalp, and Scalp Burn-Out. International journal of trichology. 6. 100-3. 10.4103/0974-7753.139079.
Wang, Huafu & J Provan, Gordon & Helliwell, Keith. (2003). Determination of hamamelitannin, catechins and gallic acid in witch hazel bark, twig and leaf by HPLC. Journal of pharmaceutical and biomedical analysis. 33. 539-44. 10.1016/S0731-7085(03)00303-0.
Weber, Richard W. (2012). Allergen of the Month-Witch Hazel. Annals of allergy, asthma & immunology : official publication of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. 109. A17. 10.1016/j.anai.2012.10.001.
WHO Monographs on Selected Medicinal Plants – Vol. 2: Folium et Cortex Hamamelis. (2004). Witch Hazel. apps.who.int/medicinedocs
Witch Hazel Uses, Benefits & Side Effects. (2009). Drugs.com
Witch Hazel. Online Etymology Dictionary. etymonline.com
Wolff, Helmut & Kieser, Meinhard. (2007). Hamamelis in children with skin disorders and skin injuries: Results of an observational study. European journal of pediatrics. 166. 943-8. 10.1007/s00431-006-0363-1.
Xie, Lei & Yi, Tingshuang & Li, Rong & Li, De-Zhu & Wen, Jun. (2010). Evolution and biogeographic diversification of the witch-hazel genus (Hamamelis L., Hamamelidaceae) in the Northern Hemisphere. Molecular phylogenetics and evolution. 56. 675-89. 10.1016/j.ympev.2010.02.018.
Figure 1: Andriote, John-Manuel. (2012). The Mysterious Past and Present of Witch Hazel. The Atlantic.
Figure 2: Witch Hazel Wikipedia Page
Figure 3: Sigma-Aldrich, Hamamelitannin