6 Handy Uses for Witch Hazel

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 
witch hazel flowers
The witch hazel plant has bright yellow flowers and can grow as tall as 20 feet. billysfam/Shutterstock

Pretty much everything about witch hazel is unusual, from its name to its blooming season to its varied uses. Witch hazel is a tall, roundish shrub with gnarled limbs that can stretch up to 20 feet (6.1 meters) tall and up to 20 feet wide. North America's three native species sport green leaves in the spring and summer, then burst into bloom in late fall, when other trees have gone dormant. These bright-yellow blooms, while a fetching color, feature odd, stringy petals and crimson centers.

No one knows exactly how this shrub received its unusual name, but some experts say the word "witch" could be derived from the Anglo-Saxon word "wych," which is related to "wicker," a word that means bending. Since the shrub sports twisted, gnarled limbs and stringy, drooping petals, its appearance may have been the reason for the name. As for the "hazel" part, its leaves do resemble those of the hazelnut plant, though the two aren't related.


For centuries, people used witch hazel branches as divining rods to detect underground water, minerals and even lost objects. Taking a forked branch, the diviners — also called dousers or water witches — would hold the two ends about 45 degrees skyward, then walk across land. If the branch suddenly jerked downward or rotated, that supposedly meant water, minerals or objects lay beneath the ground. So the name "witch hazel" may have been given to this shrub due to its seemingly magical powers and the "water witches" who used them.

Witch hazel is more than the shrub, however. It's also the name for the liquid extract derived from the plant, which contains antioxidants and high levels of tannins. Antioxidants are important because they help combat inflammation, while tannins are useful natural chemicals that not only kill bacteria on the skin, but prevent new bacterial growth. In addition, tannins have astringent properties, which tighten the skin. Thanks to all of these positive attributes, witch hazel has long been a main ingredient in various commercial products aimed at treating skin ailments. You can also buy it in drugstores on its own.

Thayers witch hazel
The Thayers brand of witch hazel was created by Dr. Henry Thayer in Boston over 100 years ago. It is still sold today.
Jaiz Anuar/Shutterstock

Interestingly, despite containing such powerful medicinal properties and being used in traditional medicine for centuries, current studies show that witch hazel is, at most, only mildly effective. If you'd prefer to judge for yourself, check out these six popular uses for the extract.


1. Use Witch Hazel to Combat Acne

Perhaps one of the most popular uses of witch hazel is to fight acne. Too much oil on your skin can cause clogged pores, and clogged pores can lead to zits. Thanks to witch hazel's astringent properties, it may help reduce or remove excess oil from your skin. In addition, its anti-inflammatory properties may decrease skin irritation and swelling.

To use witch hazel for acne, first clean or steam your face. Then, using a mix of witch hazel extract and water or alcohol, apply to your face with a cotton ball. It's best to first test the mixture on a small area of your skin in case you have a reaction. Commercial witch hazel in particular can sometimes irritate the skin, depending upon the other ingredients it contains. Be careful, too, not to use too much witch hazel, as that can also be an irritant.


2. Ease the Pain of Sunburn, Bug Bites or Stings

Sunburn, bug bites and insect stings often swell, itch and cause discomfort. Thanks to witch hazel's anti-inflammatory properties, it may help reduce the itching and discomfort from these conditions. Simply apply directly to the affected area with a cotton ball or cloth.


3. Fight Dandruff and Scalp Sensitivity

Many believe using witch hazel on the scalp can help reduce any irritation and inflammation, plus combat dryness and dandruff. To try it, add a few drops of witch hazel to your shampoo and wash as normal. Or dab some on your hairline and part, then let sit for 5 or 10 minutes before shampooing.


4. Treat Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids are dilated veins in the anus or rectum that can cause irritation, bleeding, itchiness and discomfort. Adding witch hazel to your bathwater and soaking in it may help relieve your pain. You can also soak a cotton ball or cloth with witch hazel and apply directly to the affected area.


5. Combat Varicose Vein Discomfort

Varicose veins are enlarged, twisted veins that can cause quite a lot of pain. While common in the legs, they can occur anywhere in the body. Some people find them unsightly. You can try to combat the pain caused from varicose veins by soaking cloths in witch hazel and applying them to the affected area two or three times a day. As with hemorrhoids, you can also put witch hazel in a tub and soak, if your varicose veins are largely in the legs.

Witch hazel may also help with problematic varicose veins by strengthening the blood vessels and reducing vein swelling, thanks to the fact that it contains gallic acid and several essential oils useful for reducing swelling.


6. Soothe Razor Burn

Razor burn is a skin irritation that happens after you shave, and manifests itself as irritated, red skin. It can occur anywhere on your body, and often is the result of dry shaving, using a dull razor or shaving in the opposite direction than your hair is growing. Once again, witch hazel's astringent and anti-inflammatory properties make it a natural remedy for skin irritation, pain and burns. Although there are no definitive studies proving its effectiveness in soothing razor burn, you can try it for yourself by applying witch hazel to the affected area with a cotton ball or cloth.