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Witch Hazel

Hamamelis virginiana

Family: Hamamelidaceae



The botanical genus Hamamelis is small, comprising four to six species: H. virginiana (American witch hazel), H. mollis (Chinese witch hazel), H. vernalis (vernal or Ozark witch hazel), H. japonica (Japanese witch hazel), and some unresolved species, including H. ovalis (big-leaf witch hazel) and H. mexicana (Mexican witch hazel).1,2

Hamamelis virginiana is a common tree or treelike shrub that occurs in deciduous forests of the eastern half of Canada and the United States, from Nova Scotia to Wisconsin in the north and northern Florida to eastern Texas in the south. The plants, which sucker freely and form dense clumps, grow 9-16 feet (3-5 m) tall, and sometimes up to 30 feet (9 m) in their native habitat.3,4 Witch hazel produces mildly fragrant yellow flowers on its branches in late autumn after the leaves have dropped, and even during periods when there is frost or when temperatures fall below freezing. Interestingly, witch hazel is pollinated in autumn when it flowers but is not fertilized until spring, and the fruit, which matures in late summer, remains on the plant even after flowering commences again in autumn.3

Eastern Connecticut is known as the “witch hazel capital of the world.”5 Historically, the material of commerce used for the manufacture of witch hazel drug products has been obtained from wild collection near distillation facilities in the New England region (e.g., in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island), but also in Appalachia.6 Today, the certified organic raw material supply is obtained mainly from wild collection in Connecticut, Kentucky, and Missouri.7 One of the large organic wild-crop operations is American Distilling, Inc. (East Hampton, Connecticut), which is also reported to be the world’s largest producer of organic and conventional distilled witch hazel extracts, with 20,000 acres of wilderness for certified organic wild harvesting of witch hazel.8 A range of cosmetic products marketed by Estée Lauder, L’Oréal, Revlon, and Neutrogena reportedly contain witch hazel from American Distilling.9 Over-the-counter (OTC) witch hazel drug products from Dickinson Brands, Inc. and Humphreys Pharmacal, Inc. are both produced at American Distilling’s East Hampton location.10,11 Thayers Natural Remedies (Easton, Connecticut) uses organic cultivated material grown exclusively for the company, after it entered into an agreement in 2013 with a family farm in Fairfield County, Connecticut.12


In 1588, English colonist, ethnographer, cartographer, and linguist Thomas Hariot (ca. 1560–1621), assistant to Sir Walter Raleigh (ca. 1552–1618), observed in his book A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia that the indigenous Carolina Algonquian people had no edge tools or weapons of iron or steel to defend themselves. Instead, he noted, they had only bows of “witch hazle” and arrows of reeds.13

A pre-Linnaean polynomial Pistacia nigra Coryli folio is the earliest known Latin name assigned to American witch hazel and was published in a 1688 catalog of Virginia plants by botanist John Banister (1650–1692).6

One theory about the common name witch hazel is that “witch” may be a derivative of the old English wych, meaning “to bend,” in reference to trees with pliant branches, while “hazel” may be due to the resemblance of the leaves to those of true hazels in the genus Corylus (Betulaceae).14 (The current “Hamamelis Bark” monograph of the European Pharmacopoeia requires a test to rule out adulteration with bark and twigs of European hazel [C. avellana].15)

The name witch hazel had been used for centuries in Europe to refer to other tree species. Under the rule of Henry VIII (1491-1547), for example, the Unlawful Games Act of 1541-1542 was enacted to promote archery by making other games illegal and required bows to be made “of Elme, wyche hasille, ashe, or other Wood … apte for [shooting].” It is believed that “wyche hasille” referred to a tree also known as “wyche elm,” which is now commonly known as Scotch elm (Ulmus glabra, Ulmaceae).6

With reference to association of the name with “witching rods,” medical botanist and a surgeon of the US Navy William P.C. Barton, MD, (1786-1856) wrote: “The divining rods formerly used by impostors, who pretended to find precious ores, were made of the twigs of this tree; and, in Virginia, I have been informed, the credulous vulgar are still imposed on by persons who pretend to find water by the indication of rods of this tree. Hence the name Witch-Hazel.”16

In 1742, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) first assigned the Latin genus name Hamamelis, which he attributed to botanist Johannes Fredericus Gronovius (1690-1762).17,18 Hamamelis is derived from the Greek terms hama, meaning “at the same time,” and melon, meaning “fruit” or “apple.” The term had previously been used by the Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 BCE) in reference to the medlar tree (Mespilus germanica, Rosaceae) because the medlar and the apple blossomed at the same time in Greece.6 The species name virginiana was assigned by Linnaeus in his 1753 Species Plantarum, wherein he wrote that the species’ habitat was Virginia.19

Preparations of H. virginiana have been used traditionally by Native Americans as food and medicine, and for sacred and other purposes.20 The Cherokee used an infusion of witch hazel plant parts for colds, fever, sore throat, tuberculosis, pain (including gynecological), as a beverage, and as a wash for skin sores and scratches. The Chippewa (also known as the Ojibwe) used an infusion of the inner bark internally as an emetic in cases of poisoning and externally for skin conditions and sore eyes. The Menominee used H. virginiana twigs in an infusion “to cure a lame back” and in a decoction rubbed on the legs to keep them limber. They also used the seeds to divine if a sick person would recover and as sacred beads in medicine ceremonies. The Mohegan made an infusion of twigs and leaves for topical use on cuts, bruises, and insect bites. The Potawatomi used witch hazel twigs in a steam bath for sore muscles.

The Iroquois (a confederacy of tribes, properly called the Six Nations, comprising the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples) used infusions and decoctions of various plant parts as an antidiarrheal, emetic, and gynecological aid; for coughs, colds, tuberculosis and other respiratory conditions, cholera, and bruises; to stimulate appetite and regulate the kidneys; and for “cold around the heart.” The Iroquois also consumed preparations of witch hazel with other plants to treat arthritis, tuberculosis, venereal disease, to prevent hemorrhage after childbirth, to “purify the blood,” and as a general panacea. Additionally, the Iroquois used witch hazel externally, usually as a poultice, antiemetic, and astringent, and for bruises, colds, kidney conditions, and toothaches.21

The current medical uses of witch hazel preparations likely stem from the traditional medical knowledge of certain eastern North American tribes, including the Oneida Indian Nation of central New York.6,22

In the 1830s, an astringent ointment made in Danbury, Connecticut, prepared from lard and a decoction of equal parts witch hazel bark, white oak (Quercus alba, Fagaceae) inner bark, and sweet apple (Malus spp., Rosaceae) tree bark, became a popular treatment for hemorrhoids.23,24 In the early 1840s, pharmacist Theron Tilden Pond (1800-1852) reportedly observed the preparation of a decoction of witch hazel by a medicine man of the Oneida tribe. The preparation was applied topically to treat burns, boils, and other types of wounds. Based on this experience, Pond, in a partnership with the Oneida medicine man, began making a witch hazel distillate in 1846 under the trade name “Golden Treasure.” Before Pond’s death, Pond and the medicine man sold the company, after which the new owners continued production at small factories in New York state until around 1875, when the operation was moved from Rome, New York, to a new commercial distilling facility in Chester, Connecticut.6,22 Around 1886, the product name changed to “Pond’s Extract” and in 1905, “Pond’s Cold Cream” was launched.25

In 1847, Henry Thayer, MD, (1828-1902) founded Henry Thayer & Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which began producing witch hazel extracts sometime in the mid-1800s.26 In 1866, the first large-scale witch hazel distillery was established in Essex, Connecticut, by Thomas Newton Dickinson (1825-1900).27 His son, Edward Everett Dickinson, Sr., took over the business in 1897, and named it E.E. Dickinson & Company. Edward’s brother, Thomas Newton Dickinson, Jr., also operated a witch hazel company known as T.N. Dickinson Witch Hazel in East Hampton, Connecticut. Their companies eventually merged and were acquired by M.K. Laboratories in 1983. In 1997, American Distilling began producing the Dickinson brand of witch hazel products.28

An official quality standards monograph for witch hazel first appeared in the sixth decennial revision to the United States Pharmacopeia (USP 6) in 1883 (E. Begoun [USP librarian] email to J. Brinckmann, July 12, 2017). The USP “Hamamelis” monograph provided a basic macroscopic description and organoleptic characteristics of H. virginiana leaves (specifically, those collected in autumn), and referred to an official fluidextract preparation thereof (Extractum Hamamelidis Fluidum).29 In addition to monographs for the leaf and for the fluidextract made from the leaves, subsequent revisions, such as USP 8 in 1905, added new monographs for the bark and twigs (Hamamelidis Cortex) and for the distillate made from the bark and twigs (Aqua Hamamelidis).30 While three of the four witch hazel monographs (for the bark, leaf, and fluidextract of the leaf) were omitted from USP 9 in 1916, two monographs (for the leaf and the fluidextract of the leaf) entered the fourth edition of the National Formulary (NF 4) in the same year.6 Aqua Hamamelidis (Hamamelis Water) was removed from USP 10 in 192631 but added to NF 6 in 1936. Several decades would pass before Hamamelis Water was readmitted into USP 22 in the early 1990s (E. Begoun email to J. Brinckmann, July 12, 2017).

Also used in the 19th-century Eclectic system of medicine, Hamamelis USP (i.e., witch hazel conforming to the USP monograph) was monographed in the 18th edition of King’s American Dispensatory (1898), written by Harvey Wickes Felter, MD, (1865-1927) and John Uri Lloyd, PhrM, PhD (1849-1936). Specific indications and uses were listed as:

Venous debility, with relaxation and fullness; pale mucous tissues (occasionally deep-red from venous engorgement, or deep-blue from venous stasis); mucous profluvia, with venous relaxation; passive hemorrhages; varicoses; capillary stasis; hemorrhoids, with full feeling; relaxed and painful sore throat; dull, aching pain in rectum, pelvis, or female organs; perineal relaxation, with fullness; muscular relaxation; muscular soreness and aching and bruised sensation, whether from cold, exposure, bruises, strains, or from physical exertion.32

In 1917, the US Geological Survey responded to the large number of inquiries received each year about the efficacy of divining rods for locating underground water by publishing a 59-page report, “The Divining Rod – A History of Water Witching,” wherein it stated that witch hazel twigs were among the favorite types of wood used to make the rods, and that “Some diviners appear to pass into abnormal or psychical states and have muscular spasms, such as occur in cases of hysteria.”33

Although witch hazel was an old drug available in American pharmacies since the mid-19th century, in the early 1980s, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) included Hamamelis Water NF (witch hazel water of NF quality) in three proposed OTC drug monographs: anorectal drug products (in 1980),34 external analgesic drug products (in 1982),35 and skin protectant drug products (also in 1982).36 In 1990, the FDA published its final monograph for anorectal drug active ingredients, which included Hamamelis Water NF as a safe and effective astringent active ingredient.37 Three years later, the FDA published its final monograph for skin protectant drug products, which included Hamamelis Water USP as an astringent active ingredient. The FDA clarified in the rule that while the initial proposed monograph specified Hamamelis Water NF, a new USP monograph had been established and, therefore, the FDA would require use of USP-quality Hamamelis Water in drug products.38 In 1994, the FDA amended the final rule in order to change the official name of the drug from “Hamamelis Water” to “Witch Hazel.”39 As USP quality monograph titles must be consistent with FDA labeling standards monographs, the USP followed suit with a change in its official monograph titles from “Hamamelis Water” in USP 22 to “Witch Hazel” in USP 23 (official from January 1, 1995).40

In 1985, the German Commission E approved the use of “Hamamelidis folium et cortex” (witch hazel leaf and bark) in suppository form (corresponding to 0.1-1 g drug) and as a nonprescription medicine for treating minor injuries of skin, local inflammation of skin and mucous membranes, hemorrhoids, and varicose veins. The Commission E also approved the external application of witch hazel leaf and bark in the following forms: water steam distillate (undiluted, or diluted 1:3 with water), poultice (20-30% in semi-solid preparations), semi-solid and liquid extract preparations (corresponding to 5-10% drug), or as an aqueous decoction (5-10 g of herb per cup [250 mL] of water) for compresses and irrigations.41 Since then, national labeling standards monographs of European Union (EU) member states, such as those of the German Commission E, have been superseded by monographs of the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

In 2002, a comprehensive monograph (quality and therapeutics) for “Folium et Cortex Hamamelidis” was added to volume two of the WHO Monographs on Selected Medicinal Plants.42 In 2009, the EMA published labeling standards monographs for “Hamamelidis Folium” (hamamelis leaf)43 and “Hamamelidis Folium et Cortex aut Ramunculus Destillatum” (hamamelis leaf and bark or twigs distillate; the distillate prepared from fresh leaves and bark [1:1.12-2.08; ethanol 6% m/m] or from dried twigs [1:2; ethanol 14-15%]).44 In 2011, the EMA published labeling standards for “Hamamelidis Cortex” (hamamelis bark),45 applicable when used as active ingredients of registered traditional herbal medicinal products (THMPs) in the EU. While there are corresponding quality standards monographs for the leaf and for the bark in the European Pharmacopoeia (PhEur 9.0), there is no PhEur monograph for the distillate preparation.16 The EMA therefore requires marketers of the distillate to specify quality as per the “Witch Hazel USP” monograph.46


In the United States, the FDA classifies Witch Hazel USP (clear, colorless distillate prepared from recently cut and partially dried dormant twigs of H. virginiana) as a Generally Recognized as Safe and Effective (GRASE) astringent active ingredient of hemorrhoid drug products. Permitted indications for use include the following statements: “for the temporary relief of anorectal itching and discomfort associated with hemorrhoids,” “aids in protecting irritated anorectal areas,” and “temporary relief of irritation or burning.’’ Witch Hazel USP may also be used in combination with up to four anorectal protectant active ingredients, such as with Cocoa Butter NF (fat obtained from the seed of Theobroma cacao [Malvaceae]) and/or with Topical Starch USP (granules separated from the mature grain of Zea mays [Poaceae]), among others. The FDA also permits Witch Hazel USP to be used in combination with any single analgesic, anesthetic, or antipruritic active ingredient, such as Camphor USP (a monoterpene ketone found in Cinnamomum camphora [Lauraceae]) or Juniper Tar USP (empyreumatic volatile oil obtained from the woody portions of Juniperus oxycedrus [Cupressaceae]).47 The FDA also classifies Witch Hazel USP as a GRASE astringent active ingredient of skin protectant drug products, indicated for the “relief of minor skin irritations due to insect bites, minor cuts, or minor scrapes.”48 It is also used in numerous non-drug cosmetic products, such as after-sun lotions and aftershaves.


The primary active chemical constituent in H. virginiana bark is the hydrolyzable tannin hamamelitannin (4.77%), with decreasing amounts of gallic acid (0.59%), (+)-gallocatechin (0.22%), and (+)-catechin (0.39%), as well as flavonols and proanthocyanidins.49 Witch hazel leaves contain hydrolyzable tannins such as hexagalloyl hexose, heptagalloyl hexose, octagalloyl hexose, nonagalloyl hexose, decagalloyl hexose, and undecagalloyl hexose, as well as hydroxycinnamic acids (chlorogenic acid, 5-O-caffeoylquinic acid, 4-O-caffeoylquinic acid, 3-O-coumaroylquinic acid, 5-O-coumaroylquinic acid, and caffeoylshikimic acid), flavonols (quercetin and kaempferol derivatives), and proanthocyanidins.50 The tannins in H. virginiana bark and leaves are thought to be responsible for their beneficial effects on the skin.51 It has been suggested, however, that while tannins may be responsible for astringent and styptic (causing bleeding to stop) properties of the bark and leaves, and extracts thereof, witch hazel distillate contains almost no active tannins. Therefore, it appears that the volatile ingredients, or even just the alcohol itself, may provide the astringent effect when the distillate is used.52

In vitro studies of H. virginiana bark extracts have shown antibacterial effects against periodontopathic bacteria,53 anti-inflammatory and radical scavenging effects, and antiviral effects against herpes simplex type 1,51 influenza A virus, and human papillomavirus.54 These extracts also inhibit the production of tumoral melanoma cells, protect red blood cells from free radical-induced destruction (hemolysis),55 are cytotoxic against colon cancer cells,56 and inhibit tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α)-induced endothelial cell death.57

As stated previously, the accepted medicinal uses of H. virginiana are based on traditional uses by various Native American tribes. Few human clinical studies have evaluated these traditional uses.

A 2017 single-center, one-armed, open-label interventional clinical study investigated the efficacy of a vaginal moisturizing cream, Remifemin FeuchtCreme (RFC, water vapor distillate of freshly cut twigs or leaves of H. virginiana, 1 g/50 g cream with other non-hormonal vaginal cream ingredients [lipidic alcohols, lipids, water, lactic acid]; Schaper & Brümmer GmbH & Co. KG; Salzgitter, Germany). Twenty postmenopausal women (54-76 years old) with vaginal dryness applied approximately 2.5 g of RFC once a day before bedtime for seven days. Vaginal tolerability, vital signs, and local physical function were assessed before the first application, 4-8 hours after first application, and 14-22 hours after last application. Both clinical and subjective tolerability were good and did not change over time. Clinical assessment of vaginal dryness improved from baseline and through treatment (after first and last applications), as did subjective assessment of the feeling of vaginal dryness (55% reported no dryness after first application and 80% reported no dryness at the end of the study). Additionally, subjects reported that the cream took effect quickly and effects lasted up to 24 hours.58

A 1998 study evaluated the effect of a witch hazel lotion in an ultraviolet B (UVB) erythema test. Healthy volunteers (N = 30) with skin types I, II, or III, having established the minimal erythema doses (MEDs; the smallest dose to cause reddening of the skin), were irradiated with UVB light four times at varying distances through a light-impermeable template to obtain exposure of 1, 1.25, 1.6, and 2 MED. Immediately following exposure and measurement of the resulting erythema, and seven and 24 hours after irradiation, specific test fields were treated with 300 mL of pH5 Eucerin after-sun lotion (10% witch hazel distillate; American Distilling), a witch hazel-free lotion, or a previous formulation of pH5 Eucerin lotion without witch hazel. The Eucerin with witch hazel reduced the erythema significantly from approximately 20% to 27% at seven and 48 hours, respectively. The other lotions reduced the erythema from 10% to 15% after seven and 48 hours, respectively. The authors state that these results support the use of a witch hazel distillate for treating inflammatory skin conditions that do not require more potent corticosteroids, such as light sunburn and atopic eczema.59

A 1993 study of witch hazel’s anti-inflammatory activity on the skin compared the following five cream preparations:

  • an oil-in-water (O/W) emulsion with   witch hazel distillate (5.35 g with 0.64 mg of hamamelis ketone per 100 g [Hametum] and 2.56 mg of hamamelis ketone per 100 g [from W. Spitzner; Ettlingen, Germany]) in a phosphatidylcholine (PC) cream (≥ 85% phospholipids, Phosal; Nattermann Phospholipid; Köln, Germany);
  • the lower dose hamamelis ketone mentioned above in O/W (hamamelis cream; W. Spitzner) in the PC cream;
  • the hamamelis cream without PC;
  • a chamomile (Chamomilla recutita, Asteraceae) cream (20 mg/g of Kamillosan Crème; ASTA Medica; Frankfurt, Germany); and
  • a 1% hydrocortisone cream.

UV irradiation and cellophane tape stripping were used to induce inflammation on the backs of 48 healthy subjects. The low dose hamamelis/PC cream and the 1% hydrocortisone cream were the only treatments that affected a significant reduction in erythema compared to the control area (an untreated, irradiated/taped patch of skin).60


There are no known comprehensive reports available on the conservation status of wild H. virginiana in its eastern Canadian and US native habitat. Additionally, there are no data found in the federal and state threatened and endangered plants database.61 According to American Distilling, “witch hazel is found growing in its highest density throughout the wilderness of greater New England.” Under its organic wild-crop harvesting management plan, American Distilling harvests the shrubs for leaves and pulp wood starting in late autumn after the leaves have dropped and continues harvesting while the plants are dormant, through the winter into spring.62 To some witch hazel producers, the use of pulp wood is controversial, in part because the USP monograph specifies use of the dormant twigs only, and because use of the leaves could be more sustainable than use of the twigs and/or the entire wood pulp. For this reason, Penny Frazier, owner of A Wild Crops Farm in Salem, Missouri, produces witch hazel distillates only from fresh leaves that are wild harvested in the spring.63 The leaves can be harvested without damaging the tree branches. For harvesting bark only, Lockard and Swanson (1998) have recommended that bark should be collected in the spring when the sap is rising, from only the tree branches, and from only one side of each branch.64

Commercial wild harvesting of witch hazel has been conducted in the eastern United States since the mid-19th century. Today, some of the biggest participants in the witch hazel trade are implementing sustainable resource management plans as per the requirements for organic wild-crop certification. Some quantities are also being produced under organic cultivation regulations. Because of its long-standing regulatory status as an approved active ingredient of pharmaceutical drug products in North American and European countries and popular use in natural cosmetic products, market demand for witch hazel will likely continue to grow.

—Gayle Engels and Josef Brinckmann


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