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Witch hazel

Witch hazel
© Sertürner Bildarchiv

Botanical name

Witch hazel - Hamamelis virginiana L.

Family

Hamamelis family (Hamamelidaceae)

Useful information about the plant

Witch hazel is native to East Asia and the Atlantic States of the American continent and it grows there as a large shrub in thickets and forest edges from southern Canada to Texas and northern Florida, west to Wisconsin in deciduous forests to Nebraska and Missouri. In 1736, Hamamelis was introduced to England under the name "witch hazel" and has been very popular in Central Europe as a hardy shrub in gardens and parks. As a winter bloomer it adds a little colour to the gardens in December / January with its yellow flowers. Hamamelis is very similar to our hazel leaves, but their leaves are strikingly skewed and in unequal halves. The flowers are very decorative with four 1 to 2cm long, thread-shaped, yellow petals. The fruits grow on woody, two-seeded capsules. It is not clear how Hamamelis became a generic name, possibly from Greek "hama" (= simultaneous) and "melon" (= apple). The epithet virginiana points to the origin of the plant (the US state of Virginia.). The English name "witch hazel" is related to the use of the twigs used for divining for water search.

Medicinally used plant parts (drug)

The dried leaves and dried bark are used. The drug is imported from North America.
A preparation called "witch hazel" is commonly used. It is a steam distillate, for which there are different production requirements. According to the rule of the Pharmacopoeia of the United States (United States Pharmacopeia - USP) 1kg of freshly cut and dried young twigs are macerated with about 2 litres of water for about 24 h, after which the mixture is distilled and 1700ml of distillate is collected, 300ml of alcohol is added and mixed thoroughly, 1 part witch hazel corresponds to 2 parts Hamamelis twigs (DEV 1:2, approx. 15% alcohol content). The E Commission describes a method for a distillate under the name of witch hazel for fresh leaves and twigs collected in spring and early summer (DEV 1:1.12 to 2.08; alcohol content of 6% m/m). In the EgB for the DAB 6 there is a witch hazel (Hamamelis corticis Aqua) made from 1000 parts coarsely powdered dried Hamamelis bark that is left to stand with 2000 parts water and 150 parts alcohol for 24 hours. Then 1000 parts are distilled off, which in effect result in a DEV equivalent of 1:1.

Ingredients of the drug

Witch hazel leaves and bark contain tannins; the leaves mostly condensed tannins, (Catechingerbstoffe), the bark predominantly hydrolyzable tannins (gallotannins). Furthermore, volatile matter is sometimes mistaken for an essential oil. Both drugs consist mainly of alkanes in addition to aliphatic alcohols, aldehydes, ketones and esters. It also contains volatile terpenes. Volatile phenylpropanoids occur only in the bark. When the twigs and/or leaves or bark go through distillation, the tannins do not go into the distillate. Thus witch hazel only contains the volatile components of the plant, the component pattern differ with leaves and bark.

Descriptions of the quality

The quality of witch hazel (Hamamelis folium) is specified in the European Pharmacopoeia (Ph. Eur.).
The quality of the following drugs or drug preparations is specified in the German Drug Codex (DAC):

  • Witch hazel bark (Hamamelidis cortex)
  • Witch hazel leaves fluid extract (Hamamelidis folii extractum fluidum)
  • Witch hazel bark fluid extract (Hamamelidis folii extractum fluidum)

Medical Application

Recognised medical use

Witch hazel leaves and bark: externally with minor skin injuries, local inflammation of the skin and mucous membranes, haemorrhoids and varicose vein symptoms (Commission E).
Witch hazel leaves: internally for the symptomatic treatment of varicose vein such as aching and heavy legs and haemorrhoids; externally for bruises, sprains and minor skin injuries, inflammation of the skin and mucosa, as well as haemorrhoids, to alleviate the symptoms of eczema and heavy legs (ESCOP). Clinical studies (approval): itchiness, oozing and burning with haemorrhoids grade I and II as well as mucosal inflammation in the anal area.
Witch hazel bark: internally for short-term treatment of diarrhoeal diseases; externally for mouth sores and discomfort associated with varicose veins such as aching and heavy legs (ESCOP). Clinical studies (approval). For relief of symptoms such as itchiness, burning, minor bleeding from haemorrhoids grade I and II inflammation of the mucosa in the anal area.
Witch hazel: externally to treat bruises, skin irritations, sunburn, insect bites, haemorrhoids, also with light skin and mucosal inflammation (ESCOP). Clinical studies (approval): with superficial skin injuries, local inflammation of the skin and mucous membranes (creams), in addition to ointments: for the treatment of haemorrhoids in the early stages (grade I and II). The HMPC has classified witch hazel leaves, witch hazel and witch hazel bark as traditional herbal medicinal products (see "traditional use").

Traditional use

Witch hazel leaves and bark were classified by the HMPC as traditional herbal medicines (§ 39a AMG). Based on many years of experience witch hazel leaves and bark can be applied to minor skin inflammations and dry skin, in addition to treating the itchiness and burning of haemorrhoids as well as rinses or gargling solutions for mild inflammation of the oral mucosa.
Witch hazel was classified by the HMPC as a traditional herbal medicine (§ 39a AMG). Based on many years of experience, witch hazel can be applied for mild skin irritations and dry skin, also for the relief of ocular discomfort due to dryness of the eyes or brought about by the wind and sun.
Witch hazel leaves or bark is traditionally used to support the skin and to improve the condition of tired legs (traditional use according to § 109a).

Medicinal herbal preparations in finished drug products

Witch hazel leaves

  • cut witch hazel leaves for the preparation of an infusion (external)
  • fluid extract in creams and ointments
  • dried extract in suppositories
  • tincture in ointments and liquid preparations
Witch hazel bark
  • cut witch hazel leaves for the preparation of an infusion (external)
  • dried extract in suppositories
Witch hazel
  • Distillate of the leaves and twigs into ointments, liquids and Lotios

Dosage

Prepared drugs: see package insert;
Tea infusion: witch hazel leaves and bark: use for compresses and rinses 3 times a day, daily dose 2 to 10g of the drug. Only use witch hazel as a prepared drug, for dosage see package insert.

Preparation of a tea infusion

For compresses or washing 5 to 10g, for gargles and mouthwashes pour 250ml of boiling water over 2 to 4g of chopped witch hazel leaves or bark and strain after 10 min.

Advice

There are no studies on the harmless use of witch hazel leaves and bark during pregnancy and breast-feeding. The same applies to the use of witch hazel leaves and bark for the treatment of minor skin irritations and dry skin in children under 6 years old (leaves) or 12 years old (bark), and its use against itchiness and burning associated with haemorrhoids for people under 18 years old. There are also no studies on the safety in relation to the application of witch hazel preparations for mild inflammations of the oral mucosa in children under 12 years old.
The application of witch hazel is recommended only after six years of age due to the lack of studies on safety in children, it should only be used around the eyes with adolescents aged 12 years old and adults.

Side effects

At the most allergic reactions.

Interactions

None known.

References

Drug monographs

HMPC, Commission E, ESCOP, WHO Vol. 2

Further reading

Wichtl: Teedrogen und Phytopharmaka, pg. 321, 318
Schilcher: Leitfaden Phytotherapie, pg. 289
Van Wyk: Handbuch der Arzneipflanzen, pg. 164
Kommentar zum Europäischen Arzneibuch (Witch hazel leaves, no. 909)

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