Medical Attributes of Hamamelis virginiana - Witch hazel

By Casey McClafferty
Wilkes University
Wilkes-Barre, PA

July, 2003

Hamamelis virginiana L. (witch hazel) is a member of the Hamamelidaceae (witch hazel Family). Witch hazel is also known as spotted alder, winter bloom, snapping hazelnut, striped alder, and tobacco wood (Grieve. 2003). Witch hazel is a small deciduous tree, that grows up to 5m high (Grieve. 2003). It is native to damp woodlands throughout the eastern and central U.S. (Grieve. 2003). Witch hazel has alternate leaves that are coarsely toothed, often bearing fine hairs on the underside (Grieve. 2003). The bark is light brown-gray (Grieve. 2003). Drooping clusters of yellow flowers appear in the fall when the leaves are falling and give way to a woody capsule that ejects two shiny black seeds the following year (Grieve. 2003).

Parts of the species with medicinal uses are the leaves and the bark (Grieve. 2003). The properties of the leaves and bark are similar because they both contain the medicinally active constituent hamamelitannin (Grieve. 2003). Hamamelitannin is believed to be responsible for astringent properties, hemostatic properties, and antioxidant activity (Grieve. 2003). In a study involving 28 herbs, witch hazel bark had the strongest effect for scavenging ONOO (-) (Choi. 2002). Hamamelitannin, the major active component of witch hazel bark, was shown to have a strong ability to scavenge ONOO (-). It is suggested that hamamelitannin might be developed as an effective peroxynitrite scavenger for the prevention of ONOO (-) involved diseases (Choi. 2002).

Witch hazel has long been used by the North American Indians as an excellent astringent when the bark, leaves and twigs are distilled and mixed with alcohol and water (Fink 2003). They also used it as a liniment, eyewash, and treatment for hemorrhoids, internal hemorrhages, especially involving the lungs, and excessive menstrual flow (Fink 2003). However its effectiveness for menstrual problems is not proven. The lay press promotes witch hazel to treat vaginal dryness and menstrual problems; though, no evidence exists to support these specific claims (Willhite 2001). Witch hazel was used historically as a general household remedy for burns, scalds, and inflammatory conditions of the skin. The observed anti tumour necrosis factor activity of hamamelitannin may explain the antihamorrhaegic use of H. virginiana in traditional medicine and its claimed use as a protective agent for UV radiation (Habtemariam. 2002).

Witch hazel is used today as an astringent for piles; toning skin, suppressing profuse menstrual flow, eye ailments. Formulation of Hamamelis distillate and urea are mainly used for their anti-inflammatory, hydrating, and barrier-stabilizing effects in dermatitis maintenance therapy. The result of a recent study suggests the use of the alcohol extracts of H. virginiana for topical medications in periodontal prophylactics (Iauk 2003). The antioxidant capacity of extracts of H. virginiana has been compared to other herbals and found to be most effective. As bacterial colonization has a central role in the pathogenesis of a topic dermatitis and intertrigo (an inflammation of skin folds), the anti-microbial activity of such products is welcome (Gloor 2002).

Commercially witch hazel is used in preparations to treat hemorrhoids, irritations, minor pain, and itching. Hamamelis virginiana may prevent time-consuming, painful, and expensive complications of varicose veins and hemorrhoids (MacKay 2001).

In the United States, Witch hazel is approved as a nonprescription drug for use in external analgesic and skin protectant products, and as an external rectal ointment, primarily used for symptomatic relief of hemorrhoids, irritation, minor pain, and itching (Foster. 2000). Witch hazel can be purchased at any drug store. It is usually found next to the alcohol and hydrogen peroxide. Bottled Witch-hazel water, widely available, is a steam distillate that does not contain the astringent tannins of the shrub. Formulations of Hamamelis distillate and urea are mainly used for their anti-inflammatory, hydrating, and barrier stabilizing effects in dermatitis maintenance therapy (Gloor 2002). A recent study concluded that it was possible to make an objective selection of the best hammamelis distillate for after sun purposes (Huges- Formella. 2002).

Witch hazel has a long history of use in herbal medicine, especially by North American Indians. Today, Witch hazel is used mainly as an astringent, but it also has possible uses for UV protection. Witch hazel is also found in many hemorrhoid treatments. Most studies support the use of Witch hazel to treat hemorrhoids. Witch hazel is approved by the FDA, which provides additional merit to its usefulness. Therefore as with any herbal remedy Witch hazel should be used with caution and not in the place of modern medicine.



Choi H.R., J.S. Choi, Y.N. Han, S.J. Bae, & H.Y. Chung. 2002. Peroxynitrite scavenging activity of herb extracts. Phytother Res. 16: 364-7.

Fink, L.S. 2003. Witch Hazel.

Foster, S. & J.A. Duke. 2000. Eastern / Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston. 286-7pp.

Gloor M, j. Reichling, B. Wasik, & H.E. Holzgang. 2002. Antiseptic effect of a topical dermatological formulation that contains Hamamelis distillate and urea. Forsch Komplementarmed Klass Naturheilkd. Jun; 9(3): 153- 9.

Grieve, M. 2003. A Modern Herbal.

Habtemariam, S. 2002. Hamamelitannin from Hamamelis virginiana inhibits the tumour necrosis factor- alpha- induced endothelial cell death in vitro. Toxicon. 40: 83- 8.

Hughes-Formella B.J., A. Filbry, J. Gassmueller, & F. Rippke. 2002 Anti- inflammatory efficacy of topical preparations with ten percent hamamelis distillate in a UV erythema test. Skin Pharmacol Appl Skin Physiol. 15: 125-32.

Iauk L, A.M. Lo Bue, I. Milazzo, A. Rapisarda, & G. Blandino. 2003. Antibacterial activity of medicinal plant extracts against periodontopathic bacteria. Phytother Res. 17: 599-604.

MacKay, D. 2001. Hemorrhoids and varicose veins: a review of treatment options. Altern Med Rev. 6: 126-140.

Periera da Silva A, R. Rocha, C.M. Silva, L. Mira, M.F. Duarte, & M.H. Florencio. 2000. Antioxidants in medicinal plant extracts. A research study of the antioxidant capacity of Crataegus, Hamamelis and Hydrastis. Phytother Res. 14: 612-6.

Willhite LA, & M.B. Connell. 2001. Urogenital atrophy: prevention and treatment. Pharmacotherapy. 21: 464- 480.

This paper was developed as part of the BIO 368 - Medical Botany course offered at Wilkes University during the summer of 2003. Course instructor was Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D. ( The information contained herein is based on published sources, and is made available for academic purposes only. No warrantees, expressed or implied, are made about the medical usefulness or dangers associated with the plant species in question.

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