Medical Attributes of Hamamelis virginiana - Witch hazel

By Sean Gilhooley
Wilkes University
Wilkes-Barre, PA
July, 2017

Hamamelis virginiana L. (Witch Hazel) is a member of the Hamamelidaceae (Witch Hazel family). H. virginiana is native to the New World and is distributed throughout the eastern United States. The species is woody and grows as a tall shrub or small tree, normally reaching between 5-8 meters tall (Grieve, 2017).  H. virginiana has irregular oblong leaves with rounded teeth on both sides. H. virginiana is characterized by yellow flowers with four long, thin petals. It normally flowers in late autumn and produces explosive capsules that release black, shiny seeds (Grieve, 2017).

H. virginiana was a commonly used herb by Native Americans. H. virginiana was used as a poultice to treat inflammation and cancerous tissues (Ryan, 1993). European settlers began to use it in similar manners, copying the Native Americans. Modern medicine commonly uses Hamamelis virginiana as a topical cure for hemorrhoids, varicose veins, sunburn, swelling, bug bites and skin lesions (Weil 2017).

The bark and leaves of Hamamelis virginiana contains compounds that have medical benefits. The chemically active compounds in H. virginiana are tannins, namely Hamamelitannin, and Gallic Acid (Grieve, 2017). Hamamelitannin is a specific tannin found in the leaves of H. virginiana National Center for Biotechnology Information). Gallic acid is a benzoic acid found in gallnuts, sumac, witch hazel, tea leaves and oak along with other plants (National Center for Biotechnology Information).

Hamamelis virginiana is largely used to treat dermatological issues. Extracts of H. virginiana have been shown to be effective in reducing inflammation and diaper dermatitis (Colantonio & Rivers, 2016). Clinical studies of shampoo with H. virginiana have been shown to reduce scalp irritation and were highly tolerable (Trueb, 2014). There is also some evidence that Hamamelis virginiana extract may be effective in treating sunburns (Reuter et al, 2010) and photoaging (Pavicic et al, 2009).  Sponges infused with H. virginiana have been used to inhibit enzymes that impair wound healing, leading to faster heal times (Antonio et al, 2011). An in vitro test showed H. virginiana extracts reduce the oxidation of oxygenated hemoglobin of a fish subject, horse mackerel, which may lead to less lipid oxidation in muscles and to maintain hemoglobin in reduced oxygen states (Neira et al, 2011).

The tannins of Hamamelis virginiana have also been shown to be anti-bacterial, antiprotozoal and antiviral.  H. virginiana is showing promise as an antibacterial due to its ability to terminate cell-to-cell communication (Lauk et al, 2003). In one study, Hamamelis virginiana was shown to stop the growth of parasitic protozoa in small, nontoxic concentrations (Jain, 2016). The tannins are also show to be effective in stopping human papillomavirus (Theisen et al, 2014). There is also growing evidence that hamamelitannin may be effective in stopping the spread and growth of colon cancer (Theisen et al, 2014).

Overall, Hamamelis virginiana is a very safe and easily tolerable compound. However, when tested as a cosmetic, H. virginiana was shown to be a potential allergen (Paulsen, 2008).  H. virginiana is safe for treating children aged 27 days to 11 years, having similar results to the now used dexanthenol but being more tolerable (Wolff & Kieser, 2007). H. virginiana has been shown to occasionally have adverse drug reactions when used as a supplement or herbal remedy at home though these are generally minor and only required hospital care in three of 918 cases (Yang et al, 2002).

Hamamelis virginiana has been used for centuries effectively in combating skin disorders and damages as well as potentially protecting against colon cancer. There appears to be much room for further study into H. virginiana as potential antibacterial medicines as well as being used as a wound healer. H. virginiana is highly tolerable and has been shown to be safe with adults and children alike. The potential uses of H. virginiana may grow with further testing.


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This paper was developed as part of the BIO 368 - Medical Botany course offered at Wilkes University during the summer of 2017. 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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