Witch hazel (astringent)
Witch hazel is an astringent produced from the leaves and bark of the North American Witch-hazel shrub (Hamamelis virginiana), which grows naturally from Nova Scotia west to Ontario, Canada, and south to Florida and Texas in the United States. This plant extract was widely used for medicinal purposes by American Indians and is a component of a variety of commercial healthcare products.
Native Americans produced witch hazel extract by boiling the stems of the shrub and producing a decoction, which was used to treat swellings, inflammations, and tumors. Early Puritan settlers in New England adopted this remedy from the natives, and its use became widely established in the United States.
A missionary, Dr. Charles Hawes, learned of the preparation's therapeutic properties, and then determined through extensive study that the product of distillation (likely steam distillation) of the plant's twigs was even more efficacious. "Hawes Extract" was first produced and sold in Essex, Connecticut, in 1846, by druggist and chemist Alvan Whittemore.
Hawes' process was further refined by Thomas Newton Dickinson, Sr., who is credited with starting the commercial production of witch hazel extract, also in Essex, Connecticut, in 1866, and eventually establishing nine production sites in eastern Connecticut. Following his death, his two sons, Thomas N., Jr., of Mystic, Connecticut, and Everett E. Dickinson of Essex, each inherited parts of the family business and continued the manufacture of witch hazel extract, operating competing "Dickinson's" businesses that were continued by their descendants. The two branches of the family became bitter rivals, but their companies were eventually merged in 1997 as Dickinson Brands.
Composition of extract and uses
The main constituents of the witch hazel extract include phenols such as tannins of the proanthocyanin type, gallic acid, catechins, flavonols (kaempferol, quercetin), as well as chemicals found in the essential oil (carvacrol, eugenol, hexenol), choline and saponins. Distilled witch hazel sold in drug stores and pharmacies typically contains no tannin. Witch hazel is mainly used externally on sores, bruises, and swelling, and witch hazel hydrosol is used in skin care (e.g., as an astringent and anti-oxidant potentially useful in fighting acne). It is often also used as a natural remedy for psoriasis and eczema, in aftershave and in-grown nail applications and to prevent facial sweating and cracked/blistered skin, and for treating insect bites, poison ivy, and hemorrhoids, with evidence lacking for further reported uses including GI maladies (diarrhea, coughing up/vomiting blood), general infections such as colds and the specific infection tuberculosis, as well as eye inflammation, bruising, and varicose veins. It is found in numerous over-the-counter hemorrhoid preparations. It is recommended to women to reduce swelling and soothe wounds resulting from childbirth.
The essential oil of witch hazel is not sold separately as a consumer product. The plant does not produce enough essential oil to make production viable. However, there are various distillates of witch hazel (called hydrosols or hydrolats) that are gentler than the "drug store" witch hazel.
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- Michael C. Bingham, Which Witch Is Witch Hazel (and Which Dickinson Makes It)?, Connecticut Business Journal, 20 October 1997.
- Dickinson's 'Witch Hazel' Will No Longer Be Manufactured in Essex, Essex Events, Spring 1997.
- The E.E. Dickinson Co. (1970?), The Birth of Witch Hazel. 16 pp.
- About Dickinson Brands, Dickinson Brands website, accessed February 4, 2010.
- Witch Hazel Overview Information, WebMD, accessed April 14, 2012
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- Tyler, V. E. Herbs of Choice — The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals, Binghamton, New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1994.