Witch hazel is the common name for a group of plants with the name Hamamelidaceae, tree shrubs with some species found in East Asia and North America. Witch hazel ointment is typically made from the variety Hamamelis virginiana, which is native to North America and most commonly used for skincare products. The name “Witch Hazel” originates from folk history since indigenous people would use the plant to find water sources underground, believing that the movement of the branch signalled the presence of water. The practice was called “water witching,” leading to the plant’s name.
Witch hazel has a long history of being used as a natural remedy since it contains a high concentration of tannin compounds, causing it to act as a natural astringent. The tannins are found inside the leaves, bark and twigs of the plant and can be applied topically to the skin to treat various conditions. The ointment is created by distilling the liquid from the bark and leaves. Indigenous communities in North America used witch hazel to soothe skin problems, extracting the oil to produce ointments and using the leaves for teas and today, it is one of the few plants approved by the FDA as an ingredient in over-the-counter medications. It also has a long history of being used in cosmetics, and now it is a common ingredient in many skincare products.