Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is one of my favorite local shrubs. I can’t decide whether I like it most for its unique leaves or its spectacular flowers. The yellow flowers bloom from September through November, most startlingly after the leaves have dropped in fall. Yellow explosions of floral fireworks set off against the bare, dark gray of the smooth bark. In North America, witch hazel is native all along the East Coast and as far west as the panhandle of Oklahoma.
Witch hazel is one of the plants that non-native people in the United States learned about from the Native Americans, who used the plant for wounds and tumors, among other ailments. Both the bark and the leaves are highly astringent, though the bark is most often used. Harvest witch hazel bark in early spring or late fall. Take care to never strip a circle around the tree’s circumference because that can kill the tree.
Witch hazel is known to be helpful externally for bruising, sores, and swelling, and it’s just the thing in a liniment for varicose veins or hemorrhoids. When I gave birth at home, I made myself a tincture of witch hazel to take internally in the event of heavy bleeding.
You can find witch hazel in all types of astringent products in drugstores and supermarkets — the downside is that you’ll have to accept all the adulterants that come with it. If you make it yourself, you’ll always know exactly what’s in your own supply.
Store-Bought Witch Hazel
The best witch hazel toners are made by steam-distilling witch hazel bark. Many commercial toners contain simple alcohols, such as ethyl alcohol, which they rely upon to act as the astringent, instead of on the tannins from properly distilled witch hazel bark. Simple alcohols (as opposed to the pure grain alcohol in the recipe to the left) can dry out the skin’s protective barrier and can damage skin in the long run. If you don’t make your own toner, look for simple alcohol-free products made from steam-distilled bark.
One of our favorite brands for high-quality, store-bought witch hazel is Thayers.
Witch Hazel Facial Toner Recipe
- 1/2 pound witch hazel bark
- Distilled water to cover 1 to 2 inches above bark
- Vodka or pure grain alcohol
- Add the witch hazel bark and distilled water to a stockpot on the stove.
- Bring the water to a boil, and then turn down the heat to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes, covered.
- Remove from heat and keep the stockpot covered until your tea is completely cooled.
- Strain and add half the total volume of tea in vodka or pure grain alcohol. (For example, if you have 18 ounces of tea, add 9 ounces of alcohol.)
- If you prefer to leave out the alcohol to minimize any drying on sensitive skin, you’ll need to store your toner in the refrigerator, where it will last for up to a week.
- Otherwise, this astringent toner has a shelf life of 1 to 2 years. Store it in a cool place away from direct sunlight.
Witch Hazel Astringent Spritzer
After you make your own supply of witch hazel toner, you can use it as an ingredient in other products. Astringents act to close pores in skin after a gentle wash and prevent dirt and grime from building up. At our farm, I use witch hazel toner as the base for my family’s facial astringents. One of my favorite ways to relax before bed is to apply a lavender and witch hazel astringent after washing my face.
- 2 tablespoons of Witch Hazel Facial Toner (recipe above)
- Distilled water
- 8 to 10 drops essential oil of your choice
- Pour the witch hazel toner into a small spritzer bottle, and fill the rest of the bottle with distilled water.
- Add an essential oil or a combination of essential oils.
- Store this spritzer in a cool, dark place or in the refrigerator.
This article is courtesy of DIY Natural, which is run by Matt and Betsy Jabs and features recipes for homemade cleaners, food, and health and beauty products. Dawn Combs, author of Heal Local and our Roots Rx department, homesteads with her family in central Ohio.