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Is distilled witch hazel just water and alcohol?

From Dr R. J. Schmidt, MRPharmS

Ray Sturgess’s fascinating account of quackery (PJ, 24/31 December 2005, p795 PDF (130K)) provides many examples of remedies that relied more on faith than pharmacology for their curative properties. May I might be permitted to draw attention to one further remedy, namely distilled witch hazel, which continues inconspicuously to occupy a place on pharmacy shelves.

According to Lloyd and Lloyd,1 the supposed virtues of distilled witch hazel were invented by the pharmaceutical industry in the late 1800s when a proprietary preparation was originally introduced. Subsequently, liquor hamamelidis (a non-proprietary preparation) was made the subject of pharmacopoeial monographs in the US and in Britain, but then seemingly fell out of favour: the preparation appeared in a list of suggested deletions from the British Pharmacopoeia because it was considered to be “little more than a weak solution of alcohol”.2 Shortly thereafter, the US Dispensatory (20th ed) noted: “This water was probably introduced into the British Pharmacopoeia and US Pharmacopoeia IX on account of the large demand for it which has grown out of the wide advertisements of a certain proprietary medicine, and the universally recognized need in American families for an embrocation which appeals to the psychic influence of faith. As the tannic acid of hamamelis bark does not come over into the distillate the water is therapeutically a mixture of water and alcohol, the volatile oil being found in too minute a proportion to possess any therapeutic value.”3 Nevertheless, this preparation continues to be widely recommended as a soothing, astringent application for sprains and bruises, as a haemostat for small superficial wounds, and as an application for minor skin irritation. Interestingly, a monograph for liquor hamamelidis appeared in the British Pharmaceutical Codex until 1973.

Dr Sturgess’s observation that quack medicines commonly seemed to rely on their content of alcohol for any activity they did possess appears also to apply to distilled witch hazel.

Richard Schmidt
Barnoldswick, Lancashire


1. Lloyd JU, Lloyd JT. History of hamamelis (witch hazel), extract and distillate. Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association 1935;4:220–4

2. British Pharmacopoeia revision. Report of the Therapeutic Committee of the British Medical Association. Pharmaceutical Journal 1908;81:811–2

3. Remington JP, Wood HC, Sadtler SP, LaWall CH, Kraemer H, Anderson JF (editors). The Dispensatory of the United States of America (20th ed). Philadelphia: JB Lippincott;1918

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 10020595

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