Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

  • What it is: A popular, inexpensive, traditional home remedy for sunburn, oily skin, and hemorrhoids. The pungent, clear liquid sold in pharmacies is the steam-distilled product of the witch hazel shrub's leaves and bark.
  • How it works: Tannins and volatile oils in witch hazel calm inflammation and reduce swelling. Although distillation removes most of the tannins, the resulting liquid still has astringent (or tannic) properties. Experts debate whether this is due to other compounds (such as the volatile oils) or the small amount of alcohol added as a preservative. Either way, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved witch hazel as an over-the-counter drug, rare for an herbal remedy. Dozens of skin care products, first-aid salves, and hemorrhoid preparations rely on witch hazel's healing astringency. Witch hazel may help fight bacteria, too, making it potentially helpful for more serious skin problems, such as eczema, which is notoriously difficult to treat. In a 2002 German study, researchers found that 90 percent distilled witch hazel showed significant antimicrobial activity when applied to the skin.
  • Side effects: Distilled witch hazel contains alcohol and may cause mild stinging when applied to irritated or broken skin.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

  • What it is: A premier skin-healing herb since the time of ancient Greece, when comfrey root poultices were the treatment of choice for wounds.
  • How it works: The leaves and root of this robust garden plant contain allantoin, a compound that helps calm inflammation and stimulates healthy new skin cells to grow. You'll find allantoin in commercial skin soothers meant for dry skin, diaper rash, blemishes, sunburn, and minor cuts. Herbalists use comfrey in skin-healing salves. And midwives often recommend an herbal sitz bath made from comfrey to help heal vaginal tissue following childbirth.
  • Side effects: For centuries, comfrey was used internally to treat coughs, bronchitis, and diarrhea. But in the mid-1990s, scientists discovered that chemicals in comfrey called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) can cause severe and irreversible liver damage. For this reason, comfrey should not be used internally. However, there's no need to worry when using comfrey externally because minimal absorption (if any) occurs via the skin.
In a German study on treating eczema, chamomile ointment was found to be as effective as hydrocortisone cream.

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

  • What it is: Most of us know drinking chamomile tea helps calm stress, but did you know these delicate, daisylike flowers are as soothing for the skin as they are for the nervous system? Hundreds of skin care products rely on chamomile extracts to cool sunburn, heal skin afflictions such as eczema, and rejuvenate aging skin.
  • How it works: Chamomile flowers contain high concentrations of an essential oil with a pleasing apple fragrance. This oil contains bisabolol, a compound that heals and protects the skin in several ways: It relieves inflammation, calms irritation, and fights bacteria. Chamomile flowers are also rich in apigenin, a potent antioxidant that reduces inflammation, protects skin from free radical damage, and helps repair injured skin cells. In a 1985 German study on treating eczema-type skin problems, chamomile ointment was found to be as effective as hydrocortisone cream, and more effective than noncortisone prescription creams.
  • Side effects: In rare instances, chamomile can cause allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to ragweed.

Herbalist Laurel Vukovic lives in Ashland, Oregon, and has written nine books, including Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000) and Overcoming Sleep Disorders Naturally (Basic Health, 2005).