Birch has many qualities that can benefit your skin and improve your health. It has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries. Many species of Birch have been used for healing, the most well known being Silver Birch (B. pendula) which does not grow in Iceland. However, according to source materials, the Icelandic Birch aka Downy Birch has very similar effects. That has also been my experience because for the last 30 years I have used Downy Birch to heal skin disorders and to improve my patients’ health.
I pick the leaves and the tips of the young shoots of Downy Birch early in the summer. I make infused oil from the fresh Downy Birch the same day as I harvest it. This oil is then blended with the oils of Yarrow, Meadowsweet and Chickweed to make the Bliss Healing Balm. That balm has been very popular for various skin disorders for the last 10 years in Iceland. I also use fresh Downy Birch to make tinctures for my patients and I additionally dry the leaves for tea. If you want to learn more about Downy Birch or other Icelandic herbs then you can find all the information in my book about Icelandic Herbs and their Medicinal Uses.
- Botanical name: Betula pubescen
- Parts used: leaves, bark and the tips of young twigs.
- Action: diuretic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, astringent, diaphoretic and mildly analgesic.
- Used for: wound healing, eczema, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, gout, kidney stones, edema, cystitis, muscle pain.
- Preparations: tea, tincture, infused oil, poultice, cream, ointment.
Downy Birch can greatly benefit the skin as it is both highly anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial which also explains its traditional use as a wound healer. It is also reputed to be excellent, both internally and externally, for skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis. Downy Birch infused oil which I make with fresh leaves is an ingredient in the Bliss Healing Balm which has been tried and tested on Icelanders for the last 10 years. The Bliss Healing Balm has become known as very effective for wound healing, itching, insect bites, hemorrhoids and cold sores. It is also very much used for moms and babies to improve diaper rash, sore nipples, stretch marks and vaginal yeast infection.
The leaves are very diuretic and are considered effective in the treatment of edema, kidney stones, cystitis and other urinary infections. Downy Birch leaves are excellent for healing joint inflammation as they have anti-inflammatory properties and have been used in cases of arthritic conditions, especially rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and gout. Externally the decoction or tincture of the bark is effective in the treatment of muscular and joint pain: soak a cloth in the liquid and put it on the painful area.
Birch is used in hair products as it is reported to stimulate hair growth. Herbalists have traditionally used Birch both internally and externally to promote hair growth.
“Birch tree has strengthening, diuretic, blood cleansing and astringent powers. Tea is made from the young shoots and dried leaves. A decoction is made from the bark which is fitting when taken 2 tablespoons at a time and powder from the bark is good against weakness, fatigue and loss of appetite. A teaspoonful mixed with whey, to be taken three times a day.”
Some of the following research refers to components that have been isolated from Birch bark. Although many of these research studies have been done on Silver Birch (B. pendula), which does not grow in Iceland, sources show that Downy Birch and other species have all been used in a similar way to Silver Birch.
Open clinical trials without a placebo were undertaken using Birch leaf on 1066 individuals with urinary inflammations or infections. More than half of the group received antibiotics. At the end of the trial, the results showed that 80% of those who took the antibiotics had no symptoms and 75% of those who received only Birch were also symptom-free. Over 90% of both doctors and patients believed that the effect of the Birch was good or very good. Less than 1% of participants showed mild side effects. In a small double-blind clinical study using a placebo, patients with urinary infections were given Birch tea for 20 days. Microbes in the urine decreased by 39% in those who received Birch but only by 18% in those who received the placebo. Results showed that three out of seven patients who received the Birch were free of symptoms whereas only one out of six were symptom-free in the placebo group. In a trial where animals were given Birch tea, a significant increase in the volume of urine and the excretion of chloride was detected; another trial showed no increase in urine volume but an increase in both the excretion of chloride and urea. In a third in vivo test, new leaves were shown to have no diuretic effects at all. Further in vivo research has shown both positive and negative diuretic effects of the Birch leaf. There is also evidence that the potassium content in Birch leaves affects their diuretic properties.1
The active ingredient of Birch bark has proved successful in the treatment of sores, e.g. cold sores2,3 and skin problems.4-7 It is said that the active ingredients of certain Birch species inhibit cancer cells, e.g. in the stomach, lungs and pancreas. 8-16 Research on Manchuria Birch (B. platyphylla var. japonica) points strongly to evidence that the bark stimulates the immune system,17 is anti-inflammatory and protects the cartilage in cases of osteoarthritis,18,19 has antioxidant properties and has a protective effect on the liver.14,20 Birch tar oil has also been shown to inhibit the bacteria which causes pneumonia, Legionella pneumophilia,21 while the bark works on the tuberculosis bacteria.22 Scientific research on Downy Birch has shown its inhibiting effects on Staphylococcus aureus.23 Other research has revealed the antibacterial and anti-fungal properties as well as anti-inflammatory properties of Birch.24,25,26 There is also evidence that Birch has a beneficial effect on arthritic diseases.27
- European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy. 2003. ESCOP Monographs. 2. Edition. Georg Thieme Verlag, Stuttgart.
- Weckesser S, Laszczyk MN et al. Topical treatment of necrotising herpes zoster with betulin from birch bark. Forsch Komplementmed. 2010 Oct; 17(5):271-3. Epub 2010 Sep 9.
- Gong Y, Raj KM et al. The synergistic effects of betulin with acyclovir against herpes simplex viruses. Antiviral Res. 2004 Nov; 64(2):127-30.
- Reuter J, Wölfle U et al. Which plant for which skin disease? Part 2: Dermatophytes, chronic venous insufficiency, photoprotection, actinic keratoses, vitiligo, hair loss, cosmetic indications. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. 2010 Aug 5. [Epub for print]
- Kim EC, Lee HS et al. The bark of Betula platyphylla var. japonica inhibits the development of atopic dermatitis-like skin lesions in NC/Nga mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 2008 Mar 5; 116(2):270-8. Epub 2007 Dec
- Huyke C, Laszczyk M et al. [Treatment of actinic keratoses with birch bark extract: a pilot study]. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. 2006 Feb; 4(2):132-6. [Article in German]
- Nozdrin VI, Belousova TA et al. [Morphogenetic aspect of the influence of purified birch tar on skin]. 2004; 126(5):56-60. [Article in Russian]
- Drag M, Surowiak P et al. Comparison of the cytotoxic effects of birch bark extract, betulin and betulinic acid towards human gastric carcinoma and pancreatic carcinoma drug-sensitive and drug-resistant cell lines. 2009 Apr 24; 14(4):1639-51.
- Chen Z, Wu QL et al. [Effect of betulinic acid on proliferation and apoptosis in Jurkat cells and its mechanism]. Zhonghua Zhong Liu Za Zhi. 2008 Aug; 30(8):588-92. [Article in Chinese]
- Pyo JS, Roh SH et al. Anti-cancer effect of Betulin on a human lung cancer cell line: a pharmacoproteomic approach using 2 D SDS PAGE coupled with nano-HPLC tandem Mass Spectrometry. Planta Med. 2009 Feb; 75(2):127-31. Epub 2008 Dec 12.
- Zhang XJ, Han L et al. [Studies of betuionic acid on cell cycle and related protein expressions on mice of bearing H22 tumor cells]. Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi. 2008 Jul; 33(14):1739-43. [Article in Chinese]
- Mshvildadze V, Legault J et al. Anticancer diarylheptanoid glycosides from the inner bark of Betula papyrifera. 2007 Oct; 68(20):2531-6. Epub 2007 Jun 27.
- Rzeski W, Stepulak A et al. Betulinic acid decreases expression of bcl-2 and cyclin D1, inhibits proliferation, migration and induces apoptosis in cancer cells. Naunyn Schmiedebergs Arch Pharmacol. 2006 Oct; 374(1):11-20. Epub 2006 Sep 9.
- Ju EM, Lee SE et al. Antioxidant and anticancer activity of extract from Betula platyphylla var. japonica. Life Sci. 2004 Jan 9; 74(8):1013-26.
- Calliste CA, Trouillas P et al. Free radical scavenging activities measured by electron spin resonance spectroscopy and B16 cell antiproliferative behaviors of seven plants. J Agric Food Chem. 2001 Jul; 49(7):3321-7.
- Han S, Li Z et al. [Antitumor effect of the extract of birch bark and its influence to the immune function]. Zhong Yao Cai. 2000 Jun; 23(6):343-5. [Article in Chinese]
- Kim SH, Park JH et al. Inhibition of antigen-induced degranulation by aryl compounds isolated from the bark of Betula platyphylla in RBL-2H3 cells. Bioorg Med Chem Lett. 2010 May 1; 20(9):2824-7. Epub 2010 Mar 15.
- Huh JE, Baek YH et al. Protective effects of butanol fraction from Betula platyphylla var. japonica on cartilage alterations in a rabbit collagenase-induced osteoarthritis. J Ethnopharmacol. 2009 Jun 25; 123(3):515-21. Epub 2008 Sep 4.
- Cho YJ, Huh JE et al. Effect of Betula platyphylla var. japonica on proteoglycan release, type II collagen degradation, and matrix metalloproteinase expression in rabbit articular cartilage explants. Biol Pharm Bull. 2006 Jul; 29(7):1408-13
- Matsuda H, Ishikado A et al. Hepatoprotective, superoxide scavenging, and antioxidative activities of aromatic constituents from the bark of Betula platyphylla var. japonica. Bioorg Med Chem Lett. 1998 Nov 3; 8(21):2939-44.
- Shimizu I, Isshiki Y et al. The antibacterial activity of fragrance ingredients against Legionella pneumophila. Biol Pharm Bull. 2009 Jun; 32(6):1114-7.
- Demikhova OV, Balakshin VV et al. [Antimycobacterial activity of a dry birch bark extract on a model of experimental pulmonary tuberculosis]. Probl Tuberk Bolezn Legk. 2006; (1):55-7. [Article in Russian]
- Rauha JP, Remes S et al. Antimicrobial effects of Finnish plant extracts containing flavonoids and other phenolic compounds. Int J Food Microbiol. 2000 May 25; 56(1):3-12.
- Webster D, Taschereau P et al. Antifungal activity of medicinal plant extracts; preliminary screening studies. J Ethnopharmacol. 2008 Jan 4; 115(1):140-6. Epub 2007 Sep 25.
- Buruk K, Sokmen A et al. Antimicrobial activity of some endemic plants growing in the Eastern Black Sea Region, Turkey. 2006 Jul; 77(5):388-91. Epub 2006 Apr 18.
- Sur TK, Pandit S et al. Studies on the antiinflammatory activity of Betula alnoides bark. Phytother Res. 2002 Nov; 16(7):669-71.
- Havlik J, Gonzalez de la Huebra R et al. Xanthine oxidase inhibitory properties of Czech medicinal plants. J Ethnopharmacol. 2010 Nov 11; 132(2):461-5. Epub 2010 Aug 26.
Research indicates that Birch leaves are contraindicated for those with edema due to dysfunction of the heart and kidneys.
Anna Rósa is a medical herbalist and author of the bestselling book Icelandic Herbs and Their Medicinal Uses. She’s the CEO and founder of Anna Rósa Skincare and a member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists in UK. It’s the oldest herbalist institute in the world, founded in 1894.