Honey, that sticky, delicious goodness produced by bees, has been used by humans for thousands of years—and not just to satisfy a sweet tooth.
It appears in wound-healing recipes recorded on clay tablets that date back to 2000 BCE; the ancient Roman scientist Pliny the Elder wrote of its efficacy in treating pneumonia, pleurisy, and snakebites; and in both traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, it’s been used for everything from fighting infections to quelling nausea to silencing coughs. Modern science has confirmed many of its purported powers: We now know that honey has antioxidant and prebiotic properties when ingested, and antimicrobial activity when applied topically. But there’s a big difference between the stuff that comes in that cute, squeezable bear and manuka, the pricey, potent honey that has now begun to transition out of health-food markets and hospitals (more on that in a moment) and into beauty products.
All honeys have an antiseptic quality, thanks to glucose oxidase, an enzyme in bee saliva that yields hydrogen peroxide. But manuka’s powerhouse oomph is specific to its source: the fragile white and pink flowers of the New Zealand–native manuka bush—a type of tea tree burdened with the unfortunate moniker Leptospermum scoparium. The blossoms happen to contain an antibacterial compound called methylglyoxal (MG), which remains highly bioactive once buzzing pollinators have transformed the nectar into honey. While other honeys can lose some of their antimicrobial capacity when exposed to light or heat, manuka, thanks to MG, continues to work its antibiotic, anti-inflammatory magic even when irradiated and sterilized for medical use. (Anyone who’s perused the manuka options at Whole Foods will have noticed the UMF, or unique manuka factor, on the labels; this quantifies the MG content, typically ranging between 5+ and 25+. Anything above 10+ is considered therapeutic, and prices rise accordingly.)
Although the manuka plant has been used medicinally by New Zealand’s native Maori for centuries, and the unique antibacterial punch of manuka honey was first identified by biochemist Peter Molan in the ’80s (he later founded the Honey Research Unit at New Zealand’s University of Waikato), broader-reaching clinical studies have really begun only in the last decade. Researchers at major universities and medical schools have shown that, when taken orally, the honey can heal mouth ulcers associated with chemo, reduce the stomach bacteria that cause gastritis, and lessen oxidative DNA damage in rats. In 2013, scientists at United Arab Emirates University found that, in combination with other therapies, intravenous administration of manuka honey helped inhibit cancer tumor growth in mice. But the most news-making trials indicate that manuka can kill more than 80 strains of bacteria, including the most drug-resistant superbugs—such as MRSA, a deadly type of staph infection, and Streptococcus pyogenes—currently plaguing hospitals. Indeed, a study conducted at England’s University of Southampton and published in the Journal of Clinical Pathology in 2016 demonstrated that the honey, even when significantly diluted, could curb the growth of bacterial biofilms on surfaces and medical devices. As a wound treatment, manuka not only draws out lymph fluids and eliminates infection, it also acidifies skin’s pH to accelerate healing and sparks cellular rejuvenation by stimulating the production of growth factors and supporting increased fibroblast activity. Occlusive manuka honey bandages—long used by doctors in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, and FDA approved stateside in 2007 (drugstores such as CVS now even sell generic versions)—infuse wounds with the honey in a watertight, sterile transfer.
Cue the beauty-industry buzz. “Many of the active ingredients in antiaging creams have their roots in wound healing,” says Manhattan dermatologist Joshua Zeichner. “The goal of wound healing is to help stimulate damaged cells to repair themselves and behave like healthy cells. In treating aging skin, the same goals hold true—to stimulate collagen production and help aging cells function like they did when they were young.” Manuka honey’s combo of “skin-soothing, hydrating, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties,” Zeichner says, could also potentially keep skin looking younger.
Beekeeper and chemist Denis Watson, the founder of Watson & Son, one of New Zealand’s largest producers of manuka honey and the manufacturer of ManukaMed wound dressings, says, “We’re dealing with chronic wounds, infections, and burns in trauma centers, so where we put the honey is primarily intended to save lives and limbs. But the properties in manuka will also address cosmetic issues. Manuka can shut down the inflammatory cascade that degrades skin; it stops enzymes called cathepsins from destroying collagen; and it has peptides that help cells release a molecule called NADPH, which boosts energy in the cells, a type of energy that, like everything else, slows down with age.”
Still, honey is…sticky. Which is why it took Kiehl’s 68 trials to perfect the texture of its new, 99.6 percent naturally derived Pure Vitality Skin Renewing Cream, which combines Watson & Son’s manuka honey with Korean red ginseng. The company’s head chemist, Geoffrey Genesky, says the honey’s skin-care potential extends beyond MG: “It also contains a lot of antioxidant flavonoids and glycosides, sugars that are very important in hydration, so it’s not surprising that we found it had a really positive benefit for maintaining the skin-barrier function.” In an in-house clinical study, Kiehl’s found that women between the ages of 35 and 49 who used Pure Vitality for eight weeks demonstrated improvements in radiance, softness, and smoothness that put their skin health on par with—and in some cases better than—that of a control group of women between the ages of 20 and 30.
Stay tuned: Manuka honey’s topical anti-inflammatory capacity, shown in some studies to be equal to that of hydrocortisone, has made it a popular DIY zit zapper, so there are a host of antiacne and redness-calming products in the pipeline. “We’re getting more data and clinical evidence every day,” Watson says. “I’d say there will be potential cosmetic applications we haven’t even thought of yet. Really, we’re just getting started.”
The newest Kiehl’s power potion ($60, kiehls.com) boosts skin’s barrier with manuka.
Fig + Yarrow Cleansing Nectar ($32, figandyarrow.com) mixes manuka with apple cider vinegar for a gentle deep clean; 001 Supreme Equilibrium Mask ($190, ahalife.com) hydrates with manuka and evening primrose.
Matakana’s Vanilla Bee Nourishing Hand Cream ($22, matakanabotanicals.com) contains active manuka honey, royal jelly, and beeswax to heal and repair dry skin.