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You put it in your tea, maybe drizzle some on toast—but did you know that honey can also be a standout topical skincare ingredient? Used for centuries for its skin-saving and wound-healing properties, it's a top-notch pick in the world of effective, natural ingredients, particularly when you're talking about manuka honey. A unique type with an even greater amount of benefits than other honey, it's a smart pick not only for certain cosmetic concerns, but for more serious, skin health issues, too. Ahead, New York City dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum, MD, dermatologist Rita Linkner, MD, of Spring Street Dermatology in New York City, and Claire Chang, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City explain exactly what makes manuka honey a particularly sweet treat for your skin.
TYPE OF INGREDIENT: Antibacterial/anti-viral/anti-fungal, as well as an anti-inflammatory and humectant
MAIN BENEFITS: Aids in wound healing due to its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties; draws in moisture to the skin, and can soothe irritated skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Anyone looking for hydrating and soothing benefits; manuka honey may also be beneficial for those with eczema and acne, notes Chang.
HOW OFTEN CAN YOU USE IT: It can be used once or twice daily.
WORKS WELL WITH: Manuka honey works synergistically with other antibiotic ingredients, as well other wound-healing ingredients. It also works well when combined with other hydrating ingredients—such as shea butter and glycerin—to moisturize the skin, says Chang.
DON’T USE WITH: There are no specific ingredients known to have a negative interaction with manuka honey at the moment, though Linkner cautions that, to be safe, it's best to not pair it with potent active ingredients (think retinoids or acids).
What Is Manuka Honey?
Breaking news, not all types of honey are created equal (it's why if you go to the grocery store, you'll find a variety of different colored honeys on the shelf, all with a slightly different flavor). "Manuka honey is produced by honey bees that feed on the manuka tree in New Zealand," explains Chang. (They're also found in Australia.) This is important because it's what gives manuka honey its most defining characteristic, namely strong antibacterial properties. Most honey derives its antibacterial nature from hydrogen peroxide, but the manuka variety is unique in that it contains both hydrogen peroxide and another component called methylglyoxal. "The nectar of manuka flowers contains a large quantity of a substance called dihydroxyacetone, which is then converted into methylglyoxal, says Nussbaum. "The higher the concentration of methylglyoxal, the more antibacterial the manuka honey is." She also notes that there's even a ratings scale known as the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) which measures the potency of the methylglyoxal and how antibacterial the honey is. Fradulent manuka honey can be found on the market (Trader Joes was slapped with a class action lawsuit for labeling their honey as 100% pure despite it only testing between 57.3 and 62.6 percent manuka honey), so it's important to check for the UMF labeling, which denotes that the company must have a license and follow the set rules and regulations to guarantee authenticity to the customer.
Given its antimicrobial content, it should come as no surprise that manuka honey is noteworthy for treating wounds, burns, and lesions, both in ancient times and today. "There are even manuka honey dressings pre-made for wounds," says Nussbaum. "It should absolutely be used as a medical treatment." But the benefits don't stop there: It's also a great anti-inflammatory ingredient, and anecdotally reported to be beneficial for other issues such as acne and eczema, adds Chang. It also acts as a humectant, and as such is great for moisturization purposes as well.
Benefits of Manuka Honey for Skin
This particular type of honey delivers a variety of benefits for skin, addressing everything from medical to cosmetic issues.
- Has strong antibacterial properties: Because manuka honey contains both hydrogen peroxide and methylglyoxal, it's potent against a variety of bacteria. In fact, it's even been shown to have antibacterial effects on e.coli and as well as MRSA, notes Nussbaum, though she adds that more research must be done to conclusively confirm which bacteria it can effectively combat.
- Promotes wound healing: "Manuka honey recruits the correct type of cells, known as fibroblasts, needed to help wounds heal," explains Linkner. Aside from that, it also creates a moist environment and a protective barrier to speed up healing, which is why it's often used to treat wounds, burns, and ulcers. There were even a few studies that showed manuka honey decreased pain, adds Nussbaum.
- Is an effective anti-inflammatory: "The anti-inflammatory properties of manuka honey have not been matched in honey derived from other species of bees," says Linkner. This is beneficial not only for the aforementioned medical issues, but also for other conditions such as acne and eczema.
- Offers antioxidant protection: Manuka honey may down-regulate skin-damaging reactive oxygen species (caused by exposure to free radicals), making it beneficial for anti-aging purposes.
- Draws moisture to the skin: "Manuka honey is a natural humectant due to its sugar component, meaning it helps draw in and retain moisture in the skin," says Chang. This makes it a useful ingredient in moisturizers and emollients.
Side Effects of Manuka Honey
If you're allergic to bees, you shouldn't be using manuka honey, since there's a risk of allergic reaction. "There's also the risk of a blood sugar increase and therefore diabetic patients should proceed with caution or by physician instruction only," adds Nussbaum, who also says that, as with all honey, infants under the age of one shouldn't be exposed to it, due to the risk of infant botulism. Other than that, the only real drawback, particularly when it comes to the pre-made wound dressings, is some slight stickiness, though this isn't an issue when it comes to most cosmetic products.
How to Use It
Medical purposes aside, utilize manuka honey for its hydrating, soothing, and anti-inflammatory properties. Look for it in a cleanser, balm, or mask, all of which can be used daily, suggests Chang.
The Best Products With Manuka Honey
All three of the derms we spoke with chose this creamy cleanser, lauding the combo of not only manuka honey but also anti-aging peptides and probiotics to help balance your skin's microbiome. "It's a particularly great cleanser for dry skin, since it's so hydrating and also reinforces the skin barrier thanks to the manuka honey," says Linkner of the unanimous favorite. Apply a dollop onto dry skin, then add a little bit of water and massage it into dry skin before wiping off with a washcloth, no rinsing required.
"This is perfect for the dry, winter weather when your skin may be dehydrated and irritated everywhere," says Chang of one of her choices. Manuka honey plus added oils make it extra-hydrating, though it's not in the least bit sticky or greasy, so you can feel free to slather it on with reckless abandon. Chang suggests using it on, "your face, neck, chest, hands, and really, all over the body." FYI, if you're looking for a face-only product, Linkner also likes the day cream from this line. The manuka honey helps restore dry skin, and it's also a good value, she points out.
Both Chang and Nussbaum recommend this moisturizer. "It's a super moisturizing yet lightweight facial cream that contains manuka honey to strengthen the skin’s natural moisture barrier. It also contains red ginseng root, which is thought to encourage skin cell turnover," says Nussbaum.
Manuka honey isn't the only bee-derived goodie in this anti-ager. Purified bee venom (yes, you read that correctly) helps to stimulate natural collagen production to help ward off lines and wrinkles. Bonus points for the light-diffusing particles that impart a natural-looking, youthful glow to your complexion instantly.
Linkner calls this, "a nice treat for skin." Papaya and apricot enzymes in the mask work to dissolve dead cells, while rice bran manually exfoliates to leave skin glowing. Manuka honey adds much-need moisture and soothing benefits, minimizing the likelihood of any unsightly irritation. Linkner's tip: Apply this in the shower and leave it on while you wash your body and shampoo and conditioner your hair before rinsing. The steam and moisture will help the honey better penetrate into skin.
Dab this skin savor on particularly dry or irritated patches (just warm it up in between your hands first and it will melt right in). This newbie combines manuka honey with another buzzy ingredient, CBD. Both deliver anti-inflammatory properties to soothe stressed skin, while the manuka honey, coupled with shea butter and vitamin E, make it extra hydrating.
"This is a great anti-aging face mask that hydrates with manuka honey and revitalizes dull, dry skin," says Nussbaum. "These masks are also 100 percent plant-based and biodegradable, so they're better for the environment, too." While they're meant to be used with the brand's mask-activating UFO device, you can still reap the benefits even without the tool.
Along with manuka honey, this also contains a boat load of other hydrating and soothing ingredients, such as shea butter, aloe vera, and vitamin E, making it a great option for dry, irritated skin, says Chang. "Though it's a 'face moisturizer,' you can also use it over your whole body," she adds.