This Sticky Bee Byproduct Can Help Reverse Acne Scarring (and It's Not Honey)

propolis

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You might know all about the skin-loving benefits of manuka honey and royal jelly, but how much do you know about propolis, another bee-based ingredient gaining popularity in skincare products? If you've never even heard of the natural ingredient before, you're not alone. Despite the fact it's been used for thousands of years, thanks to its wound healing properties, the sticky substance has yet to become a household name. So to answer all your questions about propolis (because we know you've probably got more than a few), we consulted board-certified dermatologist, Nikhil Dhingra, MD, of Spring Street Dermatology in NYC, and Michelle Wong, chemistry PhD and content creator for Lab Muffin Beauty Science. Keep scrolling to find out below if propolis lives up to all the buzz.

Propolis

Type of ingredient: Antioxidant/anti-inflammatory/antimicrobial.

Main benefits: Heals wounds, treats acne aftermath, and protects the skin.

Who should use it: In general, Dhingra says those who are not allergic to the ingredient and are looking to heal mild wounds or treat scarring, pigmentation, and texture caused by acne could benefit from using propolis.

How often can you use it: The application of propolis depends on the particular product and what it's being used to treat. Dhingra says if someone does not have an allergy to propolis, it would be safe to safe to use daily. "But if any form of a reaction develops, then propolis should be suspect as a trigger and avoided in the future," he adds.

Works well with: Dhingra says the products paired with propolis will depend on the intended goal.

Don't use with: According to Dhingra, there are no formal studies and nothing reported that needs to explicitly be avoided. 

What Is Propolis?

In short, propolis is a waxy substance formed by the combination of tree sap and beeswax that bees use to create their nests. According to Wong, it contains a very complex mixture of anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial compounds. Dhingra adds, "Its widest use has been for its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, useful for protecting a bee’s nest from the elements. This function was co-opted by humans thousands of years ago for wound healing and for the treatment of skin and dental infections." The sticky end product or "bee glue," as some call it, used for nest production has, for many decades, fallen in and out of favor as a naturally occurring anti-infective and healing agent, Dhingra explains.

The end product of propolis that has been shown to have bioactive properties is called balsam, according to Dhingra, and its proposed mechanisms are vast. As he describes it, a number of antioxidants and polyphenols (antioxidant compounds) have been suggested as part of the active component of balsam to exert antibacterial effects, but its exact mechanisms have never been made totally clear.

A K-beauty favorite, the ingredient can be found in the form of ampoules, toners, and moisturizers, but Dhingra says the best formulation is going to depend on what the intended goal is. "It seems propolis is not highly controlled or regulated, and as a result, there is a ton of variability out there as to the nature of the stocks being used," Dhingra explains. "Beyond that, I don’t think there is any true evidence to suggest the benefit of one preparation over the other." Wong adds that in clinical trials for wound healing, it's been used in ointments, sprays, and liquid form. 

Benefits of Propolis for Skin

According to a comprehensive review, propolis and its extracts have many uses in treating various concerns due to its antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. Below are a few ways it's thought to benefit the skin.

  • Heals wounds: Wong says the main effects of propolis are that it's anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial. "It's only really been studied in the context of wound healing," Wong explains and adds that it can potentially speed up the healing process. Dhingra adds that propolis seems to have excellent wound-healing properties beyond treating superficial skin infections and can be considered for mild wounds, scrapes, and burns where medical attention is not necessarily needed. "The bioactive component of propolis may encourage quicker skin turnover and create a sealed and protected environment to allow for sterile skin repair," Dhingra says.
  • Treats acne aftermath: Outside of using it for wound healing, Dhingra says one category of patients who have seen benefits of propolis are acne patients. "It may not suffice as a single therapy for resistant acne, but for healing the aftermath of acne (think scarring, pigmentation, textural issues), a propolis-containing product certainly has the bio properties to help with these particular concerns," Dhingra says.
  • Decreases inflammation: Dhingra points out that propolis has also been reported as a useful adjunct for treating eczema and psoriasis by decreasing inflammation.
  • Protects the skin: One study identified propolis as an effective reverser of UV-induced skin damage, which Dhingra says logically fits since propolis has demonstrated good antioxidant properties able to fight sun-induced oxidative damage on the skin.

Side Effects of Propolis

Despite the potential benefits of including a propolis-containing product into a skincare routine, the ingredient can also come with a downside that shouldn't be overlooked. "I do want to stress that while the evidence shows promising outcomes, the rate of allergy is not to be minimized, and propolis is not a substitute for true medical intervention if needed for a particular condition," Dhingra says.

As is the case with lots of other ingredients when applied to the skin, there's a real risk of developing an allergic reaction or contact dermatitis to propolis. Dhingra points out that this has been reported many times in scientific literature, and that one significant side effect is what gives him pause in wholeheartedly recommending propolis for most people, whether incorporated in a routine manner or a targeted toward a particular skin concern. "The incidence of this side effect is fairly high, which can cause more problems than may be worth it in the end," Dhingra says.

One thing to keep in mind is that propolis is unlikely to be irritating in the way other ingredients are, like retinol, which is distinct from a true allergic reaction. If concerned about the risk of allergy, test the product on your inner forearm for a week or two before applying it to more sensitive areas or more broadly.

It's also very important to note that because propolis serves as an extension of a bee's immune system as well as a form of defense in their hives, collecting it can have negative effects on the bee's colony. So while it has benefits to humans, be aware that commercial collection of propolis is not a sustainable practice.

How to Use It

In general, if you decide to use a propolis-based product, refer to the instructions of the manufacturer regarding the frequency of use and proper incorporation into your skincare routine.

If your intended use of propolis is to promote wound healing for things like burns, cuts, and scrapes, Dhingra says to look for an ointment-based product. "Ointments on their own already offer a clear therapeutic benefit to encourage good wound healing," Dhingra says. Creams can be a reasonable substitute, though they are not as effective at creating a hydrated wound base. He also recommends using an ointment or cream-based product for things like fungal infections.

However, propolis shouldn't be used as a substitute for a condition that truly needs medical attention. A non-healing wound or an active skin infection, for example, can get serious if not addressed properly. But, hey, if you're super interested in trying propolis, Dhingra says you can always bring it up to your board-certified dermatologist as something to incorporate as part of the treatment plan.

Other Forms

In addition to being applied topically, propolis can also be taken orally in the form of a pill, cough syrup, or lozenge, for instance. However, Dhingra says ingested propolis has been linked to cases of allergic reactions, predominantly rashes, and adds that systemic effects, like breathing difficulties, have also been reported. Always consult your doctor before making any changes or adding any supplements to your regimen.

Up next: These 8 natural skincare ingredients are blowing up in the K-beauty world.

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