As a sweetener, honey is one of those food staples that can be found in almost every kitchen pantry. But when it comes to creating a natural skin care routine, honey is at the top of the list. One variety, called Manuka honey, has become particularly popular for this purpose. According to both anecdotal claims and scientific research, it has some seriously sweet benefits for the skin.
What is Manuka honey?
Manuka honey comes from the Manuka plant (Leptospermum scoparium), a small flowering tree that's found in New Zealand and eastern Australia. It's created by bees who pollinate the flowers, which bloom for only about six weeks each spring. But to officially earn the title of "Manuka honey," the honey needs to contain at least 70% Manuka pollen1.
Like other honeys, Manuka honey features a cocktail of substances like simple sugars, water, enzymes, and vitamins. What makes it so special, though, is its rich content of methylglyoxal (MGO), a medicinal compound with impressive antimicrobial properties. The amount of MGO—which represents the honey’s potency—is indicated by a unique Manuka factor (UMF), a rating listed on the packaging of Manuka honey. The more MGO present, the higher the rating. (A rating below 10 is on par with regular, normal honey.)
For thousands of years, Manuka honey has been used as both food and medicine—long before "UMF" was even a thing. Traditionally, Manuka honey (and honey, in general) has been used to ease a wide range of ailments, from sore throats to digestive upset. People also use it to boost the immune system, increase energy levels, and improve skin health.
Manuka honey has been especially trendy in the realm of skin care. Besides, normal honey is already a stellar skin ingredient—what more if it's extra-rich in therapeutic plant compounds, too?
Skin care benefits.
Manuka honey owes many of its skin benefits to simply being a honey. But as it gains popularity as a next-level skin ingredient, scientists have been delving deeper into this specific variety. Here's what the research says so far:
It moisturizes the skin.
If you're looking for an all-natural way to hydrate your skin, reach for Manuka honey. According to Kelcie Harris, N.D., licensed naturopathic physician, honey is a humectant, which means "it captures and retains moisture from the surrounding environment." This makes it more effective than other moisturizers, which simply sit on top of the skin with minimal absorption, she says.
Here's how it works: When applied topically, honey actively draws water molecules into the stratum corneum2, the top layer of your skin. This can be a game-changer for dryness because your stratum corneum needs enough water to stay flexible, hydrated, and healthy. Without enough H20, dead skin cells in the stratum corneum (called corneocytes) can accumulate, causing dryness and flaking galore. But by using humectants such as honey, you can give your skin the hydrating boost it needs.
It eases inflammation.
Manuka honey is ideal for irritated and inflamed skin. Not only does it have a soothing, gentle texture, but it boasts anti-inflammatory properties on a molecular level. For starters, honey contains natural compounds that suppress inflammatory enzymes. Those same compounds also neutralize free radicals, which tames inflammation by fighting oxidative stress. (Inflammation and oxidative stress have a cyclic relationship with each other.) Moreover, a lab study also found that Manuka honey controls the activity of neutrophils3, a type of white blood cell that produces inflammatory proteins.
Because of its ability to control inflammation, Manuka honey can "decrease redness and inflammation, [which] helps promote a smoother complexion," says Elena Villanueva, D.C., founder of Modern Holistic Health. It also has the potential to soothe inflammatory skin conditions, adds Harris. Eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, and acne are just a few examples. Additionally, according to a small human study, Manuka honey improved inflammatory skin lesions4 in people with atopic dermatitis. The scientists speculated that compounds in the honey helped control multiple inflammatory pathways.
It's a natural antibacterial.
Bacteria is no match for Manuka honey. Like other varieties of honey, it contains glucose oxidase, an enzyme that produces hydrogen peroxide5, a substance that destroys the cell walls of bacteria. Its high sugar content also lends a hand by attracting water and dehydrating bacteria in the process. Also, with a low pH of about 4.4, honey is acidic. Together, these antimicrobial properties of honey6 are ideal for keeping the bad guys in check.
But wait—there's more. MGO, the superstar component of Manuka honey, can destroy microbes1 by preventing cell growth and breaking down DNA. This can happen even if the MGO is at low concentrations. With such a wide range of antibacterial abilities, Manuka honey can help combat infection-causing bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus (staph infection). For those with atopic dermatitis, this is a big deal, as we know that flares of eczema are driven in large part by overgrowth of staph aureus, notes board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D.
It can help control acne.
At their core, pimples and breakouts are tiny infections caused by the bacteria Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes). However, conventional treatments like antibiotics and benzoyl peroxide can cause unfavorable side effects, so it's worth looking for gentler options—like Manuka honey. According to one lab study, Manuka honey can specifically stop the growth of P. acnes.
But don't forget about honey's anti-inflammatory and antioxidative effects, too. As it reduces inflammation, says Villanueva, it decreases the redness and swelling associated with breakouts. "Acne appears on the skin when [skin cell oxidation] promotes bacterial growth," she adds. This increases free radicals and contributes to acne, but the antioxidant properties of honey can save the day.
It promotes healthy wound healing.
The medicinal benefits of Manuka honey can all help wound healing. For instance, since its high sugar content attracts water molecules, "it [can] pull fluid out of tissues7 and decrease swelling," says Harris. A human study also found that the acidic pH of Manuka honey can lower wound pH8, leading to a smaller wound size. "Many of the biochemical reactions [necessary] for healing need a slightly acidic environment," notes Harris.
Furthermore, honey encourages epithelialization6, or cell migration to the edges of a wound. It also hinders the activity of protease, an enzyme that degrades proteins needed for cells to migrate in the first place. The antibacterial properties of honey even destroy bacteria that are responsible for infections and inflammation during healing.
How can you use it at home?
As a beauty ingredient, Manuka honey is extremely versatile, so you can use it in many ways. Here are some of the most popular ways for using Manuka honey at home.
DIY face mask
Manuka honey is commonly used as a leave-on face mask. You can use 1 tablespoon on its own or mix it with ½ teaspoon aloe vera gel or almond oil. For even more benefits, add a drop of a skin-friendly essential oil like lavender or rosehip oil.
After cleansing your face, apply the mask and wait 15 to 20 minutes. Wash it off, pat dry, and moisturize as usual.
DIY face wash
To use Manuka honey as a face cleanser, mix 1 tablespoon Manuka honey with a few drops of water or witch hazel. Massage onto your face, moving in circular motions. Gently wash off and pat dry.
People also use manuka honey to treat pimples or small cuts. Carefully apply Manuka honey on the blemish, then cover it with a bandage. Alternatively, you can wait until it dries, then wash it off.
As a moisturizing ingredient, Manuka honey also works well in a DIY hydrating hair mask. One method is to mix equal parts Manuka honey and oil (such as olive or coconut oil) in a small saucepan over low heat. Once melted and slightly cooled, apply to the ends of your hair. Leave for 15 to 20 minutes, then wash your hair.
Thanks to its all-natural beauty benefits, Manuka honey makes for one sweet skin treatment. But as with all products, natural or otherwise, it's important to choose high-quality Manuka honey from a reputable retailer. Be sure to check the "best by" date, too. This will ensure that you can reap the benefits of the compounds that make Manuka honey so special.
Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle journalist based in Beacon, New York. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition from Texas Woman's University and Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from SUNY Oneonta. Kirsten specializes in nutrition, fitness, food, and DIY; her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including eHow, SparkPeople, and international editions of Cosmopolitan. She also creates recipes for food product packaging.