‘Bee Beauty’ Is Coming for Your Skin-Care Routine, and Honey Is Just the Beginning

Photo: Stocksy / ohlamour studio

It takes 24 full hours to get to Pohuenui Island, New Zealand, from New York City. First, there's the 17-hour flight from JFK to Auckland, followed by a 2-hour flight to Wellington and a 45-minute helicopter ride across the Marlborough Sound. The 5,000-acre land mass is so remote that cellphone service is non-existent, and getting the WiFi to work requires standing in one spot while waving your laptop around with a hope and a prayer. But what this tiny paradise lacks in connectivity, it makes up for in its abundance of one of New Zealand's most sought-after natural resources: manuka honey.

The island is home to thousands of manuka plants, and thanks to New Zealand-based wellness brand Manuka Health, an entire ecosystem of bees take their nectar and turn it into the most potent honey in the world. The manuka flower only blooms for six to 12 weeks out of the entire year, which means that while those of us in the northern hemisphere are spending the winter months in hibernation, the bees (and eventually, their keepers) are readying their supply for international distribution.

But this year, that process looks a little different because, for the first time, the Manuka Health bees are making skincare—and honey is just one of the power-packed ingredients they're bringing to our routines. I had the pleasure of learning about the benefits of manuka honey for skin firsthand in New Zealand, which you can find more of ahead. 

What is manuka honey?

The manuka plant thrives in climates with mineral-rich, acidic soil, which is why New Zealand's "ring of fire" is such a hotbed for its growth. "When the manuka tree met the honey bee, a love story ensued," says Pia Rampling, Manuka Health's Global Marketing Manager. As with all honey, the bees harvest the nectar from the plant and use natural enzymes in their honey sacs to break it down into simple sugars. Then, they use beeswax to seal it into honeycombs within the hive to ripen into honey before it's extracted and sent away for processing.

What makes this particular type of liquid gold so unique is its high concentration of Methylglyoxal (MGO), a compound that makes its wellness-enhancing properties a whole lot higher than the honey you get at the local farmer's market (which may contain trace amounts of MGO, but more likely has none at all). So, while all honey offers similar benefits to some degree, the manuka variety is the best in class.

For starters, it's antibacterial, which means that when ingested, it can help balance your gut microbiome by killing off bad bacteria. It's also rich in antioxidants, which can help boost immunity from the inside out and contains trace amounts of essential nutrients (namely iron, magnesium, copper, and zinc). Because of these benefits, manuka honey tends to be more expensive—the higher the MGO grade, the pricier it will be—but it's well worth the premium price, especially knowing that it can serve double duty as part of your beauty routine.

The benefits of manuka honey for skin health

Generally speaking, honey is one of the most tried and tested skincare products—legend is that Cleopatra used to bathe in the stuff, and that Catherine the Great mixed it with milk and slathered it on her face as a moisturizer. The beauty benefits of all types of honey run the gamut—it's hydrating, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and rich in antioxidants, to name a few—but manuka honey takes things to another level thanks to all that MGO.

With that in mind, there are a few different reasons why all honey—but especially manuka honey—is worth adding to your skincare routine:

It's antibacterial

Honey's antibacterial properties are well documented, but research has shown that manuka honey is the most potent in this area. The higher a product's Unique Manuka Factor (or UMF, another grading system used for manuka honey), the better it is at fighting bacteria. When applied topically, it can help quash pimples by lowering your skin's pH to a point that makes it almost impossible for acne-causing bacteria to survive.

It's anti-inflammatory and healing

In addition to its antibacterial benefits, manuka honey's anti-inflammatory and skin-regeneration properties have made it a staple in both Eastern and Western medicine. One doctor friend of mine swears by it for treating bed sores, while another uses it to dress her patients' wounds. Outside of a medical setting, these benefits translate into complexion care by helping to calm skin and speed up scar healing.

It's hydrating

"Honey is moisture-grabbing because it's a super-saturated solution, meaning the bees mix a lot of sugars into a little bit of water," Carla Marina Marchese, the founder and beekeeper behind Red Bee Honey, previously told Well+Good. "So it's always trying to grab water from the air to balance out the sugar. People use it for baked goods because it keeps them moist for longer." The same principle applies when you put it on your skin: It works as a humectant to attract moisture from the environment and can help make even the driest, reddest, flakiest, and most sensitive skin feel more hydrated.

Bee-derived beauty benefits

Though manuka honey may get the most credit for its skin benefits, it's not the only ingredient worth borrowing from the bees for the sake of our beauty routines.

First, there's propolis. In the bee world, this resinous substance acts as a "cloak of immunity" to prevent invaders, pathogens, and germs from entering the hive. But in the beauty world, it offers antioxidant protection—which helps stave off skin damage—plus anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and wound-healing benefits and natural moisturization.

Next, there's royal jelly, which acts as an immortality elixir for bees. While worker bees live for only a few months, queens can live up to five years (for context, that's more than 40 times as long), and the only difference is that queens eat royal jelly. "It's got fantastic properties—it's the only known natural substance with 10-Hydroxy-2-decenoic acid, which you can apply topically to stimulate collagen for anti-aging benefits," says Rampling. What's more, studies have shown that it improves tissue regeneration and can even balance sebum production on oily and acne-prone skin.

Finally, there's bee venom, or as Rampling—and many others in the beauty world—call it, "Nature's Botox." Thanks to peptides and essential fatty acids, the ingredient has long been a staple in K-beauty. Experts also say it helps support the body's natural collagen and elastin production.

Adding bee beauty into your routine

Given just how much bees have to offer to our beauty routines, it makes sense that Manuka Health—which, until now, has only sold ingestible honey—has been hard at work over the last few years figuring out how to translate their ingredients into skincare. The result is a new seven-product line that brings bee beauty to life.

First, there's the pro-vitality collection, which currently includes a serum (with more launches on the horizon) and combines 400+ MGO manuka honey with propolis to keep skin protected throughout the day. Then, there's the immunity collection, which employs royal jelly, bee venom, and 800+ MGO manuka honey to help firm skin while you sleep via a serum, eye cream, moisturizer, and lip balm.

I've been using all seven of the products since I got them at Pohuenui Island in January, and I can confirm that they're just as good as their ingredient lists imply. Immediately after using them, my skin looks soft and dewy (so much so that the slight stickiness of the formulas—which likely comes from the honey—doesn't bother me at all). Over time, I've noticed that my skin barrier feels stronger and gets less red and irritated.

Manuka Health, Pro Vitality Face Serum — $82.00

With the highest concentration of propolis in the collection, this serum (which also includes vitamin C) is great for defending against the environmental stressors that cause visible signs of skin aging.

Manuka Health, Eternal Renewal Face Cream — $140.00

With the help of royal jelly, bee venom, and (of course) manuka honey, this rich moisturizer can aid in nearly all major skin concerns—including hydration, texture, tone, and firmness. It’s slightly sticky, but don’t let that sway you away: It melts into skin within minutes and leaves it looking (and feeling) radiant and moist.

Manuka Health, Eternal Renewal Face Serum — $126.00

The ingredients in this serum (namely bee venom and royal jelly) dive way down deep into the third layer of your skin—where real transformation occurs. Like all the products in this collection, it uses manuka honey with an MGO rating of 800+ (which is considered “high medicinal strength“) to deliver optimal results.

Manuka Health, Eternal Renewal Eye Serum — $106.00

Like the facial serum, the eye serum delivers a highly concentrated ingredient combo—only this time, it’s gentle enough to use around the eyes. The bee venom helps to firm up fine lines and wrinkles immediately upon application, while the royal jelly works to smooth them over time.

Manuka Health, Eternal Renewal Lip Gel Elderberry — $34.00

Beeswax and honey are a common ingredient in lip balms, but this one still manages to stand out. It’s got the best (read: smoothest, most hydrating, and not sticky) texture of any product I’ve ever used, and delivers a subtle wash of color that looks gorgeous on all skin tones. Of course, it also offers the hydrating benefits of manuka honey and the skin longevity-enhancing powers of royal jelly, which have made it a staple in my everyday routine.

Final Takeaway

While slathering plain old manuka honey on your skin can do a lot on its own, these chemically elegant formulations combine it with the best of what bees offer to deliver a full, 360-degree routine that leaves skin healthy, nourished, and moisturized. And the best part? Unlike me, you don't have to fly 24 hours each way (or give up cell phone service and WiFi) to try them out for yourself.

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