Sometimes, in skincare, you really need to pare down to the very basics. Because when your skin is super-reactive or seriously dry and flaky or plagued with a chronic overload of acne, the worst thing you can do is burden it with lotions and potions, whether homemade or store bought.
And I speak from personal experience, having just gone through a hellish 3 weeks where it seemed nothing could tackle the glorious mess that’s my face – with a combination of flaky patches, cystic zits (who knew that severe dryness and acne worked so well together!) and a spotty rash-like redness that defied even the heaviest foundations and the mildest face masks.
In my case, this was the aftermath of weeks spent not sleeping and living off a combination of junk food and much-o alcohol. Similar situations have been known to crop up after periods of high stress, weather changes, starting a new skincare regimen, dehydration, allergies, sickness… the reasons are myriad.
After it seemed I’d run out of all options (and that’s a lot of options, considering the blog I write!) a dermatologist friend suggested going back to the very basics with honey.
And guess what? It worked. I did the honey face mask just before bedtime and my skin was at least 60% better next morning. Now, with consistent use, skin feels much softer, far less sensitive and more resilient.
Even for someone who firmly believes in the miracle of natural beauty products, this was a revelation. And all revelations are worth exploring further. Which is what I’ve been doing – and here are the results.
Why does honey work so well for skincare?
The use of honey for skincare goes back to the medical texts of Egyptian, Greek, Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, more than thousands of years back. This is why:
Honey mops up skin toxins: I mean this literally, since the enzymes in raw honey soak up impurities from skin’s pores, leaving them clean, clear and clog-free. Plus, honey also contains amino acids that slough away dead skin cells for a double whammy.
Honey stops acne in its tracks: Combine the mop-up-toxins and slough-off-dead-cells bits with honey’s super-potent antibacterial, antiseptic and anti-fungal properties (in fact, raw honey never spoils, even out of the refrigerator, since bacteria simply can’t survive in it), and you’ll understand why it’s such a superb zit-destroyer. Add in that it also helps balance the skin’s pH and is full of anti-inflammatory ingredients, and you may never reach for another acne-buster.
Honey helps lighten scars and deflate bumps: Not only will honey stop acne from getting worse, it also lightens pre-existing scars and bumps by boosting skin’s healing and regenerating capabilities. Plus, it prevents the stringy kind of collagen that creates scar tissue.
Honey heals EVERYTHING: Besides acne, honey also heals cuts, burns and wounds. The science? When this sticky-sweet ingredient comes in contact with fluids (including those that seep from a wound or sore), it produces hydrogen peroxide. This hydrogen peroxide works as an antibacterial to thwart infections and speed up healing.
Honey is nature’s best moisturiser: This amber substance is an excellent humectant (an element that attracts moisture and locks it into skin), which restores hydration and elasticity to the deepest layers of your skin.
Honey prevents environmental skin damage: Honey is a natural antioxidant that protects skin against environmental damage (think sun damage, smoke, pollution… !).
Honey keeps skin smooth and supple: Honey is packed with MG, which promotes the growth of collagen. Healthy collagen means healthy, firm, youthful-looking skin. It all adds up.
Does it matter which kind of honey I use?
Yes, it matters. A lot. In fact, the difference between raw honey and the highly processed version is the defining difference between good and bad skin. The latter resembles high fructose corn syrup more than anything the bees have produced – and is more likely to increase acne and other infection.
That’s because a huge part of honey’s benefits come from its enzymatic components. When it’s processed or pasteurised, many of these enzymes are destroyed.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any set standards for labeling honey. However, these are the loose guidelines followed by manufacturers:
Completely raw honey: Appears chunky or crystallised, with bits of wax, pollen, propolis and honeycomb. Rather than being harmful, these are packed with the good stuff.
Unfiltered raw (or strained) honey: The most easily available kind of raw honey and the best for skincare. Processing is limited to a simple filtering that removes the larger bits of wax and pollen, so enzymes remain intact.
Filtered raw honey: If you really can’t stand bits floating around in your honey, this is your best bet. The honey is heated slightly, then passed through a fine filter to remove all pollen and propolis, leaving behind a much cleaner liquid. However, “cleaner” doesn’t mean “better”, because it’s lower on the nutrition scale.
Pasteurised honey: Definitely not honey as the bees know it, after being heated to a very high temperature, processed and packed with fillers like corn syrup. Unfortunately, this is what you’re most likely to get in a generic grocery store, as it’s inexpensive and doesn’t crystallise half as quickly.
PS: Since there is no mandate for companies to put the word “pasteurised” or “processed” on the bottle, your best bet it to simply stay away from honey that isn’t labeled as “raw”. Oh, and “pure” means nothing!
What about the source?
Next, take a good look at your source – you obviously don’t want a bottle that’s chock-full of antibiotics and pesticides. So, buying organic and from small retailers or farmer’s markets is your best bet.
Then, of course, there’s the question of species and geography. Honey can be named for the primary type of flowers the bees were feeding on – for example, clover honey is made by bees feeding on clover blossoms.
Floral honeys include some of the plant’s properties, so if lavender works well for your skin, try lavender honey.
You can also find infused honeys, where something (like cinnamon) is combined with honey once the bees have finished their job.
Your unqualified best bet, however, is to opt for Manuka honey. It can cost a pretty penny but the results speak for themselves and a bottle will last you ages.
What’s so special about Manuka honey?
Manuka honey is made by bees feeding on New Zealand’s manuka bushes (also known as tea tree plants) and has fantastic anti-bacterial properties.
This thick, opaque and caramel coloured honey contains a natural chemical called methylglyoxal, which has been clinically proven to destroy more than 250 strains of bacteria, including resistant varieties.
However, given the high demand for Manuka honey, it’s often counterfeited. Here’s how to protect yourself:
1. Manuka honey never comes from China. Or India. Or USA. Or France. Real manuka honey only comes from New Zealand and southeastern Australia.
2. Look beyond the manuka label: To be considered therapeutic, manuka honey needs a minimum rating of 10 UMF (Unique Manuka Factor, which indicates levels of antibacterial potency). A UMF between 14 and 16 is ideal for skincare, while 20+ is used for surgical dressings.
3. Sometimes, manuka honey is labeled in terms of “total activity” but it’s better to buy brands labeled with an UMF. “Total activity” is a measure of antioxidant activity that begins to degrade immediately after opening the bottle. UMF actually increases after opening the bottle.
4. Make sure it says “active” or “bio-active” on the label.
Absolutely can’t get your hands on some manuka honey? Greek and Turkish honey is usually excellent for acne, while almost any kind of raw honey will help fight redness, inflammation and infections.
Finally, what to do with the honey… !
I simply use a dollop every night as a face mask. It couldn’t be simpler: Wash face with your regular cleanser and pat dry. Then spread a thin layer of honey over your entire face (and neck, if you don’t mind smudged clothes). Let it sit for half an hour, then rinse off thoroughly with warm water.
If it’s raw honey, you’ll be surprised how easily it emulsifies and slips off with just a bit of water, sans any stickiness or residue.
Once, when faced with a particularly nasty blemish, I tried a prepackaged Manuka bandage on the area overnight – it worked wonders. But don’t use honey under regular Bandaids as the cotton and adhesive can clog pores.
Honey is also supposed to be great for removing makeup but I still haven’t warmed to this one – I’d rather let it sit on clean skin and do its thing.
PS: Resist the impulse to chatter while slathered with honey, because muscle movement will make it run.