You probably know that sugar is bad news for your skin. It’s one of the fastest routes to inflammation, and only the sun rivals its ability to age you. In general, you want to stay far away from the stuff. But there’s actually a type of sugar that’s great for your skin.
It’s so good, in fact, that it can help revive damaged skin, heal acne, and even stop the itching in some cases.
Yes, there’s a catch. I’m not giving you a pass on incorporating sugary desserts back into your daily diet. You’ll have to stick with fruit to satisfy that craving. But there’s a type of sugar that you can apply topically to your skin to help with acne, redness, and hydration.
You may have guessed by now that I’m talking about honey. You know I advocate for less-refined ingredients in our diets. And when it comes to the skin, honey can often be a better treatment than a chemical processed in a lab.
Why This Type of Honey Is Best
Honey’s properties can vary quite a bit depending on where the bees that produce it live and what plants they have access to. While most honey will have some of the properties I’ll describe below, one type in particular is especially potent and even medicinal: Manuka honey.
No, that’s not a brand name. Manuka honey comes from Australia and New Zealand. It gets its name from the Manuka bush. Bees that pollinate this particular native plant produce Manuka honey. And Manuka honey is particularly high in antibiotic activity. This means it has great potential for helping the skin.
The main component of honey is, yes, sugar. But it also contains vitamins, minerals, and other substances that can nourish and protect the skin. And Manuka honey is particularly high in the antibacterial methylglyoxal (MG).
When bees make honey, a conversion occurs that changes a compound called dihydroxyacetone into MG. And Manuka flowers contain a high concentration of this compound. The more concentrated the MG is in the honey, the more powerful the antibiotic properties.
In fact, manufacturers look to the concentration of MG to label honey with a rating called the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF). Look for a UMF rating of at least 15 to be sure you’re getting plenty of MG.
It Has Unique Healing Properties
Because of its antibacterial properties, many studies have found that Manuka honey can be an effective dressing for wounds and burns. It seems to help keep wounds clean and promote healing. And unlike antibiotics, the antibacterial effects of MG don’t seem to contribute to resistant bacteria, a rising problem in the medical world.
Honey also seems to reduce the inflammation that can delay or even prevent wound healing. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that medical professionals sterilized and applied the honey used in these studies. If you have a serious wound or burn, don’t try to treat it yourself with honey. But you can ask your doctor about it!
What you can do at home, however, is treat other skin issues that bacteria and inflammation contribute to. Yes, I’m talking about acne. It’s true that scientific research on using Manuka honey as an acne treatment has been inconclusive. But I think this is because the causes of acne vary quite a bit. Manuka honey isn’t going to help balance your hormones. But it can fight bacteria and redness. So I think it’s worth a try.
You can use honey as a spot treatment right on a breakout. Or you can make a full-face mask. I’ll have more on how to do that in a moment.
Watch Out for Allergies
Just make sure that you test honey on a small area of your skin first to make sure you don’t have a reaction to it.
Honey is generally safe for topical application unless you’re allergic to bees. If you are, you should skip this one. And if you have a pollen allergy, it’s definitely best to start with a spot test to see how you respond. Let a small dab sit on your neck or chin for several minutes to make sure you don’t have any redness, itchiness, or swelling. If you do notice a reaction starting, rinse the honey off right away.
Once you know that honey won’t irritate your skin further, you can go from spot test to spot treatment. Because Manuka honey is moisturizing, it can be an especially good solution if you find conventional spot treatments too drying. You can dab a little on an existing spot or a place you feel a breakout coming on or use it over your whole face to reduce future breakouts. You can even dilute honey with warm water and use it as a cleanser.
How to Use Manuka Honey
Manuka honey will not only help fight the bacteria that trigger acne, but also reduce redness. This is good news if you have a pimple that’s calling plenty of attention to itself. But it also means that the honey can help you even if you don’t have bumps. Bacteria can also trigger rosacea, so the antibacterial effects of honey can help with this issue as well.
I have a patient, Amy, who suffered with rosacea. Her doctor gave her a prescription for Mirvaso. The result was miraculous. Her rosacea was gone in just a few days. She continued to use it and after about four months, she developed a terrible sensitivity to it and her face became terribly swollen and red. The swelling was so bad she couldn’t leave her house for a week because she was unable to see properly. Fortunately, Amy’s dermatologist gave her steroids and she recovered.
Soon after this she came to see me for her first visit. I explained to her I wanted to run some blood work to determine how we would treat her, but in the meantime she could try Manuka honey topically. She began applying it twice daily and after 10 days she phoned our office and excitedly reported a tremendous improvement.
One study of 138 participants with rosacea found that those who used a Kanuka honey cream (a cousin of Manuka) twice a day for eight weeks experienced a 34% improvement in their redness. The control group saw much more modest improvements.
Manuka honey also has anti-inflammatory properties. And inflammation, as you know, can be a major driver of redness. Plus, by decreasing overall inflammation, honey helps the skin focus on repairing and restoring itself.
Yet another benefit of Manuka honey is its moisturizing ability. You might be surprised to realize something sticky can leave your skin so silky! Adding to this benefit is that honey can offer some natural exfoliation. So it will gently buff away dead skin, remove roughness, and leave the skin underneath hydrated and supple.
The sugar content of honey causes it to retain water. If you’ve ever felt bloated after too much sugar, you know how powerful this effect can be! But applying honey topically means that your skin will stay hydrated and healthy rather than parched and puffy. You can wash your face with diluted honey then follow up with your normal moisturizer. This will supercharge the moisturizer’s effects, making sure your skin draws in and retains all the hydrating ingredients you’re giving it.
How to Make a Mask
If you’d like to maximize the benefits of your Manuka honey investment, you can use it as a mask. Applying – and removing – Manuka honey is easier than you might expect. So if you’d like, you can simply try it on its own. Or, you can mix it with a few other skin-nourishing ingredients. Here’s a recipe I like:
Combine 1 teaspoon of full-fat Greek yogurt, 1 teaspoon of Manuka honey, 1 to 2 drops of tea tree essential oil, and ½ teaspoon of turmeric powder. Stir until smooth. Once you’ve applied it to your skin, wash your hands right away, as the turmeric can stain. You’ll also want to wear an old t-shirt to ensure you don’t stain your clothes.
Rinse the mask off after 20 minutes. If it’s gotten too stiff, you can massage an extra teaspoon of yogurt onto your face to loosen it first. After you’ve removed the mask and rinsed your face, try running an ice cube over your skin to shrink the appearance of your pores. Then top it all off with moisturizer.
The addition of tea tree oil will help combat acne. Turmeric supplies antioxidants. And yogurt will partner with the honey to soothe and hydrate your skin. Tea tree oil and turmeric are powerful ingredients. So be sure you stick to the recipe. Too much oil will irritate your skin. And excess turmeric will stain. Yes, you want your skin to glow. But a bright yellow-orange hue probably isn’t quite what you had in mind!
When you buy Manuka honey, look for a UMF rating of at least 15. Some producers use what’s called an MGO ranking system instead. That’s ok – just look for one that’s ranked at 250 or higher. And try to find raw honey to ensure you’re getting maximum antioxidant effects. I know it might seem expensive when you compare it to your groceries. But if you think of it as a skincare product, not a sweetener, it’s a lot more reasonable.
Of course, you can use Manuka honey as a sweetener if you want to. It’s a much better choice than the refined white stuff. But you still need to use it sparingly. Sugar is sugar once you ingest it. And you don’t want to spend extra time in the kitchen making masks just to undo the skin damage you created the last time you were, well, in the kitchen. Continue to eat a healthy, low-sugar diet and see how sweet it can be to use honey on your skin.