To develop a modern-day cosmetic product, first a raw material research team scours the globe (and sometimes space), searching for rare ingredients in the remotest of locations. Back in the laboratory, these new ingredients are spliced and diced by cosmetic scientists, who often use them to create isolates and synthetic versions, which are then rigorously tested for desired outcomes. The new active ingredients are blended with a mixture of other base ingredients, scent and colour is usually added, and the resulting product is tested with focus groups. The final product is then finessed by design and marketing teams.
Here’s an alternative way of producing a beauty product – one that’s infinitely more lyrical and equally as complex. A worker honey bee exits her colony as the early summer sun begins to spread its heat through field, forest and garden. She takes a well-charted route through blooms of clover, lavender and bottlebrush, stopping to suck nectar from the centre of the flowers. When her honey sack is full, she returns to the hive and passes the nectar on to house worker bees. As the nectar is passed between the bees it gradually concentrates.
The liquid is then placed in cells made of wax and fanned by the wings of the colony. The moisture evaporates to create the oozy, luscious fluid we call honey. This liquid ambrosia is one of the beauty industry’s staple ingredients. It’s included in everything from face masks to make-up, and used for its moisturising, soothing, exfoliating and antibacterial qualities. But as a stand-alone ingredient, honey can do many of these things even when used on its own.
Honey contains high levels of the sugar fructose, which is a humectant, meaning it attracts moisture to the skin and keeps it there. It also has a naturally exfoliating effect. The anti-inflammatory properties of honey also make it incredibly soothing and perfect for use on eczema, dermatitis, sunburn and acne.
“For centuries honey has been used as a moisturising ingredient,” says Peter Molan (MBE), professor of biological sciences at the University of Waikato. “For people whose skin is to some degree inflamed, the anti-inflammatory effect of honey is beneficial.”
Molan is considered a pioneer of research into the therapeutic benefits of honey, particularly manuka honey, and focuses much of his attention on honey’s role in healing wounds. He points to honey’s antibacterial properties as being particularly relevant for acne. This is something that ancient Greek physician Dioscorides knew long ago, when he recorded honey as being “good for sunburn and spots on the face”.
Molan says there is much anecdotal evidence for honey as an acne treatment. “I [oversaw] a high school science project once,” he explains. “I got a skin cream made up, with and without honey in it, and they did a double blind trial and took photographs of the faces of the volunteers. They got an independent observer to count the acne spots on the volunteers before and after treatment and found a significant difference between the ones with honey and ones with no honey.”
The anecdotal evidence for honey as a healing and cosmetic ingredient dates back thousands of years. Ancient civilisations such as those in Egypt, Greece, China and India used it as a remedy for everything from stomach complaints to ulcers, burns, bites and even tooth decay. According to Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honey Bee by Hattie Ellis (Broadway, 2006) the oldest reference to honey as a medical ingredient comes from a 2000BC clay tablet, found in the ancient region of Sumer (an area located in modern day Iraq), which advises using a mix of river dust, water, honey and oil for skin problems.
Honey and beeswax were used in early kohl make-up, wig construction, skin and hair care, and to embalm corpses. Centuries-old Ayurvedic texts point to the skin-soothing qualities of honey, and of course Cleopatra’s milk and honey baths still hold allure today.
Modern scientific research into the bioactive properties of honey backs up centuries-old folklore and knowledge but sometimes an ingredient is equally about instinct.
Margaret Hema, creator of Hema skincare products, has been using manuka honey for over a decade in the unguent facial mixture she hand-blends, with kiwifruit seed oil, flax and avocado oils, for her salon treatments. “I included the manuka honey because I have always used it on my own skin,” says Hema. “Clients know and look forward to this application. The luxurious feel and texture is so much part of the Hema facial experience.”
Beauty and the bees
When choosing beauty products, Molan advises looking for those that contain no less than 20 to 30 per cent honey. “Look at the ingredients, honey should appear at the top of the list,” he explains. “If it comes after all the chemical additives, it’s in as a gimmick.”
Honey and beeswax have been the focus of American beauty company Burt’s Bees since Burt Shavitz began selling jars of his own honey off the back of his truck in 1984. The company now retails its lip balms and body products across the globe. In Britain, Burt’s Bees has helped to fund University of Sussex research into honey bee health and wellbeing, and decoding the “waggle dance”.
The “waggle dance” is the series of movements bees use to communicate to each other the location, distance and quality of nectar. In Australia, Burt’s Bees collaborates with Urban Beehive, a Sydney initiative to boost wild bee numbers in the city.
Tasmanian company Beauty and the Bees uses leatherwood honey in its organic handmade products. This ingredient is unique to the island and is hived in World Heritage forests. According to the company, it is the rarest honey in the world.
Dr. Hauschka uses clover blossom honey and beeswax in its Regenerating range. The German company keeps its own beehives in its bucolic biodynamic medicinal plant garden, and former USA CEO Susan Kurz left the company to found Bee Conscious, a non-profit that helps honey bee survival.
Ancient knowledge about the benefits of honey may now be backed up by modern scientific studies, but recent research is indicating how the raw material may be used in the future.
“Honey is almost the perfect ingredient to use in skincare. [It’s] 100 per cent natural and has superior moisturisation properties,” says Leigh Kite, general manager of personal care at Comvita.
“However, at Comvita we know that women want more from their daily skincare than just moisturising. This has been the inspiration for our team of scientists to research a range of honey types from different geographical regions in New Zealand to identify the honey that best prevents the skin from ageing prematurely.”
Taken from hives in the far north of New Zealand, Comvita’s HUNIXA® skincare range contains
a blend of manuka honey that is said to inhibit the enzymes that degrade collagen fibres in the skin. As cosmetic scientists further their understanding of the potential of this wonder ingredient, it seems we
are set to fall in love with honey on a whole new level.
So the next time you’re searching for a miracle beauty product, the best place to start may be in your kitchen cupboard. Just remember to thank the bees for their efforts.
• One honey bee produces less than half a teaspoon of honey in her life.
• There are around 22,000 species of bee.
• A prehistoric limestone cave painting found in Valencia, Spain, believed to be up to 8000 years old, shows early evidence of humans gathering wild honey.
• New Zealand had no honey until European settlement, as the native bee is solitary. Settlers introduced the European honey bee in the mid-1800s to pollinate introduced plants.
• There are many native species of bee in Australia, many of which are stingless and usually produce small harvests of honey. This bush honey was collected for food by the Aborigines, but in the early 1800s the honey bee Apis mellifera was brought over by settlers to pollinate introduced plants. The introduced bees make an excess of honey, which can be partly removed without harming the colony, according to Douglas Purdie of Urban Beehive.
• In April this year, the EU voted to impose a two-year restriction on three neonicotinoid “nerve agent” pesticides that are commonly sprayed on flowering plants. The European Food Safety Agency has found that these pesticides pose unacceptable risks to bees, while Greenpeace says they damage bees’ nervous systems leading to disorientation and death. France and Italy have suspended some use of neonicotinoid pesticides, but they’re still widely used in the US, Australia and New Zealand.
• The varroa mite is a parasite that sucks the blood of honey bees and causes deformities, disease and death. It is widespread on all continents, save Australia, and has caused mass destruction of colonies. The mites are now showing signs of resistance to common chemical treatments, and scientists at organisations such as the Bees Downunder foundation are working to create new strains of honeybees with inbuilt protection against the mite. See beesdownunder.com.
DIY honey cosmetics
Cleanser: A honey-based facial cleanser credited in the New York Times to Dr Eva Crane, bee expert and founder of the International Bee Research Association advises: “Dissolving two tablespoons of honey in two tablespoons of water, then adding six more tablespoons of water”.
Mask: Professor Peter Molan advises mixing two-thirds butter or coconut oil with one-third honey to create a moisturising honey mask, as prescribed by ancient Egyptians as the perfect fat-to-honey ratio for avoiding stickiness.
Lip balm:The book and BBC TV series Grow Your Own Drugs by James Wong (Collins, 2009) has this easy lip balm recipe. Warm 250ml almond oil in a glass bowl over a pan of hot water and add two to three tablespoons of beeswax, stirring continuously. Once dissolved, add one teaspoon runny honey, one teaspoon vitamin E oil and one teaspoon aloe vera gel, stirring all the time. Pour into a small sterilised balm jar and cap tightly. It will keep for six months.