Honey isn’t just wonderful to eat, it also has great natural skincare properties. You’ve probably never thought about slathering sticky sweet honey all over your face, but I’m here to tell you that you should give it a go! You’d be in good company as honey has been used for thousands of years as a natural beauty ingredient.
Honey & Dinosaurs?
The earliest record of beekeeping comes from a painting of a woman gathering wild honey from a tree on a cave wall in Spain dating at between 7,000 and 15,000 years old. However, palaeontologists have found honey bee fossils dating back 150 million years. While we may never know if some dinosaurs enjoyed a tasty snack of honey, it’s safe to assume that honey has been around for a very, very long time and that humans have been making use of its various properties for thousands of years.
Honey was keenly used by the Ancient Egyptians and records of bees and hives have been found in hieroglyphics. The Egyptians used honey for baking, for embalming the dead, for making cosmetics & paints and as an offer to their gods. Some people even paid their taxes in honey. The ancient Egyptians also began the custom of drinking honey-based beverages for one month to celebrate a wedding. This custom spread to other cultures, and is the basis of the word ‘honeymoon’. So important was honey that the honey bee was the symbol of the Pharaoh and bees were thought to have grown from the tears of the sun god Ra when they landed on the desert sand.
Honey as medicine
The Ancient Egyptians and Greeks viewed honey as a healing medicine. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that topical use of honey has a long history. In fact, it is considered one of the oldest known wound dressings. Honey’s healing properties are mentioned in the Bible, Koran, and Torah.
There are numerous records of honey being used by the well-known physicians of the age. Hippocrates (400 BC) used honey-based cures for everything from sweating to breathing difficulties and fevers. Democritus, a contemporary of Hippocrates, thought a diet including honey led to a longer life. Honey was used by the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides (50 AD) for sunburn and infected wounds, as well as for coughs and for poisoning by toadstools, snakes and rabid dogs. Rather ironically, the Ancient Romans used honey medicinally as both a laxative and a cure for diarrhoea.
The Persian physician Al-Razi advised using a mixture of honey and vinegar as a remedy for skin conditions, but also for gum disease. This advice has now been proven to hold some merit as recent studies suggest that the natural antibacterial properties of honey halt the growth of bacteria in the mouth and potentially even prevent gingivitis.
Even today honey is a popular home remedy for colds and sore throats – many of us will have frequently had a hot honey and lemon drink when we’re feeling under the weather. Honey is also used in over-the-counter medicine and you’ll find it in throat lozenges. One scientific study found that a spoonful of honey was just as effective in treating children’s coughs as a spoonful of commercially prepared cough syrup.
Please never give honey to infants under the age of 1. Honey contains bacterial spores that can cause botulism and these can lead to small children or people with a repressed immune system becoming very sick.
Honey in Historical Beauty
It should come as no surprise that one of the earliest records of honey being used for beauty treatments involves Cleopatra. In my earlier blog post on the uses of milk in natural beauty and skincare, we saw that Cleopatra’s daily cleansing rituals are well known. She added honey to her milk baths to keep her skin smooth and firm. Other historical figures who were said to have used honey in their beauty regimes include:
- Poppaea Sabina (30 – 65 AD), Emperor Nero’s second wife, washed her face 7 times a day with a milk and honey lotion.
- Nefertiti (1370 BC), the wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, regularly used honey in her beauty regime. Her name, Nefertiti, was originally pronounced ‘Nafteta’ which means “the beauty has come”.
- Madame du Barry (1743 – 1793), the last mistress of King Louis XV of France, used honey as a face mask. Part of her beauty ritual was to lie down and rest after applying the mask.
- Queen Anne (1665 – 1714) was believed to have used a secret honey and oil recipe to keep her hair thick and shiny.
- Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (1660 – 1744), had her own secret recipe for a special honey water that she applied to her hair in order to keep it beautiful.
- In Ming Dynasty China, women in the Emperor’s Court used a blend of honey and ground orange seeds to keep their skin fresh and blemish-free (Altman, 2010).
As you can see, honey has been used extensively in beauty treatments across the ages. Honey was greatly prized as a beauty tonic because it never needed any additives to prevent it from spoiling.
The Science of Honey
So what makes honey such a great skincare ingredient? Firstly, it’s a humectant, which means that it attracts and traps moisture on the skin. Honey is a source of carbohydrates and also contains a number of vitamins and minerals including calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and zinc. It is also a potent source of antioxidants including chrysin, pinobanksin, vitamin C, catalase and pinocembrin. And as if all of that isn’t enough, honey is also anti-bacterial.
The potent activity of honey against antibiotic-resistant bacteria has been explored by a number of recent scientific studies. Its broad-spectrum bactericidal activity is a good disinfectant for human skin which means honey can be used for topical treatment of skin infections caused by antibiotic-susceptible or -resistant bacteria (Kwakman et al, 2008). The high sugar concentration, hydrogen peroxide, and the low pH are well-known antibacterial factors in honey and more recently, scientists identified several additional compounds (methylglyoxal and the antimicrobial peptide bee defensin-1) as important antibacterial compounds in honey (Kwakman & Zaat, 2012).
Not only can honey treat bacterial infections, it can also seal a wound from further infection, giving the skin a chance to regenerate. Studies suggest scarring can be minimised by using honey to dress a wound. Recently, honey has even been used to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA.
Make your own Honey Facial Scrub
By now, you’re probably desperately looking round for your nearest jar of honey. You’re not the only one – large cosmetics companies, recognising the benefits of honey on skincare, frequently add it to their products. But it is just as easy to make your own natural beauty treatments at a fraction of the price.
Polishing Honey Almond Facial Scrub
- 4 tbsp local honey
- 4 tbsp ground almonds
Place the ground-up almonds in a small jar. Fill the jar with honey so that it covers the almonds and mix it all together well. Mix the contents of the jar together again directly before applying as the honey will sink to the bottom. Wet your face and then mix a small amount of facial scrub in your hands with a drop of water.
Apply the facial scrub and gently exfoliate your skin by rubbing the scrub in small circles over your face, carefully avoiding your eyes and mouth. Wash your face with warm water to remove all of the honey almond scrub.
This recipe is also available in Herb & Hedgerow’s BeautyCraft app – the natural beauty app for iPhone, which provides dozens of recipes for homemade beauty products. Download this beauty app for many more facial scrubs and lots of other gorgeous natural beauty recipes!
References and Further Reading
Altman, N. 2010. Honey Prescription: The Amazing Power of Honey as Medicine
Kwakman, P.H.S. & Zaat, S.A.J. 2012. Antibacterial Components of Honey. Life, 64(1): 48–55, January 2012
Kwakman, P.H.S., Van den Akker, J.P.C., Güçlü, A., Aslami, H., Binnekade, J.M., de Boer, L., Boszhard, L., Paulus, F., Middelhoek, P., te Velde, A.A., Vandenbroucke-Grauls, C.M.J.E., Schultz, M.J., Zaat, S.A.J. 2008. Medical-Grade Honey Kills Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria In Vitro and Eradicates Skin Colonization. Clinical Infectious Diseases 2008; 46:1677–82.