Skincare manufacturers have used honey in everything from moisturizers to bar soaps to facial and lip treatments. One reason they use honey is for its wholesome, all-natural image. But there's much more to this sweet ingredient than meets the eye.
In the U.S., our consumption-to-production gap is large: we produce roughly 150 million pounds of honey per year, and have an annual demand for about 400 million pounds. We’re importing a lot of honey to bridge that gap. On the surface importation doesn't seem to be that big of a deal, but there are some serious problems with imported honey. These concerns begin with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) which has a voluntary self-grading system; each company can give its honey whatever grade they choose. According to third-party testing, more than 75% of the honey sold in U.S. grocery stores is filtered to the point where it contains no pollen. This is a big deal, since The Food and Drug Administration states that any product that has been so ultra-filtered that it no longer contains pollen does not meet the definition of honey. However, the FDA does not check honey sold in the United States to see if it contains pollen.
Imported honey is routinely diluted with corn syrup or sugar water which extends the product without greatly affecting flavor and increases profit-margins for producers. When tested, imported honey and other bee products often test positive for antibiotics, pesticides and heavy metals. These contaminants are usually related to the handling of beehives and colonies rather than contamination from processing bee by-products. Both handling and processing certainly offer the risk of contamination. The main contamination risks for different bee by-products follow:
- Honey: antibiotics
- Wax: persistent lipophilic acaricides (insecticides)
- Propolis: persistent lipophilic acaricides (insecticides), lead
- Pollen: pesticides
- Royal jelly: antibiotics
With all of these risks, companies continue to use honey in the manufacture of skincare products. The high sugar concentration, hydrogen peroxide content, and low pH are well-known antibacterial factors in honey. These factors make honey a candidate for anti-aging treatments, acne conditions and wounds, including burns.
A highly studied and in-demand type of honey called Manuka honey is produced from the manuka bush (Leptospermum scoparium) indigenous to New Zealand and Australia. Manuka honey is derived from nectar collected by honey bees foraging on the manuka tree in New Zealand and is included in modern licensed wound-care products around the world. However, in the wake of the high premium paid for manuka honey, the majority of product labelled as “Manuka honey” worldwide is now counterfeit or adulterated.
For formulators wishing to cash in on the benefits of honey in their formulations, the best recourse is to use honey products that are True Source Certified. This system permits honey to be tracked from the consumer back through the supply chain to the country of origin and the beekeeper that harvested the honey from the beehive. In the United States, Certified Organic honey and bee by-products must also submit to audits and have a traceable supply chain. Honey subjected to third party testing and audits is more likely to contain what it is supposed to, including the active ingredients and enzymes beneficial in skincare.