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Honey has been used as a therapeutic treatment for millennia, and now some say it can help clear up eczema patches. Here’s what you should know.
Honey isn’t just for adding sweetness to your tea. It’s increasingly become thought of as a skin savior and has even been said to help people struggling with eczema.
There’s officially no cure for eczema, the skin condition that makes skin red and itchy, according to Mayo Clinic. There are plenty of treatments, though, including moisturizers, prescription medications, and a host of alternative options, such as honey.
Honey seems especially trendy in the skin-care world right now, but its cosmetic use goes back to ancient times, according to a review published in 2017 in Current Drug Metabolism. The type of honey that skin pros and celebs rave about today isn’t the same as what’s likely stocked in your pantry. Rather, they’re gushing about manuka honey, which is produced by bees that feed on New Zealand’s manuka bush, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
Nazanin Saedi, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Dermatology Associates of Plymouth Meeting, P.C., in Pennsylvania, says many patients have asked her about honey in recent years, likely after hearing the Kardashians publicly praise it for its many purported benefits, such as moisturizing the skin, clearing up blemishes, and giving the complexion a glow. Kourtney Kardashian even partnered with the brand Manuka Doctor and became a global ambassador back in 2016, according to Women’s Wear Daily.
Manuka Doctor sells a version of Manuka honey designed to be added to foods and drinks as well as a variety of manuka-based skin-care products. And they’re not the only ones. OY-L, NaturopathicaKiehl’s, and Eczema Honey, among others, sell creams, cleansers, and other skin-care staples with manuka honey as a key ingredient. But you can also go the DIY route and apply the honey directly to your skin, either mixed simply with a little warm water or with oatmeal as an at-home mask. These products (other than those from Eczema Honey) are not designed specifically for eczema-prone skin but for improving skin in general.
Natalie Yin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at U.S. Dermatology Partners in Colorado, says that honey can help treat eczema because of its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Those elements can keep skin issues from occurring, or minimize swelling or redness when they do pop up. While regular honey is well known for its antimicrobial properties, manuka honey is the “front-runner of honeys for non-peroxide antimicrobial activity,” according to research published in November 2018 in the journal AIMS MicrobiologyAccording to the NCI, manuka honey’s antibacterial properties come from the concentration of its active ingredient, called methylglyoxal, because it appears to release hydrogen peroxide. The NCI also notes that the honey has been said to help with wound repair, which could help eczema patches heal.
Another plus for patients with eczema: Honey can help keep skin hydrated. “Honey could work, because it is an incredibly thick emollient that would help trap moisture in the skin,” says Daniel P. Friedmann, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Westlake Dermatology in Austin, Texas. Trapping moisture is key, because people with eczema have skin that struggles to hold onto hydration, hindering its ability to protect against bacteria, allergens, and other irritants, according to Mayo Clinic.
There hasn’t been much scientific support for honey’s effect on eczema, though. One small study, published in June 2017, in the journal Immunity, Inflammation and Disease, investigated the effect of manuka honey on 14 eczema patients. The study participants were asked to apply the honey to one affected area of the skin overnight for a week straight and leave another area of affected skin untreated to serve as the control. The area treated with manuka honey significantly improved compared with the control.
But that study was too small to make sweeping conclusions. A study published in April 2019 in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology explored a variety of alternative treatments for eczema and found that while there have been some positive effects with manuka honey, there’s not enough evidence yet to recommend it as an eczema treatment. The study authors suggested that future research should involve larger sample sizes that reflect the demographics of people who have eczema.
Dr. Friedmann notes that it’s possible to have an allergic reaction to honey, particularly if you’re allergic to bees or pollen. As with most new skin-care products, it’s a good idea to do a patch test before fully using the product. Apply the product to an unaffected area of the skin, like the inner forearm, and wait a few minutes to see if redness or irritation occurs. (If you have a history of allergic reactions, you may want to wait one or two days.)
If your baby has eczema, note that honey is not recommended for babies under 1 year old because it can cause a serious disease called botulism, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Also, buy carefully, as not all products contain high-quality manuka honey. Look for the Unique Manuka Factor quality trademark, meaning New Zealand’s Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association has verified the product.
Dr. Saedi says honey works for some people, but she’s not fully on board. “Some people swear by it and think it’s the best thing, but I don’t personally recommend it as a product,” she says.
Dr. Yin warns that while honey does have some great attributes, people should not rely solely on it to treat eczema flares. “More rigorous scientific studies are needed to confirm its benefits in this setting,” she says.
Finally, Friedmann says he wouldn’t recommend it to patients, either. He says there are plenty of products available at the drugstore that can do just as good a job as honey — and without the mess.
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