Honey is one of the most popular ingredients to use for natural skincare and DIY beauty rituals. It’s one has been prized for its cleansing, hydrating, soothing, and beautifying benefits, and has a long history of use across multiple cultures of women throughout humankind. Using honey for skincare may seem like an almost too easy solution. I remember the first time a friend of mine told me she washed her face with nothing but honey and warm water, I was shocked. Of course, this was at a time when I worked for a cosmetics company and was conditioned to believe that more products are better–my how that has changed!
Honey has many uses in skincare.
There’s a lot to be gained from using honey as a standalone product for skincare. It’s an excellent cleanser for many different skin combinations, because its stickiness is great for removing debris, but its strong humectant properties also hydrate the skin, so you’re not left with that stripped, overly tight feeling. It also makes an excellent natural exfoliant because its natural sugars, enzymes, and again–stickiness–gently encourage stubborn surface cells that might still be holding on to just let go (I much prefer that visual to the more common one of “sloughing off dead cells”).
Click HERE to check out my Honey Facial Ritual.
Honey is also a logical addition to skincare products as an ingredient, because of its gentle exfoliating properties, and abundance of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Its strong humectant properties also lend hydration to a moisturizer. Honey also has a slightly acidic pH, which helps it balance the skin’s pH after it’s been barraged by more alkaline ingredients.
A common myth about using honey for skincare:
You may have heard that since honey is one of the most shelf-stable substances on Earth. In fact, fully preserved and intact honey has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. It’s not fully known why honey has this seemingly infinite shelf life, but it’s suspected that the combination of its acidity, high sugar content, lack of water content, and unique enzyme content that comes from bees–plus a little bit of alchemy–are the reason.
So, then, it would make sense that honey acts as a preservative for skincare products, right? Especially some of the trendier honies like manuka or thyme, that are known to have enhanced antimicrobial properties and have actually shown so in scientific studies?
Not so fast, grasshopper.
Here’s where things get a little tricky with using honey for skincare.
On its own, without being mixed with other ingredients (in the majority of cases), honey is self-preserving and does have the amazing cosmetic and health benefits you’ve read about. The higher the quality of your honey, the more beneficial it will be.
However, once you mix it into a skincare formulation with other ingredients such as water, hydrosols, herbs, carrier oils, butters, waxes, essential oils, etc any antimicrobial benefits associated with the honey go away, due to its high sugar content and humectant properties. Part of the reason why honey, on its own, is self-preserving is that its sugars are anhydrous [EDITED for clarification 5/25/18–text formerly read “it is anhydrous” which is not correct]–meaning they do not contain any water.
Any ingredient or product that contains water has increased potential for microbial growth and contamination because the water creates an ideal environment for bacteria, mold, and yeast to propagate. Therefore, any product or ingredient that is water-based must be in some way, preserved to have a shelf life and be safe for use.
When you mix honey into a skincare formulation, its sugars become probiotics–food–for microbes of all kinds, and the presence of water and other botanical matter in the formulation makes the product into quite the smorgasbord for microbes.
Aside from the sugar content, because honey is such a powerful humectant, it actually increases the water activity of the entire product (especially if other humectants are present in the formulation).
The long definition of water activity is: “The water activity (aw) represents the ratio of the water vapor pressure of the food to the water vapor pressure of pure water under the same conditions and it is expressed as a fraction. If we multiply this ratio by 100, we obtain the equilibrium relative humidity (ERH) that the foodstuff (or in our case, honeystuff and plantstuff) would produce if enclosed with air in a sealed container at a constant temperature. Thus a food (or product) with a water activity (aw) of 0.7 would produce an ERH of 70%.”
Are you still with me? Good.
You might ask why this matters? Well, bacteria (and that’s just bacteria, never mind mold and yeast) only requires a water activity of .86 to grow. To put that into perspective, the water activity of an aged cheddar is .85–and you wouldn’t want that outside of the refrigerator for long, would you?
The water activity of honey alone isn’t the issue–it’s what happens when mixed with water containing ingredients and humectants that causes the water activity of the entire product to increase, and often unpredictably so.
In plain speak, the addition of the honey makes the product seem like it has much more water and moisture than it actually does. It’s a good thing because it magnifies the hydrating potential of the product like any other humectant would, by drawing more moisture into the product and binding it to other water molecules. However, this increase also increases the potential for microbial growth. Add the natural sugar content from the honey, in addition to any other natural sugars from herbs, hydrosols, and botanical extracts, and what you get is an all-out, all-you-can-eat party for microbes.
What if you add a preservative?
Surely you’ve seen skincare and personal care products containing honey on store shelves, right? These products also contain strong preservatives, like parabens, imidazolidinyl urea (or another formaldehyde-releasing preservative), or phenoxyethanol. You may see additional preservatives like potassium sorbate, ethylhexylglycerine, or sodium benzoate (just to name a few possibilities) on the label too. It is unlikely that you’ll see a natural preservative blend, and if you do, it’s likely that the product has less than a 1-year shelf life. Products with high water activity are nearly impossible to preserve naturally, with a long shelf life.
Now, this might change–natural preservation is an area of continuous advancement–but the bottom line is that honey is a troublesome ingredient when used as an ingredient in a natural skincare formulation. Microbial growth in a skincare product can cause serious infections of the skin, eyes, and mouth and can also compromise the body’s immune system as a whole.
If you want to enjoy the skin, health, and immortality of honey, by all means, indulge in the best raw, local, organic, exotic honey you can find–and use it to your heart’s content alone or in a single-use, or refrigerated DIY treatment. But please don’t add it to a product that you intend to have any sort of shelf life at all, and please don’t consider it a natural preservative.
Want to learn more about both short-and longer-term natural preservation?
I teach both in my online course, Create Your Skincare. Click here to learn more and get started today with a free class.
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Image credits: Feature image by Waugsberg, image 1 by Siona Karen, image 2 by Julia Lehman Photography