Danger of Using Honey for Skincare

The Danger of Using Honey for Skincare

Honey is one of the most popular ingredients to use for natural skincare and your DIY beauty routine. It has been prized for its cleansing, hydrating, soothing, and beautifying benefits for every skin type, and has a long history of use across multiple cultures of women throughout humankind. Using honey for skin care 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. This popular ingredient makes an excellent cleanser for just about every skin type and combination. This sticky substance is great for removing debris, and its strong humectant properties  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 in skincareHoney is also a logical addition to skincare products as an ingredient, because of its gentle exfoliating properties, antibacterial properties, and abundance of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Its strong hydrating benefits also make sense for balanced skin moisture. Raw 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 honey is one of the most shelf-stable substances on Earth. In fact, fully preserved and intact raw 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 (despite its hydrating benefits), 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 types of honey like manuka or thyme, that are known to have enhanced antibacterial 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), raw honey is self-preserving and does have the amazing cosmetic and healthy skin benefits you’ve read about. The higher the quality of your raw honey, the more beneficial it will be.
Honeybee at workHowever, once you mix it into a skincare formulation with other ingredients such as water, hydrosols, herbs, carrier oils, butters, waxes, essential oils, etc.; any antibacterial benefits associated with the honey go away, due to its high sugar content and humectant properties. Part of the reason why raw 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 natural ingredients or products (this is the case with synthetics too) that contain water have 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 prebiotics–food–for microbes of all kinds. 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.

Various strains of mold
Various strains of mold.

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 it’s mixed with water-containing ingredients and other humectants that causes the water activity of the entire product to increase, and often unpredictably so.

In plain speak, the addition of the raw 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, honey extract, royal jelly extract, etc. 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.

It’s important to note that cosmetic grade types of honey and other products made by honey bees, such as honey extract and royal jelly extract do exist. These have been essentially “cleaned” to remove the parts of them that serve as food for microbes. While this might seem like a good thing, this processing also removes the key enzymes, antioxidants, and other healthy skin benefits we love about honey in the first place. What you’re left with is a sticky substance with some hydrating benefits, but little other benefits.

If you want to enjoy the healthy skin benefits, and immortality of honey, by all means, indulge in the best raw, local, organic, exotic honey you can find. 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 Pro. Click here to learn more about how to create quality skincare products, and get started today with a free class.

Share Your ThoughtsDid you learn something new about this popular ingredient?

Please leave me a comment below and tell me!


Image credits: Feature image by Waugsberg, image 1 by Siona Karen, image 2 by Julia Lehman Photography


39 thoughts on “The Danger of Using Honey for Skincare”

  1. I love using honey as a facial cleanser or a mask. I was just thinking about making a cream or moisturizer with it, so this article came in time. Excellent information. Thanks!

    1. I made a hand balm with some honey but my product is anhydrous (without water)
      I would assume that this would be okay. I used shea butter, coconut oil, other oils and essential oils. Normally I never use honey.

      1. I’d say it depends on if the product is getting exposed to light, heat, or water in any way, or if there’s any other chance of contamination, it would be a risk. Microbes can still grow in the honey itself, even if it is mixed in with anhydrous ingredients.

  2. This was very helpful, but now I’m worried! I had purchased a honey cleanser from a small brand and these are the ingredients…LAVENDER WATER, DISTILLED WATER, HONEY, GREEN TEA EXTRACT, WHITE WILLOW BARK EXTRACT, WITCH HAZEL EXTRACT, CITRIC ACID, VITAMIN E OIL, FRANKINCENSE ESSENTIAL OIL. Should I throw it out?

    1. Hi Mary Cate–based on the ingredients alone this would not be a product I would use personally without refrigeration. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment!

      1. Thank you for taking time to reply. I haven’t used it and it’s never been refrigerated , but I’ll toss it out. What a waste, but good to know this information. If there’s another honey product on the market as a cleanser (without water) would that be safer to use? I have another one from (again, another small brand… this is made by an esthetician) a different brand. Who knew honey could be so complicated, but it totally makes sense.

  3. Hi again Mary Cate–you might just try cleansing with honey alone. It does a great job! I make all my own products and with all the brands out there now, it’s not possible to make a product recommendation. But honey on its own is a great cleanser!

  4. Yes you enlighten me Rachel. I never thought about when honey is mixed with other products. I have just begun to read your book, “Love Your Skin, Love Yourself”.

    1. Donna, thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to share these kind words! I hope you enjoy the book <3 --Rachael

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  6. Hi Rachael,
    I am just thinking to mix my organic raw honey with some brown rice flour (for gentle exfoliation and Lavender essential oil for balancing for my morning face wash routine. Would that be okay?
    How long is the shelf life for such a mix?
    Thanks for your advice.

    1. Hi Angel, that sounds like a lovely blend! I would recommend keeping it in the refrigerator and using it up within 3 days without a preservative.

  7. Hi there, is it safe to use honey with herbs and essential oils, without water? Or do we still need a preservative. I wasn’t sure if honey was okay to mix as long as there is no water. thanks!

    1. Hi Sara, that’s a great question! It is common to make herbal honeys, but I would recommend doing so with DRY herbs, as to not introduce any water. Essential oils may or may not work due to solubility issues, depending on the honey.

    1. No, it’s great to use honey to wash your face (for most people) by itself! What this article is saying is that it is very hard to preserve when it is used as an ingredient in skincare formulations.

  8. Thanks for the information I have a recipe that uses honey with other anhydrous ingredients however there is a chance that water may be introduced by users. What if salt [& a preservative] was introduced would this improve or worsen the potential microbe problem?. Also do you have any recommendations for a honey alternative?

    1. There’s no way to know if any preservation system–natural or synthetic–works without a microbial or challenge test. There’s no real alternative to honey that provides all the nutrition plus the humectant benefits. Glycerine brings the humectant benefits and when infused with herbs, it certainly could provide nutrition, but unfortunately, it will cause the same issues due to the increased water activity it brings to the product.

  9. Hi Rachael,
    Would a mix of pink clay and honey be ok without a preservative? I have a 30ml silicone squeeze bottle that I currently store honey in only, for cleansing, and it’s kept in a bathroom drawer.

    1. Theoretically it should be, as long as it is completely protected from moisture and outside contamination. But the only way to know is to test it.

  10. Will using honey in a lip balm recipe cause unwanted microbial growth? The original lip balm recipe was 1 tsp beeswax + 1 tsp cocoa butter + 1 tsp coconut oil, and I wanted to add about 1/2 tsp of honey to that. I thought adding a humectant to the lip balm would make it more nourishing and moisturing. (Side note, it?s quite hard to find what is the best ratio of occlusives, humectants and emollients, especially for a lip balm. Would love a good natural recipe.) But in any case, should I skip trying to add honey? Does the original recipe work well as a lip balm? Or should I trying adding another humectant, and if so how should I incorporate it. (It would be used in the Canadian climate.) Your advice is very very much appreciated. Thanks for the great article.

    1. Ana, adding a humectant like honey can work sometimes, depending on the honey. There are such variations in different types of honeys, sometimes it works texturally, other times, the beeswax is not enough to keep it emulsified. In terms of microbial growth, yes, I would say that unless you plan on adding a preservative, honey or another humectant would increase risk of microbial growth. Hope that helps! –Rachael

  11. Jennifer Hanbury Pobiak

    Hello Rachel and greetings from Blue Dahlia Wellness in Cozumel, Mexico!
    My name is Jennifer and I am an acupuncturist and I work with herbs and essential oils for many years as well as develop organic skin care products. When I make my products, I never use any ingredient that has water in it for the reasons you mentioned (as bacteria and microbes need water to survive) so I take that out of the equation.
    In one of my organic skin care recipes, I use Meadowfoam seed oil, neem oil, and Vitamin E as my natural anti-bacterial elements and I have never had a problem with any of my products going bad. In my opinion, they have about a 6-8 months shelf life, although some people tell me they last a year. I’ve wanted to add a local organically grown honey to the product but am worried about the potential for bacterial growth. My products can stay at room temperature without any problems. What do you think about me adding honey to the mix? Would there be anything else you might consider as a natural antibacterial ingredient that I am overlooking? I’m a little nervous. Thank you for your advice. I really enjoy your website and your informative approach. If you ever want to come to Cozumel to teach a class, please don’t hesitate to contact me! Wouldn’t that be fun?

    1. Jennifer, ooh Cozumel! Tempting! Thank you for reading and for sharing! I would not add honey to your mix for all the reasons I state in the article–as for what natural antimicrobials to use instead, that’s really something that requires formula-specific consultation and testing to be able to make an accurate determination. –Rachael

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  14. Roshelle Veney

    Thanks for this! Question: Does this information also apply to a just add water blend? For example, adding honey to dry ingredients and then scooping out an amount and adding water as needed? Looking to create a lasting product for a project.

    1. Hi Roshelle, great question! This is referring to honey in blends with water soluble ingredients. It is extremely shelf stable on its own.

  15. Hi Rachael, such an informative blog. I’ve been planning to use raw honey, coffee powder and cinnamon powder as lip scrub. And Raw honey, aloe gel and coffee powder as face scrub. Both works well on my lips n skin. However after going through your blog I am skeptical about my face scrub. Please guide

    1. Hi Pooja, thanks for reading! With the added aloe and coffee powder, the scrub might very well need a preservative. You’ll need to run a microbial test to be sure.

  16. Hi Rachael!
    I’m looking to create a honey based face product for my cosmetics line, but throughout my research i’ve found no clear solutions. I’m looking to make a honey based solution, with a few oils and clay. Would I need a preservative? Would this product need to be refrigerated? What preservative should I use if I do need one?

    1. Hi Sierra, that’s something that really does not have a straightforward answer. I’d be happy to consult with you in a Hash it Out session. You can schedule an appointment here.

  17. I found a simple face scrub recipe: two parts oatmeal, one part honey, one part sweet almond oil. I’d like it to last a bit longer than just a week. Will vitamin E oil work as a preservative? I also have a preservative which contains: Benzyl Alcohol, Salicylic Acid, Glycerin, Sorbic Acid. How much should I add?

    1. Hi Magda, Vitamin E oil is not a preservative–it is an antioxidant. It will not inhibit the growth of bacteria, mold, or yeast. In terms of your other preservative, you have to read the manufacturer’s recommended usage amount, add it, and then run microbial testing to determine if it is the correct preservative, and if you used the right amount for that formulation. Every formulation has different needs, and the only way to know if your preservation system is right is to test it.

  18. Hello,
    So could I still use honey in a formulation as long as i use a broad spectrum preservative (e.g phenoxyethanol) ?
    My formulation will include water .

    1. Yes, as long as your microbial tests pass, you should be good to go! Just keep in mind that it is a little counterproductive, because the preservative will kill any beneficial strains that the honey has, though you’ll still retain many of the other benefits of the honey (enzymes, natural sugars, humectant properties, etc).

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