Honey contains a variety of substances that are responsible for its antibacterial, wound-healing, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects, which theoretically could be beneficial for acne. While anecdotal reports suggest that honey masks help clear acne, there is no scientific evidence to confirm this. In fact, the only rigorous study that has been conducted indicates that honey is not an effective acne treatment.
How Might Honey Be Beneficial for Acne?
What Is Honey, and What Does It Contain?
Honey is made by bees and contains about 200 substances, including:
- Carbohydrates (mostly sugars)
- Amino acids (molecules that form the basis of proteins)
- Enzymes (molecules that speed up chemical reactions)
Antioxidants (molecules that prevent cell damage from harmful molecules called free radicals)1
Antibacterial Effect of Honey. All types of honey are antibacterial, so honey may kill the bacteria associated with acne, P. acnes. Scientists believe that this effect of most kinds of honey is due primarily to its hydrogen peroxide content. Hydrogen peroxide is a strong antibacterial compound that sometimes is used to treat acne. However, one type of honey called manuka honey contains no hydrogen peroxide, but it still is antibacterial. Scientists theorize that antibacterial activity of manuka honey is due to its high acidity and high sugar content, as these conditions create an unsuitable environment for bacteria to thrive. But the bottom line is that all honey is antibacterial.2
Other compounds in all types of honey also contribute to its antibacterial nature:
- Recent research found that a variety of molecules, including a protein called bee defensin-1, “are distinct mechanisms involved in the bactericidal [bacteria-killing] activity of honey.”2
- Some studies suggest that propolis, a natural resin that bees use to build their hives, might possess antibacterial and antifungal effects as well as effects that regulate the immune system.3
The antibacterial effects of honey are broad and affect many types of bacteria, which means there is a good chance that honey might also kill P. acnes. According to a 2014 article in General Medicine - Open Access:
“[H]oneys have potent…bactericidal activity against antibiotic-resistant bacteria causing several life-threatening infections to humans. … [and] [c]urrently, many researchers have…found that natural unheated honey has some broad-spectrum antibacterial activity when tested against pathogenic bacteria, oral bacteria [and] food spoilage bacteria.”2
However, these effects are not consistent and vary depending on the type of honey, which is reliant on the source of nectar that the bees use to produce it. The nectar source varies according to factors such as location, season, climate, and species of bee. While natural honey varies in its bactericidal effects, some companies sell special formulations that are standardized in their levels of antibacterial activity.1,2 But in the real world, any honey you find should be at least somewhat antibacterial.
Honey and Wound Healing. Generally speaking, acne lesions are low-scale wounds. People have used honey since ancient times to accelerate wound healing. Modern research explores honey as a treatment for ulcers, sores, burns, and other types of wounds.
Scientists ascribe honey’s wound-healing properties to:
- Its antibacterial activity
- Its ability to moisten wounds, which promotes healing
- Its occlusive (protective barrier-like) nature
Honey also stimulates immune-cells to release a protein called tumor necrosis factor (TNF), which stimulates growth of new tissue, thus aiding in wound repair. TNF also firms scar tissue, improving its appearance,2which could be important for acne scarring.
So overall, honey helps accelerate this process in a variety of wounds, but when it comes to acne directly, as of today, there is no scientific evidence that honey is effective in healing acne lesions.
Anti-inflammatory Effect of Honey. Acne is an inflammatory disease, and scientists believe that honey prevents inflammation by slowing down the formation of hormones called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are produced at the site of injury and contribute to inflammation.2
Since prostaglandins play a significant role in inflammation, it is reasonable to hypothesize that honey might help reduce the inflammatory component of acne. However, no scientific evidence of this exists.
Antioxidant Effect of Honey. Scientists have long suspected that a low level of antioxidants leads to at least some of the inflammation inherent to acne. Honey contains antioxidants and compounds with antioxidant effects, including vitamin C, flavonoids, tocopherol, and reduced glutathione. Although these compounds exist in very small amounts in honey, they still might confer beneficial effects when applied to the skin. Interestingly, there is a strong correlation between the color of honey and its antioxidant properties. Researchers have noticed that the darker the honey, the higher its antioxidant capacity.2So, while still unproven, it may be best to use a darker honey when experimenting with topical honey for acne treatment.
Is There Research on “Honey and Acne”?
There is only one randomized controlled trial evaluating the effectiveness of topical honey on acne, and its conclusion is less than impressive when it comes to the impact of honey on acne. A randomized controlled trial is a type of rigorous of study that provides the highest level of evidence.
In this 2016 study in the journal, BMJ Open, researchers randomly assigned 136 acne patients between the ages of 16 and 40 years to receive one of two treatments: (1) an antibacterial soap and a product comprised of 90% medical grade honey and 10% glycerin or (2) the antibacterial soap alone. This study found that only 7.6% of the patients in group 1 experienced significant improvement in their acne. The researchers concluded that the combination of honey and antibacterial soap was no more effective in treating acne than antibacterial soap alone. They stated, “The results presented do not support a benefit of using honey in addition to a common over-the-counter antibacterial soap. This knowledge may inform both patients and clinicians when considering alternative therapies for acne.”4
Based on this one study, it appears that honey may not be an effective treatment for acne.
One reason that people might consider honey as an alternative acne treatment is that conventional acne treatments can come with undesirable side effects. The primary side effect of honey is temporary tingling when applied to the skin of some people.
Rare side effects include:
- Allergic reaction, especially if pollen or bee protein is present in the honey
- Skin dryness if too much is applied
- Theoretical risk of high blood sugar in diabetics who apply it to large open wounds
- Wound infection due to bacterial spores5
The therapeutic components of honey and its low incidence of side effects make it a safe option for those who want a natural alternative to more traditional acne treatments. However, current scientific research does not support the theory that using honey masks are effective in the treatment of acne.