There are a few interesting and out-of-the-ordinary acne treatments that go beyond the obvious OTC kind: Toothpaste is questionable at best, and we’re less than keen on homemade lemon-and-salt scrubs. (Because hygiene, guys.) But recently we’ve been seeing and hearing a lot about honey as an acne treatment. Take, for example, the veritable explosion of honey treatments at spas (complete with apiaries) nationwide. Then there’s the Internet rabbit hole Reddit, where there are some insane before-and-after photos of people who’ve used honey as an acne treatment. In one thread, a user adamantly claims her skin cleared up once she started putting raw honey on her skin daily. “It’s done more for my acne in one week than salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, or retinoids ever did,” the user writes. But while the Internet may be singing honey’s praises, we weren’t so sure, so we tapped a few top experts to find out whether and why honey is an effective acne treatment.
Honey is antibacterial—but not the antibacterial your acne needs.
According to cosmetic chemist Randy Schueller’s website, The Beauty Brains (which he runs with fellow cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski), there’s legitimate evidence that honey’s antibacterial properties fight bacteria (as you’d expect an antibacterial to do), but raw honey does not ward off P. acnes, the specific bacteria that causes acne. “One study in theJournal of Antibacterial Chemotherapy showed that honey (in concentrations between 2.5 percent and 5 percent) is effective against staphylococci, a very harmful bacteria,” writes Schueller. “We could not find any studies that tested honey’s effect on P. acnes, the bacteria that helps cause zits. However, given what we know about the antibacterial mechanism of honey, it is plausible it would work on this bacterium as well.” So while there isn’t hard evidence, in theory it has a similar biomechanism.
Raw honey is preferred.
Annie Chiu, a dermatologist in North Redondo Beach, California, says to make sure you pick up raw honey—anything processed won’t have that antibacterial effect. “Most popular brands of honey are treated in some way, by heating or adding water, for example. These processed honeys are very unlikely to work [in treating acne] because the antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties are destroyed in the processing,” she says. “It’s best to find an all-natural, raw, unprocessed, and unheated honey with no added ingredients, ideally from organic hives that have not been treated with chemicals or antibiotics.” Chiu advises using the honey as a mask and leaving it on your skin for 15 to 20 minutes before washing it off to help treat and prevent acne flare-ups.
Honey won’t work on all acne, but it may work on inflamed pimples.
“Raw honey works to make inflammatory acne look less angry because it has an osmotic effect on the skin—it can draw out [excess fluid] and help reduce inflammation,” says Kavita Mariwalla, a dermatologist in West Islip, New York. “Honey can be a calming agent, so it also helps to reduce redness.” However, you won’t want to look to the sweet-and-sticky stuff for cleansing your pores. “Do not be fooled into thinking that the honey will pull out dirt because it is sticky. It may leave a film on the skin which you then have to rinse vigorously,” she says. “Unfortunately, it’s not like a liquid Bioré pore strip.”
Honey is not as strong as traditional acne medications.
No matter how raw or expensive, even the best honey isn’t a quality substitute for more traditional zit creams with lab-proven formulations. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, stresses that while honey may be antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, it won’t work as well as tried-and-true acne medications. “While honey can offer some benefits in helping treat acne, it is not as effective as traditional acne treatments, like benzoyl peroxide,” he says. “Benzoyl peroxide has potent activity in killing acne-causing bacteria and helps open up blocked pores, especially if you have large red pimples that you want to treat as quickly as possible.” And honey? It’s definitely not going to unblock your pores. (Think of all that gunk!)
If you’ve heard that honey diminishes acne scars, we have bad news: That’s not the case.
Rachel Nazarian, a dermatologist in New York City, says honey has been shown to help wounds heal, but it won’t affect scarring. “Many studies have been done using honey as a topical treatment following skin burns, as it does appear to help stimulate wound healing and also to prevent infection. But no evidence exists that it can help with scar repair,” says Nazarian. However, Chiu says, honey’s ability to speed healing could help reduce any leftover redness from a big breakout. “Honey could decrease healing time, which would in turn minimize the hyperpigmentation some people experience from acne. But once you have a scar, there is nothing in honey that will make that scar disappear,” she says.