Is Manuka Honey as Life-Changing as They Say?

Before we embark together on the 1,734-word honey journey you never knew you’ve always wanted, there’s something you should know: My mother is an amateur beekeeper. Not only does she keep them, she is also obsessed with them. She watches beekeeping YouTube videos. She reads beekeeping books. She spews beekeeping facts, like “Did you know honeybees communicate with each other by dancing?” and “Bees have five eyes!!!!!!!”

If you want visual confirmation of her evangelizing enthusiasm, here is an Instagram posted by Haley last summer when she joined me on a trip to Rhode Island to visit my mom and bravely suited up to go fraternize with the hive inhabitants. Chic, no?

My mom also harvests and bottles her own honey. She stores jars and jars of it to give away as gifts to friends and family members but keeps one on the kitchen counter at all times for her own daily use — a drizzle on muesli here, a dollop in tea there, etc., etc. One day, though, I watched with my own (two) eyes as she smeared it on her face. When I asked her what she was doing, she told me she was using the honey to heal an allergic reaction that was blossoming on her cheek from a new skincare product she’d used the evening prior.

I was immediately suspicious, primarily because my mom has a tendency to employ a questionable logic my sisters and I have lovingly dubbed Mom ScienceTM whenever she is trying to scientifically justify a non-scientific endeavor, but also because brandishing honey as a miracle cure-all for allergic reactions in lieu of, I don’t know, BENADRYL (?!?!) seemed just as preposterous as putting Windex on a pimple à la My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

More preposterous still is the fact that roughly six months later, I would find myself cheerily smearing honey not just on my face, but also my hair, cuticles and tastebuds in the name of health and wellness (karma: 1, Harling: 0). Thus begins our aforementioned 1,734-word honey journey — our Manuka honey journey, to be exact.

Manuka Honey 101

I volunteered to test out Manuka honey’s purported benefits for a story after hearing too many glowing reviews to ignore as an ethical guinea-pig journalist. CNN referred to it as an “antibiotic powerhouse.” Mind Body Green dubbed it “nature’s version of liquid gold.” Women’s Health asserted that it can do wonders for your skin. There is a lot of non-Mom ScienceTM out there that backs up these claims, but I won’t bog you down with too much of it here. The main thing you need to know about why Manuka honey is the Meryl Streep of honeys is that it contains high concentrations of methylglyoxal (MGO), which gives it powerful antibiotic and antibacterial properties. A number of clinical case studies have shown that Manuka honey can clear infection from wounds, improve tissue healing, reduce inflammation and jump-start an immune response. Other types of honey contain MGO, but the highest concentration is found in the nectar of Manuka flowers, which grow on a type of tea tree found only in New Zealand and Australia.

The popularity of Manuka honey has resulted in numerous counterfeits, so the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association (a.k.a. my dream side-gig employer) came up with a grading system to clearly indicate quality and purity. The higher the rating, the more potent the Manuka honey’s antibacterial properties are, and the more expensive the jar is. Based on what I’ve read on a number of sites and conversations I’ve had with New Zealanders via Instagram DM, you want to find Manuka honey with a UMF score of at least 10+ to reap the benefits of its healing powers (Manuka Health kindly sent me this one to try out).

Speaking of benefits, Manuka honey is said to have MANY of both the health- and beauty-related variety. The most commonly hyped ways to use Manuka honey for skincare purposes are as a face mask, cleanser and spot treatment. Ergo, I’ve been smearing it all over my face three times a week for the past month and letting it sit for a minimum of 20 minutes each time.

How I Used It


The first time I masked, I was a bit red/splotchy afterward, but that’s not uncommon for me when I’m trying something new on my very sensitive/reactive skin — even a “product” as gentle as honey. By the third masking session, my skin had fully adjusted and I was able to analyze the effects, which, incidentally, have been pretty g-dang incredible. For one thing, my skin hasn’t been this soft since I was fresh out of the womb. I have to resist the urge to touch it every five seconds.

The other biggest effect wasn’t immediately obvious; my skin just felt…content. Happier? Less angsty? I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but after reading this article in the Journal of Economic Entomology (bedtime entertainment) about honey’s moisturizing properties (honey is hygroscopic, which means that it naturally absorbs moisture when it is exposed to air, thus leaving your skin more moisturized post-application), it hit me: My skin felt hydrated. HYDRATED!!!! How could something so simple feel so life-changing? Also, why had I waited so long to dunk my face in honey?

In answer to that seemingly rhetorical question, I decided to dunk my entire body in it. This idea was prompted by an article in Marie Claire in which skincare expert Melanie Fraser recommends pouring 1 to 2 cups of full-fat milk and half a cup of Manuka honey into a running bath and luxuriating in it like a biblical mermaid. I don’t have a bath tub in my apartment or full-fat milk in my fridge, so I high-tailed it uptown to my parents’ apartment with the confidence they would have both. They only had 1%, but I still emerged from the elixir a new woman — mentally, that is. My body looked pretty much the same.

I did also try using Manuka honey as a face cleanser but wasn’t a fan of this application given that it only works when you’re wearing zero scraps of makeup. As for spot treatments, I don’t get much in the way of acne these days, so I’m curious to hear from other people who have used it in that capacity.

Wound Care

I was very eager to test out Manuka honey’s wound-healing properties, but since I am wound-free for the moment, I had to settle for an inflamed cuticle. After dotting the cuticle with a honey-loaded Q-tip in the morning, I stuck on a Band-Aid and went about my business. At the end of the day when I removed said Band-Aid, my cuticle was noticeably less inflamed. Nature’s best face mask was apparently nature’s best Neosporin as well. I’m not showing you any before-and-after photos, though, because cuticles are gross, inflamed or not. You’re welcome!

Hair Care

When it came time to test the hygroscopic benefits of Manuka honey on my hair, I felt a keen reluctance drip down my insides with the viscosity of you-know-what. I have a lot of hairA lot. I don’t even like putting on lip balm because so much of my hair gets stuck in it, and given how sticky honey is, I was picturing that experience multiplied by a thousand, which was, quite frankly, panic-inducing. As a compromise, I decided to just put it on my ends because they always need the most TLC in the moisture department. The process was definitely a bit messy…and drippy…so I wouldn’t recommend trying it anywhere outside a bathroom. Wearing your birthday suit helps, too.

I was really pleased with the results. The ends of my curls looked noticeably shiny, moisturized and bouncy. That being said, I don’t think I would make honey hair masks a regular part of my hair routine given that I have other, less messy mask options that moisturize just as well. I’m glad I tried it, though, because I got a lot of honey on my hands and licking it off was so much fun.

Gut Care

Have I mentioned Manuka honey is DELICIOUS!?!???? It tastes way, way better than regular honey, in my humble expert opinion. The flavor is more intense and fuller-bodied. I could easily eat it by the spoonful, which is great in this case because that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do. Ingesting Manuka honey has just as many purported benefits as applying it topically, including preventing illness, reducing plaque, improving gastrointestinal health and even lowering cholesterol. While I knew I couldn’t personally showcase Manuka honey’s efficacy in these categories in the span of a month, I decided to eat tons of it anyway and see how I felt, because yum.

Every morning, I’ve been mixing it with a spoonful of apple cider vinegar and swallowing in one gulp before breakfast. This initiative was recommended by Leandra and supposedly helps kick-start your metabolism and boosts immunity. In terms of palpable effects, I definitely felt invigorated by the mixture — to the extent that on some mornings I was compelled to skip my daily latte, which was rather nice.

Other than that, I mostly ate small spoonfuls of it or stirred it into tea (never more than one or two tablespoons total per day). I noticed that it really helped satisfy my sweet tooth, which is always particularly vocal after meals. I usually muffle it with a Hershey’s Kiss or five. There’s nothing wrong with that, but as I’ve gotten older, I can tell I’m more sensitive to sugar in that it doesn’t make me feel great. Manuka honey has proved to be an unexpectedly stellar alternative — it’s sweet enough to quell a sugar craving but doesn’t give me that “ick” sensation I get after eating too much processed sugar.

Human bodies are allegedly 60 percent water, but at this point in the experiment, I think I’m at least 50 percent Manuka honey, and I’m not planning to slow down any time soon. What about you? Are you a fan of Manuka honey? Are you thinking of trying it? I wholeheartedly endorse it for the skin-softening and hydrating effects alone, though given the cost of a quality batch, it probably qualifies as a beauty splurge. The good news is that a little will take you a long way when it comes to face masking — if you can resist the urge to lick.

Gif by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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