Ancient Egipt and MRSA: the story of honey October 10, 2015 18:24

Honey is a wonderful treat for the skin: it moisturises and nourishes it, helps to maintain the natural acidic ‘cloak’ on its surface (Burlando and Cornara, 2013). The sweet product of bee hives has been used in folk medicine for thousands of years and yet scientific studies of honey are somewhat sparse. However, thanks to its ability to kill even antibiotic-resistant bacteria honey is making a comeback.

Victorian ladies

Over five thousands years ago the nomadic tribes in Egypt used a mixture of malachite, copper, spar, oil, fat and honey for beauty and for diseases of the eyes (Lamprecht, 1994). Face mask made of oatmeal, honey and egg yolk was one of the few skin care products allowed as ‘proper’ for respectable ladies in Victorian times (Burlando and Cornara, 2013).

Despite the fact that people have used it for centuries to care for their skin and hair, this precious substance has largely escaped scientific studies. Most of us are probably aware of the benefits of honey from the internet, tradition, word of mouth and own experience. For example, I recently decided to try honey and another bee product, propolis, in my fight with acne. It is now the third month that my face is not only free of spots, but also smooth, soft and generally quite lovely looking.

Image courtesy of OZphotography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Healing wounds

However, honey has also been traditionally used to heal wounds, until the second world war when antibiotics took over (Vandamme et al., 2013). Now that the bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics, medical, sterilized honey is slowly regaining its place in the wound care, particularly burns and chronic ulcers. And here is where the scene enters manuka honey, made of the nectar of the Leptospermum tree (Manuka) in New Zealand and Australia (McLoone et al., 2015). Scientific studies show that unprocessed, undiluted and sterilized, this substance can reduce the number of bacteria, speed up the healing of burns (first and second degree) and stimulate healing of ulcers (Vandamme et al., 2013).

War on all fronts

Honeys from all sorts of flowers and all over the world kill bacteria, including E. coli and MRSA, the famous antibiotic-resistant superbug (McLoone et al., 2015). But how exactly is this achieved? Well, scientists don’t know exactly how honey helps to heal wounds, but most likely in several ways. As you have probably guessed, honey consists mostly of sugar (75-79%). This is why it draws water out of the bacteria, leading to its death. Apart from water (20%), honey also contains proteins, vitamins B, minerals and antioxidants (Vandamme et al., 2013). When diluted (for example, with fluid in the wounds), honey (but not the manuka type) produces antibacterial hydrogen peroxide. Flavonoids in the Manuka honey can prevent further damage to the tissue, whilst the acidity of honey creates hostile environment for the microbes. Finally, when producing honey, bees add to it an antimicrobial peptide: bee defensin -1. Because of this wide array of mechanisms it is unlikely that bacteria would become resistant to honey (McLoone et al., 2015).

Honey kills bacteria, including MRSA.

You might wonder: if honey is so wonderful then why isn’t it being used more? Well, it’s not always straightforward. Honey has to be sterilized to be used in clinical practice, and not with high temperatures, but with gamma radiation. In addition, even when it kills bacteria in the lab, larger studies on humans sometimes fail to find a clear advantage of honey over other treatments. This could be because the environment of a living body is more favorable to bacteria than a lab plate. Still, our grandmothers’ sweet recipes for beauty are probably worth trying, even if they don’t turn us quite into Cleopatras!

 

 Jadwiga Nazimek

Literature:

Burlando, B., and L. Cornara, 2013, Honey in dermatology and skin care: a review: J Cosmet Dermatol, v. 12, p. 306-13.

Lamprecht, I., 1994, Calorimetric investigations around a royal hieroglyph: Thermochimica Acta, v. 234, p. 179-200.

McLoone, P., M. Warnock, and L. Fyfe, 2015, Honey: A realistic antimicrobial for disorders of the skin: J Microbiol Immunol Infect.

Vandamme, L., A. Heyneman, H. Hoeksema, J. Verbelen, and S. Monstrey, 2013, Honey in modern wound care: a systematic review: Burns, v. 39, p. 1514-25.