Skin-care enthusiasts — myself included — tend toward hyperbole. Every new, mildy buzzworthy ingredient gets hailed as "a miracle cream!" or "my Holy Grail!" or "liquid gold!" In the case of mānuka honey, though, the buzz is real (literally — it's a byproduct of bees) and "liquid gold" isn't much of an exaggeration, either.
The word might look unfamiliar to most Americans, but if mānuka hasn't quite yet hit the mainstream skin-care scene, it's about to. What started with a DIY hack — Kourtney Kardashian and Victoria Beckham helped popularize the concept of incorporating the sticky ingredient into face masks years ago — has blossomed into an industry-wide obsession. Countless articles have been written about mānuka honey's almost-mythical beauty benefits. Entire skin-care brands have been built around its power; including Manuka Doctor, which transitioned from ingestible products to topicals in recent years and counts Kardashian as a spokesperson, and Cannuka, a company that blends the substance with also-buzzy CBD. Even drugstore giant L'Oréal has attempted to bottle the buzz with its Age Perfect Hydra Nutrition line, of which mānuka honey is the headlining ingredient.
High demand has incited what experts are calling the "mānuka gold rush," complete with its very own version of fool's gold: counterfeit, mislabeled and diluted forms of the sought-after ingredient. An astounding 83% of mānuka on the market isn't as pure or potent as it claims to be, according to the most recent numbers available. Considering the beauty business is at least partly to blame for the ingredient's rise to fame, it begs the question: What's really inside that new "mānuka" moisturizer? And what makes this bee byproduct worth counterfeiting?
For starters, it's rare. "The mānuka tree (or Leptospermum scoparium) is native to New Zealand," Les Stowell, a member of the Te Arawa tribe, tells Fashionista. Mānuka trees don't grow anywhere else in the world, and most are situated on lands that belong to the country's indigenous Māori people. Bees that pollinate these trees later produce pure mānuka honey. "'Mānuka' is actually a Māori word, and while there are many companies that use the term to describe their products, only honey made entirely from this plant and from New Zealand should be called mānuka honey," clarifies Stowell, who oversees mānuka production on the Onuku Māori Land Trust in collaboration with Flora Health.
The Māori have used mānuka medicinally for centuries, calling on its remarkable healing properties to treat wounds and burns. But it wasn't until the 1980s that modern science fully understood what, exactly, made the ingredient so powerful, when biochemist Peter Molan discovered its significant levels of NPA — or "non-peroxide activity."
A brief break for science: In the hive, all types of honey contain hydrogen peroxide — yes, that bubbling stuff you dab on cuts and scrapes before applying a Band-Aid — which is what gives it slight antiseptic properties. Hydrogen peroxide is pretty unstable, and begins breaking down the second it's exposed to light or heat. But mānuka honey retains its healing properties even after the hydrogen peroxide inside has been neutralized.
All of this makes mānuka a potent antimicrobial with the ability to stop the spread of bacteria, fungi, parasites and even viruses, as well as a strong antioxidant. Basically, it's a skin-healing superhero, ideal for remedying everything from acne to eczema to signs of aging.
"In my practice, I had been using it for years on patients with complicated leg ulcers and wounds that were refractory to medical treatment," says Dr. Tony Nakhla, a board certified dermatologist and founder of skin-care brand Eighth Day. (This isn't uncommon — medical grade mānuka is a staple in modern hospitals, particularly in burn units.)
The sticky substance has plenty of other beauty benefits, too: It's a humectant, meaning it draws moisture into the skin. It balances the skin's pH levels, contains collagen-building amino acids and even "inhibits MMP — a group of enzymes that destroy collagen," says Michael Bumgarner, the founder of Cannuka. (And, of course, you can eat it.) But all of these properties belong to other types of honey, too. As Corey Blick, the SVP of North America for NZ-based mānuka brand Comvita, puts it, "It's the signature compounds MGO and DHA that give genuine mānuka honey the ability to provide all the benefits."
It's these signature compounds that sit at the center of the mānuka industry's counterfeiting controversy. Not all mānuka is created equal — naturally, there's some variance between batches in terms of DHA and MGO content. The New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) sets the scientific definition of mānuka honey and ensures that anything labeled under that name is in accordance with it. Beyond that, there are also third-party regulatory ratings systems within the industry; among the most well-regarded is the Unique Mānuka Factor, or UMF, system.
"UMF is an internationally recognized, third-party verification system developed by the UMF Honey Association in New Zealand that ensures the identity, potency and quality of mānuka honey," Thomas Greither, the president and owner of Flora, tells Fashionista. "UMF-certified products have been tested for three signature compounds that are all needed to ensure mānuka honey is real and contains the signature, sought-after antioxidant compounds for which it's known: Leptosperin [which indicates that they honey originated from Leptospermum scoparium, the mānuka tree], DHA and MGO."
The higher the UMF grading, the higher the concentration of signature compounds found in the honey — and the higher the healing power, desirability and price. Ratings range from 5+ (the equivalent of about 83 milligrams of MGO per one kilogram of mānuka) to 20+ (about 829 MGO). "A UMF of 15+ is recommended to guarantee an effective concentration of antimicrobial compounds, making sure that it packs the best results for skin health," explains Barbara Close, an herbalist, aesthetician and the founder of Naturopathica, which uses the ingredient in its product line. This standard is echoed throughout the industry.
To recap: All honey is good for your skin. Mānuka honey is so good for your skin that hospitals use it to heal open wounds. Mānuka's efficacy is determined by DHA and MGO content. UMF measures both. Got all that?
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Aside from the standard UMF system, there are a few other testing methods in place: New Zealand producers can opt to disclose only the MGO content of their mānuka; use the KFactor system, which only measures pollen count or abide by the Molan Gold Standard, which primarily tests for MGO levels. Systems that don't measure all three signature compounds are most vulnerable to fraud.
"Approximately 10,000 metric tons of mānuka honey are sold around the world each year, but only approximately 1,700 metric tons are actually produced in New Zealand," Stowell says. In other words, only 17% (!) of mānuka on shelves is the real deal. (These numbers, the most recent available, are from 2013; but industry leaders believe this stat is still accurate today, per Stowell.)
"There are still two major loopholes in the system," Stowell continues. "Bulk mānuka honey continues to be exported out of New Zealand, and importers are repacking it after mixing it with other honeys, and applying whatever marker level they wish on the label." Since remixing and relabeling happens after export, the MPI has no jurisdiction over these crimes. "In addition, there are cases where monofloral mānuka is being exported with the minimum MPI markers but with a temporary, removable label on the honey to get it out of the country. Once the honey arrives at its destination, the receiver will apply new labels with their own markers, which will generally have a high number on it to attract the unsuspecting consumer." This is where common stateside descriptors like "Active 25+" or "Bio-Active 20+" come in — but without "UMF" in front of them, they're pretty much meaningless.
Some crafty New Zealand exporters have found other workarounds, as well. Earlier this year, NZ-based mānuka company Evergreen Life Ltd was "prosecuted by New Zealand Food Safety on 64 charges of alleged adulteration of honey with artificial chemicals," as reported by The Guardian. The brand allegedly spiked its supply with artificial DHA, a substance more commonly found in self-tanners. The Guardian explained, "The more DHA in the honey, the more MGO it will create. So by adding artificial DHA, manufacturers can appear to increase the strength of weak mānuka honey and sell it for a higher price."
The case, the first of its kind, sends a message: The New Zealand government is cracking down on the rampant dilution and mislabeling that plagues the market. Mānuka is big business for the country — the industry's value has increased five times over in the past decade, and is now worth $234 million — and weak, diluted forms of the ingredient weakens its reputation. "The massive amount of counterfeit honey cannibalizes the industry," Greither explains. "If consumers don't see results from using a poor-quality mānuka honey, they begin to question its value and might never buy it again — so it's extremely important that we continue being vigilant in educating consumers around the issues of authenticity in the industry."
Of course, not all mānuka is exported for use in skin care (it's commonly sold as an ingestible supplement and used by hospitals around the world), but a significant portion, undoubtedly, is. And when repackaged in a beauty brand's proprietary formula and stripped of its original rating label, there's no way for consumers to know for sure if they're buying authentic mānuka — nevermind, a version of it with the necessary UMF rating to be considered useful for your face.
Fashionista reached out to nine U.S. beauty brands that formulate with the ingredient — including L'Oréal, InstaNatural, SpaScriptions and Eighth Day — few of which were willing to disclose where they source their mānuka (more specifically than simply "New Zealand"), and even fewer of which were willing to disclose a UMF or MGO certification. "If a mānuka honey product lacks a UMF certification, it may be multifloral (from various plant sources), or be low in bioactivity," says Blick.
This is hardly a unique situation. Plenty of fancy-sounding skin-care substances are what industry insiders refer to as "claims ingredients" or "fairy dust" — ingredients that look good on a label, but are used in such small quantities that they don't necessarily do anything. "The reality is that [some ingredients are] included in products at small amounts due to how expensive they are," says Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and founder of The Beauty Brains. "So, they will have only minimal benefits to skin when put into a skin-care product."
Considering that high-quality, high-UMF mānuka honey can go for almost $200 per eight ounces (hey, they don't call it "liquid gold" for nothing), one could infer that this might be a hindrance to companies looking to funnel the antimicrobial magic of mānuka honey into somewhat-affordable skin-care products. One could also infer that it's extremely unlikely a beauty product priced under $20 could contain the concentration of adequately-rated mānuka needed to do more for the skin than, say, any other kind of honey.
In this instance, brands like L'Oréal and Eighth Day claim they aren't chasing the healing quality of mānuka that UMF measures, after all (although, surely, they're capitalizing on its reputation). "We are really homed in on those immeasurable effects like anti-inflammation, anti-oxidation and stem cell induction," Dr. Nakhla of Eighth Day tells Fashionista. "UMF doesn't apply in the case of anti-aging therapy, which is more of an art than an exact science."
Instead of seeking UMF-certified mānuka, L'Oréal has opted to go by the Molan Gold Standard, or MGS, system. "L'Oréal Paris has started a long-term partnership with New Zealand farmers to source this ingredient for our high-quality products," says Dr. Rocio Rivera, Vice President and Head of Scientific Communications for the company. "Our mānuka honey has the MGS logo."
According to paperwork L'Oréal has provided to Fashionista, the brand actually sources its mānuka through Southern Cross Botanicals, based out of Australia; and SCB appears to obtain mānuka from the New Zealand supplier Watson & Sons, which seems to be the only company that employs the MGS rating system. In 2011, the country's Active Mānuka Honey Association (AMHA) sought to revoke Watson & Sons' right to use the UMF rating system after batches of the brand's honey were tested and found to be of lower quality than claimed on the labels. This, as reported by The New Zealand Herald, precipitated the development of MGS as an alternative system of measurement. (MGS is compliant with MPI guidelines.)
Still, Dr. Rivera doesn't provide the exact MGS rating of L'Oréal's mānuka, as the brand's Age Perfect Hydra Nutrition range candidly blends mānuka with other types of honey for across-the-board hydration. "The formulas help strengthen the skin's ability to retain nourishing moisture for 24 hours, helping restore the healthy glow and softness that the skin once had," she says of the products.
Of the brands that Fashionista contacted for this story, only three were willing to share their UMF markers: Soul Addict (UMF 20+), Naturopathica (UMF 16+) and Cannuka (UMF 16+). Considering UMF15+ is generally regarded as the cutoff for skin-care efficacy, all three are solid choices for beauty buffs looking for quality mānuka. (To be clear, that's not to say that the mānuka in other product lines, like L'Oréal's or InstaNatural's, won't be very nice for your skin, too. Even low concentrations of non-UMF-certified honey can deliver hydration, softness and antioxidant protection.)
However, Stowell notes that unless a product is tested and bottled in New Zealand, there's always a chance of counterfeiting — a risk that Flora and its partner Te Arawa tribe are looking to mitigate with the newly-launched Origins Software Ltd Oaye traceability system. Each jar of Flora Mānuka Honey is equipped with a label that's uniquely coded and scannable on most smartphones. "The information you see includes batch-specific info, the region and province in New Zealand it comes from and the UMF certificate of analysis for the batch specific to the jar," Greither explains. "Developing a product where the consumer knows exactly what they're getting in a market that has been notorious for counterfeiting and misrepresentative, uncertified labeling has been at heart of our mission in making our mānuka honey."
The technology was developed by a Māori native (“who is more than eager to get other companies to use it,” Greither adds) to not only bring more integrity and honesty to the industry, but also to raise consumer awareness. “Consumers are paying a premium for mānuka honey and its sought-after properties, and they deserve to have the highest quality product that delivers," says the Flora founder.
For consumers that truly want to experience the unadulterated, skin-healing power of mānuka honey, the safest bet is a bottled-in-New-Zealand, UMF 15+, single-ingredient jar of the good stuff from a reputable supplier, like Flora or Comvita.
Sure, on its own, pure mānuka might be a little stickier and not as versatile as its skin-care product counterparts; but it's also more likely to actually work. I've been using plain, UMF 20+ mānuka honey as a daily cleanser (mixed with warm water) and a weekly mask (slathered onto dry skin and thoroughly rinsed after 20 minutes) for years — and I have to say, it's my Holy Grail.
Homepage/main photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images
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