Honey is well-known as a treatment for sore throats, wounds and infections, due to compounds it contains that kill bacteria. Manuka honey, in particular, is used in licensed wound dressings in the UK, though the value of it in the treatment of childhood eczema is yet to be proved. That said, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence coming to the fore.
Here we look more closely at Manuka honey and ask whether it’s worth trying it to see if it helps in relieving your child’s eczema. You may also like to read our review of natural eczema remedies which looks at Manuka honey alongside coconut oil, sunflower oil, vitamin B12, salt and oatmeal, among others.
Do a bit of research and you’ll find lots of uses for Manuka honey (besides eating, that is!). From wound care to cancer treatment, the potential benefits of Manuka honey are now being taken seriously by the scientific community and there’s lots of research going on. While the value of Manuka honey in the treatment of childhood eczema is yet to be proved, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that it can help. We look at the available scientific research into the effectiveness of Manuka honey in treating eczema and the practicalities of using such a sticky substance on children.
Honey and health
Honey has long been known to have health benefits, with the ancient Greeks and Romans exploiting the healing properties of honey thousands of years ago. It’s known to have an antibacterial quality which helps in wound management, so was a popular treatment method during the First World War.
More recently, however, the use of honey in medicine has waned as a result of the introduction of penicillin and modern antibiotics, though it is well established in the wound dressing industry and is considered to be helpful in preventing acid reflux, gastroenteritis in infants, treating allergies and infections and relieving colds.
Its wider medical use is relatively unexplored – while honey’s antibacterial qualities are well-known, scientists say that the way it works in fighting infection is not entirely understood. This means the development of honey-based medicine has lagged behind alternative treatments which are understood to a greater degree.
What is known is that the mechanisms of antimicrobial activity of honey are different from antibiotics, which destroy the bacteria’s cell wall or inhibit intracellular metabolic pathways. The antibacterial activity of honey seems to be due to a number of factors including its acidity and sugar content, which are low enough and high enough respectively to inhibit the growth of most micro-organisms; its hydrogen peroxide component, produced by the glucose oxidase, which again inhibits micro-organism growth; and plant-derived components which can be unique to different honeys (read more here).
It is thought that Manuka honey has antibacterial properties over and above other types of honey, and could, therefore, be useful in the treatment of a wide range of illnesses and ailments including, potentially, eczema.
What is Manuka honey and why is it so special?
Manuka honey is produced by bees which gather pollen off the Manuka bush which is native to New Zealand. It can be bought from most supermarkets, health food shops and, of course, Amazon; and while certainly delicious, it is rather expensive. You may also come across Kanuka honey, made by bees gathering pollen from Kanuka bushes, which a close relation to the Makuka bush.
According to the NHS, Manuka honey is thought to be particularly potent because it has ‘high levels of a compound called dihydroxyacetone, which is present in the nectar of Manuka flowers. This chemical produces methylglyoxal, a compound thought to have antibacterial and cell-killing properties.’ While research in this area is still in its infancy, the early results are encouraging.
Research has shown Manuka honey to have a ‘broad spectrum of antimicrobial activity’ and that it is able to act upon more than 80 species of pathogen (a pathogen is a bacterium, virus or other micro-organisms which can cause disease). The NHS says it has been demonstrated that honey can inhibit pathogens normally capable of causing wound infection, including strains that are resistant to conventional antibiotics. In addition, there are early trials suggesting that Manuka honey may be helpful in reducing skin inflammation, which in turn can promote healing. The NHS notes there are a growing number of clinical reports that have shown that wound infections can be cleared by applying Manuka honey directly on the skin, although it points out that medical-grade, purified honey was used in clinical trials on wounds.
There are different antibacterial strengths of Manuka honey so in order to guarantee that the honey is of medicinal quality, there is a trademarked rating system called the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF).
5 is the minimum UMF rating you will find but it is worth noting that Manuka honey is generally not considered beneficial below a UMF 10+ rating. UMF 10-15 is useful; however, if you want to treat something, a UMF of 16-20+ is of superior quality and much more effective. Generally, you get what you pay for.
This quick breakdown of UMF ratings can be used to decide the strength you require:
- UMF 0-4 Non-therapeutic
- UMF 5-9 Maintenance level with general honey benefits
- UMF 10-14 Antibacterial components to support healing and bacterial balance
- UMF 15+ Superior levels of phenols that are highly therapeutic. Do not exceed 1 tablespoon at a time at this level.
Other rating systems are in use so do check which system is being used when purchasing – you can find more information here.
Using Manuka honey to treat eczema
Officially, the jury is still out as there is no conclusive scientific evidence that Manuka honey can cure or alleviate eczema in children. However, a small study of adult eczema sufferers did find a noticeable improvement in 8 out of 10 cases treated for 2 weeks with a honey, beeswax and olive oil mixture. This supports the anecdotal evidence that some eczema sufferers do experience a beneficial effect, both through eating honey and through applying it directly to the skin. However, a similar small study using Manuka honey to treat eczema showed no benefit over and above treating with aqueous cream.
Application of Manuka honey to the skin is thought to help eczema by:
- Keep the skin moist which helps to reduce or remove the incidence of eczema flare-ups
- Reducing inflammation, which in turn can aid healing
- Inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria, including Staphylococcus, commonly found on eczema-prone skin
- The high viscosity of honey is also thought to form a barrier for the skin which is helpful in preventing infection in the first place.
Consumption of Manuka honey is also thought to boost the immune system – it makes sense to foster a healthy immune system when trying to reduce the impact of eczema.
Applying Manuka honey to the skin – is it practical?
Honey is certainly a sticky substance so if you want to apply it directly to the skin, do so sparingly! Aim to keep the honey in place for at least 20 minutes before rinsing off with warm water and patting dry. If you wet wrap your child’s eczema-affected skin you may like to try applying the Manuka honey as the moisturising layer. Alternatively, you could try applying just before their bedtime story when hopefully they will keep still long enough for the honey to provide benefit. If you’re treating your little one’s hands or arms you could apply the honey at bedtime, cover with a set of ScratchSleeves and then rinse it off in the morning.
- Top tip: Warming the honey slightly before you apply it will make it easier to spread and less likely to drag on the skin as you apply it.
If you just can’t face the stickiness, there are a number of creams available which include Manuka honey. However, as with all un-regulated skincare products, do check the packaging to make sure that the honey appears at or near the top of the ingredients list to be sure that the cream contains enough to be beneficial. Or you can make your own cream using 1 part beeswax to 10 parts coconut oil and 10 parts honey. Melt the beeswax, add the coconut oil and melt that too. Stir in the honey and whisk until the cream is smooth. Decant into a sterilised jar and allow to cool.
Feeding your child Manuka honey is less likely to be a problem! You could try spreading on toast or bread, adding to their yoghurt or topping their cereal.
Are there any disadvantages?
Fortunately, honey is relatively free of adverse effects so most parents of children with eczema will be able to try it out to see if it helps.
You should be aware that application of honey to the skin has been known to lead to a slight sting but this wears off very quickly. Allergy to honey is rare but be aware that there could be an allergic reaction to either pollen or bee proteins in honey. Plus, don’t over-use as excessive application of honey may lead to dehydration of tissues.
While there’s little scientific evidence that Manuka honey is an effective treatment for eczema in children, our conclusion is that Manuka honey is certainly worth a try. If it doesn’t work at least you can enjoy eating it – it’s delicious!
- Traditional and Modern Uses of Natural Honey in Human Diseases: A Review. T Eteraf-Oskouei1, M Najafi. Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Science. 2013 Jun; 16(6): 731–742.
- Topical application of natural honey, beeswax and olive oil mixture for atopic dermatitis or psoriasis: partially controlled, single-blinded study.
Al-Waili NS, Complementary Therapies in Medicine 2003; 11(4): 226–234
- Potential pathway of anti-inflammatory effect by New Zealand honey. Tomblin V, Ferguson LR, Han DY, Murray P, Schlothauer R. International Journal of General Medicine. 2014 Mar 5;7:149-58
- A randomised controlled trial of topical Kanuka honey for the treatment of eczema. J Fingleton, C Helm,C Tofield,M Weatherall, R Beasley. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 2014 Jan; 5(1)
- Can honey fight superbugs like MRSA? NHS website 2013
Here at ScratchSleeves, we don’t just share our experiences of bringing up an eczema child (and favourite allergy-friendly recipes), we also manufacture and sell our unique stay-on scratch mitts for itchy babies, toddlers and children. We now stock sizes from 0-12 years in a range of colours. Visit our main website for more information.
Our Editorial Policy
Here at ScratchSleeves, we aim to bring you trustworthy and accurate information. We collaborate with qualified dermatologists and doctors as well as drawing on peer-reviewed medical studies and our own experience as parents. All medical content is reviewed by a dermatologist or appropriate doctor prior to publication to ensure completeness, accuracy and appropriate use of medical language. Reviewer details can be found at the bottom of each reviewed post and also on our ‘Meet The Team’ page.
All scientific research referred to in our blog is found in peer-reviewed publications. All the eczema related medical articles we refer to are included in the GREAT database (Global Resource of Eczema Trials) managed by the ‘Centre of Evidence Based Dermatology’ at the University of Nottingham. This database brings together information on all randomised control trials and systematic reviews of eczema treatments. Trials are identified using a highly sensitive, comprehensive search strategy that is compatible with standard Cochrane methodology. Cochrane is internationally recognised as the highest standard in evidence-based health care. Links to the publications we refer to are listed at the bottom of each article.
The original editorial information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified healthcare practitioners regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it in because of anything you have read on the ScratchSleeves blog.