The medical establishment is getting sweet on honey. After several decades of using penicillin-like antibiotics for wound healing, researchers are finding that honey may be more effective after all. Even wounds that have resisted other antibiotics may be curable with honey.
The natural sweetener’s healing properties have been valued for thousands of years. Ancient Chinese used honey to prevent scars from smallpox wounds and Aristotle wrote about the use of honey for “sore eyes and wounds.” Honey was used to treat wounds and aid the healing process until other antibiotics like penicillin became widely available in the 1940s.
Most of the recent studies on the healing effects of honey have been conducted in England, Australia, and New Zealand.
Honey works in many ways to heal wounds. Honey’s thick consistency forms a barrier protecting the wound from outside infections. The moistness allows skin cells to grow without creating a scar, even if a scab has already formed. Meanwhile, the sugars extract dirt and moisture from the wound, which helps prevent bacteria from growing, while the acidity of honey slows or prevents the growth of many bacteria. An enzyme that bees add to honey reacts with the wound’s fluids and breaks down into hydrogen peroxide, a disinfectant. Honey also acts as an anti-inflammatory and pain killer, and prevents bandages from sticking to wounds.
However, all honey is not created equal. Some types of honey are a hundred times more effective in their antibacterial properties. The honey you buy at the grocery store will probably not have the healing benefits you want. The heat used to pasteurize store-bought honey destroys its ability to make hydrogen peroxide; also, particles and spores that can cause infection may not be filtered out. Honey can still be treated with gamma-irradiation without damaging its healing properties.
Both honeydew honey from central Europe and the thick honey made from the pollen of New Zealand’s manuka tree (Leptospermum scoparium) seem to be more effective for healing wounds than most other types of honey. In addition to the hydrogen peroxide formed when the honey interacts with the body fluid, manuka honey has an extra plant-derived antibacterial substance that researchers have not been able to identify. They call it the “unique manuka factor,” or UMF, and rate honey according to its level of UMF.
Since penicillin and related medicines came into use, infectious bacteria have adapted and become resistant to antibiotics. Staphylococcus aureus is the most common bacterium that infects wounds and some strains of this are resistant to antibiotics. This is referred to as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. However, even MRSA, E. coli, and other “superbugs” are sensitive to the antibiotic effects of manuka honey.
The amount of honey applied and the frequency of reapplication will depend on the size and depth of the wound. Most wounds should receive a new dressing every day, with one ounce of honey covering a four-inch square wound. It is easier to apply the honey to the dressing than to the wound itself. Because of the renewal of interest in honey for wound healing, new wound dressings infused with honey have been developed but they are not yet approved for use in the US.