Why Korean Skincare Loves Bee Propolis & How It Can Help Your Skin

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It’s time to talk about another amazing ingredient that’s so often used in Korean skincare products – propolis! You might be wondering like I was when I first started my Korean skincare journey: What is propolis even? And what are some of the benefits that propolis can have on my skin?

In short, propolis is a resinous mixture produced by honeybees that is used to fill in honeycomb crevices for protection. It has powerful antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which has resulted in it’s medicinal use for centuries (even the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Egyptians used it).

When it comes to your skin, studies have shown that propolis is pretty amazing: it’s powerful protective properties have many benefits for skin, including its effectiveness at treating acne vulgaris, increasing collagen production, as well as soothing the skin and decreasing inflammation. This makes propolis a beneficial ingredient for all skin types!

Read on to find out more about this wonder-ingredient! Also, if you really want to try propolis for your skin after reading this post, here are my absolute favorite Korean propolis skincare products:

What Is Propolis?

Bees provide us with so many substances that are not only nutritious and used for medicinal purposes (such as bee pollen, royal jelly and manuka honey), but it turns out that some of them are also wonderful for our skin.

You might have heard of propolis before, especially if you’re already familiar with Korean skincare products. As I mentioned in my introduction, propolis is the glue or wax-like substance that honeybees make by mixing saliva and beeswax with the protective resins of flower and leaf buds, as well as the sap flows of poplar and cone-bearing trees.

Propolis Has Many Protective Properties

Bees use propolis to fill in small unwanted gaps in the honeycomb structure of the hive (bigger gaps are filled with beeswax) to protect against uncontrolled airflow and external moisture. The thin layer of propolis provides a water-proof lining which maintains constant humidity inside the hive.

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What’s interesting is that propolis has also been found to have significant antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and antioxidant properties. Propolis therefore acts as the immune defence for the whole hive, protecting larvae, honey stores and the combs from microbial infection (which is so important since honeybee populations are so confined and live in close contact).

So, you can see that propolis is quite an amazing substance that plays such an important role in the lives on honeybees. The properties that help to keep honeybee populations healthy and protected from the environment and microorganisms also happen to make it very beneficial for skin (which I’ll discuss in detail below).

The Use Of Propolis Throughout History

Bees and their products have played a role in the lives of humans since about 13,000 BC, and there is evidence that people have used propolis for as long as honey.

It’s known that propolis had important applications in Ancient Egypt, where it was used in the mummification process as an embalming substance. In Ancient Greece, propolis was used to treat wounds, abscesses and ulcers. Ancient Persians were also aware of the healing properties of propolis, and used it to treat eczema and other ailments.

ancient egypt honey bees hieroglyphics propolis
Honeybee hieroglyphics from Ancient Egypt show that bees and their products have played an important role for humans for thousands of years.

Although the use of propolis disappeared from mainstream medicine during the medieval times, the knowledge of the medicinal properties of propolis survived in traditional folk medicine and was still widely used in herbal medicine in Eastern Europe (propolis is often also called ‘Russian penicillin‘).

Studies On The Chemical Composition Of Propolis

The interest in propolis returned in Europe during the Renaissance, where it was used in ointments to relieve inflammation and wounds, and it was at the beginning of the 19th Century when the chemical composition of propolis was first studied.

The earliest studies by German chemists identified vanillin, cinnamic acid and cinnamyl alcohol as components of propolis. A few years later, a French scientist identified the flavonoid chrysin in propolis (a plant-derived molecule with strong antioxidant effects). Not long after this, American studies led to the detection of small amounts of vitamins B1, B2, B6, C, and E as well as nicotinic acid and pantothenic acid in propolis.

With the advancement of the scientific fields of chemistry and pharmacology during the 1960’s, further studies on the chemical composition of propolis were conducted.

A further 5 flavonoids were detected during this time and it was found that propolis has antibacterial activity towards the bacteria species Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus alvei, and Propionibacterium acnes (the latter being the bacteria which is associated with acne vulgaris). French scientists discovered that the flavon galangin is responsible for this antibacterial activity.

The Chemical Composition of Propolis Varies Between Regions

During the 1970’s, many more studies were conducted on the chemical composition of propolis using chromatographic analytical methods.

In total, at least 180 compounds were identified and found (you can view studies summarizing all the compounds found in propolis here and here).

However, only 80 to 100 compounds are typically found in each sample, with the types of compounds differing among regions and with seasons. The chemical composition of propolis was even found to differ among beehives in the same region!

No matter the region that propolis comes from, flavonoids are always the major constituents. Along with phenolic esters (in particular, caffeic acid), flavonoids have been found to be responsible for the antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory activities of propolis.

The Benefits Of Propolis On Skin

Okay, I went down a little rabbit hole there talking about the use and study of propolis throughout history (I just can’t help myself when it comes to science)! Let’s actually see why propolis is so good for your skin.

It doesn’t matter what your skin type, anyone can benefit from using propolis in their skincare routine (unless, unfortunately you have an allergy). The good thing about propolis is that, unlike other skincare ingredients (such as vitamin C and retinol), the benefits can be seen pretty quickly!

Propolis Can Help Prevent And Treat Acne Caused By Bacteria

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If you have acne-prone skin, then propolis is a skincare ingredient that you should definitely consider incorporating into your skincare routine. It’s not only effective at getting rid of pimples, but preventing them too – thanks to both its anti-bacterial AND anti-inflammatory properties.

In particular, studies such as this one have actually shown that propolis inhibits the growth of a wide range of different bacteria.

More recently (only in 2018), this study found that a topical cream containing 20% propolis (as well as 3% tea tree oil and 10% aloe vera) was effective at reducing the number and severity of pimples on patients with mild to moderate acne vulgaris. On average, it was found that after 30 days of daily use of the propolis-containing cream, that the severity of acne was reduced by 68% and the total lesion (pimple) count by 64%.

What’s also pretty awesome is that the study also found that the cream was able to fade post-inflammatory erythema quite significantly (a type of red acne scar caused by tiny broken blood vessels under the skin). The authors believe that it is the capability of propolis to increase the rate of wound healing that had the greatest effect on post-acne scars.

The authors from the study above also found that the cream did not affect the pH of the skin or disrupt the acid mantle of the skin (also known as the moisture barrier).

However, when it comes to controlling oil production – this study did not observe a reduction in sebum on the skin of the participants. However, the authors did state that the participants only used the cream for 1 month and that this perhaps was not enough time to observe any sebum-reducing properties.

What About Hormonal Acne?

So clearly, propolis is really effective at treating mild to moderate acne (in particular, acne that is associated with bacteria). But what about hormonal acne that usually results in the nasty cystic acne we all hate more than anything.

The study I mentioned above only included participants with mild to moderate acne vulgaris (the type of acne associated with bacteria). Participants with any form of severe or hormonal acne were excluded.

However, since research has shown that propolis is effective at decreasing inflammation and speeding up the healing of wounds (a pimple is a type of wound), then it may also be effective at treating hormonal acne (although it may not be as effective at preventing it).

As I mentioned above, propolis has been found to effectively treat post-inflammatory erythema (the redness associated often associated with cystic acne). So even if propolis can’t really help to prevent hormonal acne, it may help our skin recover and heal quicker after a big breakout.

What About Fungal Acne?

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There is a type of fungi (known as Malassezia) that naturally exists on most people’s skin but can become pathogenic in some people – resulting in incredibly stubborn acne (called Malassezia folliculitis) that seems impossible to get rid of (see a scientific review of Malessizia here).

Often times, people actually don’t realise they have fungal acne and doctors may even misdiagnose them with acne vulgaris! This of course just makes things worse as a diagnosis of acne vulgaris usually results in treatment with antibiotics – which allows more fungi to grow.

It turns out that propolis also has amazing anti-fungal properties, making it the perfect ingredient for treating fungal acne. This study found that propolis is extremely effective at inhibiting the growth of Malessiza fungi (in outer ear infections of dogs).

However, remember that I mentioned above that Malassezia folliculitis is incredibly difficult to get rid of? One of the reasons is because the fungi associated with fungal acne predominantly feeds on a group of fatty acids that just happen to be used as ingredients in almost every skincare product available!

What this means is that to treat fungal acne effectively, you will need to avoid a lot of skincare ingredients (and therefore skincare products).

Luckily though, there is a propolis ampoule available that is suitable for skin with fungal acne as it doesn’t contain any ingredients that are likely to feed Malassezia fungi! It’s the COSRX Propolis Light Ampoule (available at Yesstyle, Jolse and Amazon).

Propolis Has Powerful Anti-Aging Properties Too

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Since propolis contains so many beneficial compounds, it means that it also happens to be a pretty good anti-aging ingredient.

In particular, studies (such as this one) have shown that propolis has a promotive action on collagen synthesis in the area of burn wounds during the healing process. What the researchers found was that propolis actually increases the tissue content of collagen – thereby restoring the extracellular matrix of the skin.

Although this study only looked at the effects that propolis has on burn wounds, it could very well be possible that propolis can increase the collagen content of all areas of the skin.

Another factor that makes propolis ideal for anti-aging is that it contains a large concentration of antioxidants (flavonoids and antioxidant phenols). These have been shown to prevent skin damage by fighting free radicals (such as those caused by UV radiation). Of course, you still need to wear your SPF every day, but applying propolis before hand may provide additional protection (in the same way that vitamin C does).

Propolis Can Increase The Effectiveness Of Vitamin C

Vitamin C is one of the most popular skincare ingredients at the moment, since it is so effective at brightening the skin and fading hyperpigmentation.

However as I discussed in this post here, vitamin C (in the form of L-ascorbic acid) is sadly a highly unstable ingredient. As soon as L-ascorbic acid comes in contact with the air or sunlight, it will start to degrade and become less effective.

As I’ve already mentioned, the antioxidants found in propolis have been shown to be highly effective at preventing lipids and other compounds from being destroyed by free radicals. This includes vitamin C! Therefore, using propolis on your skin, may prolong the effectiveness of your vitamin C serum.

Can Propolis Cause Skin Irritation Or Allergic Reactions?

Propolis is a protective mixture naturally made by bees to protect the hive from microbes and the environment. It’s comprised of a wide variety of compounds that, together provide protection to bees and also provides benefits to the skin when applied topically.

However, just like with any other skincare ingredient, it is possible to have an allergy to propolis and allergic contact dermatitis has been recorded in the literature (such as here).

The main allergens in propolis are 3-methyl-2-butenyl caffeate and phenylethyl caffeate. Benzyl salicylate and benzyl cinnamate are less frequent sensitizers.

Although allergic reactions to propolis are quite rare, dermatologists do recommend patch testing before introducing a propolis-containing product into your skincare routine (although you should be patch testing every product anyway).

Conclusion

Propolis is a pretty amazing natural bee-derived substance that has been used for medicinal purposes by humans for thousands of years!

Chemical studies have identified many beneficial compounds in propolis – including flavonoids (a type of antioxidant) and phenolic esters. It’s believed that it’s mainly these compounds that give propolis it’s antibacterial, anti-fungal, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties – AND what make it such a good ingredient for our skin.

In particular, propolis has been shown to be effective in the treatment of acne vulgaris and in fading post-inflammatory erythema. It may also be effective at helping to treat fungal acne and in decreasing the inflammation and redness caused by cystic acne. However, propolis has not been shown to be effective at decreasing sebum production.

Propolis may also be an effective anti-aging ingredient to incorporate into your skincare review since it has been shown to increase the production of collagen and have free radical-fighting abilities.

If you do decide to give propolis a try, remember to do a patch test first as it is possible to have an allergy to one of the compounds it contains (although the occurrence of allergic contact dermatitis is rare).

Let me know in the comments if you’ve tried propolis and if it’s helped improve your skin.