Is Honey Beauty’s Biggest Secret?

Christopher Baker

In honor of national honey month this September, we explore one of skincare’s most important, and all-natural, secret weapons.

Years before the word “artisan” and its close friends “local” and “all natural” became shorthand for “annoying marketers’ overreach,” Lev Glazman, the cofounder of Fresh Cosmetics, was committed to the values behind all these misguided attempts to claim the mantle of a caring and authentic approach to simple quality.

Glazman and his wife, Alina, opened Fresh in 1991 as a 20th-century apothecary selling imported natural body- and skincare products. Within a few years they were producing their own line of bath, skin and cosmetic products, all developed by fusing modern technology with some of the most ancient remedies. “Black tea, brown sugar, sake, rice, soy,” lists Glazman. “We use a lot of ingredients that work for you internally as well as externally.” (Black tea contains a high level of antioxidants, and sugar is a natural antiseptic.) Glazman had long dreamed of creating a product that would embody his Russian grandmother’s favorite ingredient, one whose healing and humectant properties he considered almost magical. He always knew formulating a facial mask whose primary component—almost 40 percent of each jar—was thick, sticky, all-natural honey would be difficult. He did not expect that sourcing the honey would be just as complicated.

His search took four years, and ended in a picturesque town called La Ferté St. Aubin, located in the Solange region of France’s Loire Valley, where he met a bee farmer named Florent Vacher. Like his father and grandfather before him, Vacher spends his days maintaining the more than 2,000 hives that he has nestled across the grounds of 50 private farms and châteaus in the area. There, bees feast on an ever-changing diet that includes Acacia trees, berries, hazelnuts, chestnuts, periwinkle and summer wildflowers. His honeybees are a strain called Buckfast, which were developed in the 1800s by a monk called Brother Adam, the head beekeeper at the Buckfast Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Devon, England. Vacher’s methods and the environment ensure a product that meets all the requirements for Glazman’s Fresh Crème Ancienne Ultimate Nourishing Honey Mask, which debuted last fall to rave reviews.

We first reported on Fresh’s Crème Ancienne in the January/February 2009 issue of this magazine, telling the story of the monks at a monastery outside of Prague who produce the dense cream based on an ancient skincare recipe once used to heal the wounds of gladiators. Today Glazman blends Vacher’s honey with that cream to create his velvety mask. “It took a long time to find honey that has all levels of ingredients I was looking for,” Glazman says of the Loire honey. “I needed a mille fleurs honey, collected from a variety of different flowers. And in this part of France, they don’t use a lot of pesticides, and they were able to provide all the information on how the honey is grown, collected and produced. Industrially produced honey just wasn’t an option for me.” Industrial honey has been in the news a lot lately, as reports of what many are calling “a global bee crisis” have moved beyond agricultural journals to the evening news. The problem is commonly known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and it refers to a complex condition in which malnutrition, parasitic mites, diseases and pesticides appear to compromise the immune systems of bees. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland and a member of the team that first coined the phrase to refer to the mysterious disappearance and death of millions of honeybees in 2007, says that in recent years the rate of winter mortality among bees has averaged 30 percent or more, an unacceptably high level.

Zeke Freeman, the founder of Bee Raw and its Save the Bees Fund, suggests thinking of CCD as a multiple-stress syndrome impacting bees, and blames a “soup of different inputs that are adding up to a collection of unhealthy colonies.”

Despite the dire predictions for the future of North American bees, both vanEngelsdorp and Freeman see reasons to be optimistic and credit the media attention to CCD with raising awareness of the problems facing our honeybees and the resurgence of backyard beekeeping as a hobby—especially in urban and suburban areas that are less impacted by the widespread use of pesticides more common in farming communities.

In the past few years, cities and municipalities from New York City to Minneapolis have legalized beekeeping, while Toronto and Tacoma Park have banned the use of certain pesticides on both private lawns and public spaces. Across the U.S., companies that offer services to wanna-beekeepers are flourishing as more and more people decide to give it a try. Eco Honeybees is a Virginia-based company that sells hives to consumers and comes back on a regular basis to monitor and care for the hives in question. Minnesota’s The Beez Kneez makes deliveries of raw local “Honeyapolis” by bicycle, in addition to its work partnering with Twin Cities parks, schools, community gardens and urban farms to bring honeybee hives to those cities.

It’s not just the bad news about bees that has elevated beekeeping as a hobby. Some of the most coveted backyards in the country boast a beehive or two, including the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where First Lady Michelle Obama has been known to share her private stash of the sweet stuff with visiting dignitaries and include honey-based dishes on the menu of State Dinners (though the White House chefs are careful to keep enough on hand to brew the President’s prized Honey Ale). Other beekeepers with bold-faced names include Jon Bon Jovi, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson (her hive was a gift from Jackson) and Sting and Trudie Styler, who sell online five varieties of honey collected on their Tuscany estate (palagioproducts.com). And it can’t hurt that stars including Johansson, Jennifer Lopez, Padma Lakshmi and Catherine Zeta-Jones have touted the role honey plays in maintaining their glowing good looks.
 
One well-known author who happens to be a beekeeper’s daughter is not surprised that honey is having “a bit of a renaissance.” In her latest book, French Women Don’t Get Facelifts: The Secret of Aging with Style & Attitude, Mireille Guiliano calls honey the healthiest and greatest antiaging food of all. Like Glazman, it has been a part of her daily life since childhood.

In addition to being the family’s primary sugar source—from sweetening tea to slathering on a slice of bread (along with “a nice coat of butter”)—honey has always been part of Guiliano’s health and beauty routine, from healing wounds and moisturizing skin to conditioning her hair (followed by a good rinse, of course). “So many traditional medicines and treatments are being rediscovered, and honey’s properties have been recognized for thousands of years—though I confess I’ve never had a honey bath like the Egyptians,” she says, referencing one of Cleopatra’s own beauty secrets.

Perhaps Lev Glazman could get started on mixing that up next?