Carly Stein had been getting sick ever since she could remember. The former investment banker grew up plagued by bouts of tonsillitis, sore throat, and constant visits to nose and throat doctors. “I missed a lot of school as a kid,” she says over Zoom. When Stein studied abroad in Italy during college, she came down with tonsillitis. She spoke to the pharmacist in Florence, explaining her sensitivity to medications. They recommended propolis, a sticky mixture created by bees, composed of wax and resin with healing properties. “She gave me this little tincture. I have to put five drops in water and take it a few times a day, and I started using it. In five days, I made a full recovery.” Years later, in 2016, she created her company, Beekeeper’s Natural, specializing in propolis, which comes in forms such as throat sprays and powders.
For centuries, since 300 B.C to be specific, honey-related ingredients like propolis have been touted as a magical cure-all, especially in Eastern Europe, where it has remained a form of alternative medicine. Go to any food bazaar in Eastern Europe and you’re bound to stumble upon one booth that exclusively sells a cornucopia of honey variations. There is most likely a tiny section dedicated to propolis, too, in liquid, powder, or granular form. While honey and propolis are related and have their respective health benefits, the two bee-produced products are different. Propolis is considered “bee glue,” a sticky mix that bees collect from plants and buds. Bees use propolis to repair the hive, seal cracks, and create a protective barrier against predators.
When it comes to the human body, propolis is considered an aid in gut health, which can affect everything from the skin to the immune system. “Flavonoids, contained in the propolis, can help stimulate the growth and activity of digestive microflora,” says nutritionist Mikaela Rueben, “as well as help the body’s natural detoxification process.”
Whitney Bowe, M.D., agrees that those centuries-old rumors of propolis benefits have truth to them, specifically when it comes to our microbiomes, communities of bacteria that help support our metabolism and immune systems. “Propolis seems to enhance our systemic immune system. So it seems to rebalance our microbiome and have a positive effect on our immune health,” Bowe, a dermatologist, tells Vogue. “About 70–80% of our immune system resides in the gut, so it’s no surprise that our diet can impact our overall immune health and the health of distant organs including our skin.”
Over the past few years, the benefits of propolis have slowly become more well known, perhaps linked to the recent boom in designer honey. Manuka honey, which is thought to have antibacterial properties, can sell for up to $1,780. Propolis has admittedly experienced a much tamer ascent. When Stein searched for propolis products upon her return from Italy, the results were grim. “We were a little late to the party in North America,” says Stein. “I went back to finish up college in Canada where I’m from, and I couldn’t find these products. I found honey and manuka honey everywhere, but I couldn’t find propolis.” Stein started going to local beekeeping meetups and began making her own propolis mash-ups, using them herself or giving them to friends.
While it has often been ingested, propolis has also become popular in the skin-care realm. “This incredible natural substance has also been found to be beneficial in helping heal wounds or skin issues such as acne or eczema,” says Rueben. There are propolis washes, extracts, and oils that are meant to heal acne and reduce inflammation. In Brooklyn, Organic Skincare offers a propolis facial, highlighting its hydrating and anti-bacterial qualities. “I like to use propolis oil during my facial massage because it moisturizes the skin while being an antibacterial treatment,” says company owner Alita Terry. “You can use propolis all year round because it's light enough for the warmer weather yet humectant enough to keep the skin's barrier hydrated.” Terry also sells an organic propolis face oil. Stein notes that she has used liquid propolis on her sunburns.
As bees continue to face serious population decline amid the climate crisis, realizing the benefits of their output has never been more urgent. And as the pandemic continues, the importance of caring for our immune systems is obvious. Stein hopes her company can play a part in preventive health care as well as in environmental championship. “We’re able to actually ensure that our bees are in a pesticide-free environment. Pesticides—neonicotinoids specifically—are one of the major factors in the bee decline,” says Stein. “To the extent we can, we create clean sustainable environments for the bees, get them away from pesticides, and provide them with a clean food source.”
Thank you Vogue for the inclusion!
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