Bee venom is the latest buzz in skin care, with the Duchess of Cambridge reported to be a devotee. Naturopath Teresa Mitchell-Paterson reports.

Many say it's a natural Botox – a claim unproven to date, although research suggests bee venom ointment is an analgesic and relieves muscle tension, so lessening the appearance of wrinkles. Bee venom's primary constituent is melittin, a proven antimicrobial and antibacterial peptide that comprises around half of the mixture. Other key constituents are apamin, a neurotoxin that can cause burning, swelling and redness, and hyaluronidase, which dilates the capillaries. Melittin and apamin apparently trick skin into an inflammatory state, which in turn stimulates production of collagen and elastin, an action believed to soften lines and wrinkles. So it essentially plumps up the skin via the inflammatory response, while the collagen strengthens tissue under the skin and the elastin helps skin to bounce back into shape after being pressed or pinched. As we age, elastin doesn't rebound as well, and loses its tensile strength.

Long history
Bee venom has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine, effectively treating arthritic joints and rheumatic muscle tissue. Combined with acupuncture, it has a definite pain-relieving action. But injecting bee venom is not without risks: one study found it caused mycobacterial skin infection (Pyoderma abscesses), followed by hypersensitivity, localised loss of fat tissue, and development of a raised scar. The take-home message is that bee venom products, whether injected or topical, must be made from purified melittin and purified apamin. And herein lies a problem, because it’s not always clear what you're getting.

Most research on bee venom as an anti-ageing product comes from Korea, and it's conflicting. For example, an emulsification method used in an animal study worked well, but when used in an aqueous solution, the skin's naturally occurring enzymes degraded the product, rendering it ineffective. In a study by Han et al conducted on 22 South Korean women over 12 weeks, facial lines were examined via a Visioline® device, and bee venom was found to make a significant difference to total wrinkle area, total wrinkle count, and average wrinkle depth. From a visual point of view, subjectively, the responders said it improved their skin.

Being antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, bee venom has been successfully used to treat acne. When trialled as a treatment for UV damage, researchers found the skin's dermal fibroblasts were rejuvenated and that the venom exerted a mild protective effect against melanocyte overactivity. Also, in animal studies bee venom increased collagen protein synthesis and skin healing, and made it look more youthful.

Bee venom's key components, melittin and apamin, trick the skin into an inflammatory state, which in turn stimulates production of collagen and elastin.There appears to be little risk with topical application of bee venom products, although obviously people allergic to bee stings should not use them. In summary, the main problem is that you have little idea what you're getting. Emulsification seems to be the only reliable form of delivery, and the venom should be purified.

Teresa Mitchell-Paterson BHSc(CompSci) MHSc(HumNut) AdvDipNat is a member of The Australian Traditional-Medicine Society.