It’s been used by mankind since Ancient Egypt at least, but compared to its bee kingdom brethren raw honey or royal jelly, it has extremely little research behind it. You’ll see claims of it having “outstanding healing properties” and “a rich portfolio of nutrients”, and that Muhammed Ali recommended it for punching people in the face back in the 1970s. For acne though, there’s no specific claim, unlike say, maca root and its power to regulate female hormones.
Does bee pollen really have any concrete powers for acne, skin tone, or skin strength? Read on and we will end this confusion permanently.
What bee pollen really is
Bee pollen is completely individual; it’s separate from raw honey, royal jelly, and bee propolis. Bee pollen is the primary ingredient of bee bread, the worker honeybee’s main protein source.
Honey bees gather pollen from plants and transport it using specialised pollen baskets (corbiculae) on their legs. In the hive, the foraging bees pass the pollen to a worker bee. This bee adds nectar, enzymes, bacteria, fungi and saliva to the raw pollen, rolls it into a ball, and the new creation is bee pollen.
After storage the bee pollen will be fermented extensively, and mixed with honey and wax, to undergo its final transformation into bee bread. Combined with the honeybee’s instinctive ability to seek out the highest quality pollen in the land, this transformation increases the nutrient content dramatically. Bee bread is what the honeybees consume, but bee pollen is far more widely sold as a supplement.
Bee pollen is one of a honeybee hive’s two main food staples. Bee pollen is the bee’s protein source while the sweet sugariness of honey provides the carbohydrates.
Bees aren’t like us omnivorous humans; they are designed to live off two foods, and hence, bee pollen is packed with almost everything they need. Bee pollen contains 22 amino acids, 18 vitamins, 25 minerals, 59 trace elements, 11 enzymes or co-enzymes, and 14 fatty acids. It’s also highly bio-live with one study detecting 188 types of fungi and 29 types of bacteria. Most importantly, that’s just the compounds which have been detected.
This richness doesn’t mean that bee pollen will seal your acne away for eternity, because there could just be trace amounts of each. What we do know is that there’s huge potential.
Bread and butter acne analysis
Antioxidants – honey contains antioxidants to prevent spoilage of the bees’ precious food. Bee pollen should contain even more, because it has a 35% proportion of (unstable) proteins.
The prophecy has been fulfilled; this study examined 8 different commercial bee pollens and detected at least good antioxidant properties in each of them. This study examined chestnut bee pollen and detected carotenoids, anthocyanins and an overall “substantial amount of antioxidant power”.
This review commented that bee pollen is rich in polyphenols and flavonoids and is “a natural bee product of high antioxidative potential”. DRAWBACKS: all studies available show plentiful antioxidants; what we lack is human studies. VERDICT: very promising.
Chronic inflammation – this study and this study found that bee pollen inhibits a pro-inflammatory immune system messenger called COX-2. COX-2 stimulates the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins and is often overactive in acne patients. Bee pollen also showed strong anti-inflammatory properties when applied to a swollen rat paw in that first study.
Honey has been used since the Neanderthal times for wound healing, but this in vivo study on mice with liver damage detected only unremarkable anti-inflammatory properties in honey, compared to “significant” anti-inflammatory activity in a bee pollen mixed with the same honey. DRAWBACKS: no human studies and the first two studies only examine specific pro-inflammatory chemicals. VERDICT: fairly promising.
Stress hormones – this wider review revealed that when administered alongside antidepressants, bee pollen allowed the dosage to be lowered and improved the depression “in a short period of time”. In this rat study bee pollen reversed low levels of the happiness neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, again suggesting some interesting mood-boosting powers. DRAWBACK: no direct evidence for reducing the biggest acne-causing stress hormones like cortisol. VERDICT: still interesting.
Vitamins and minerals – bee pollen is said to be a natural multivitamin and some bee pollen loyalists claim that you could hide in the woods and live off it. There’s 8.5%, 37%, 44.5%, 315%, and 12.5% of the RDA for vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, vitamin A (beta-carotene), and magnesium respectively. All are excellent for acne in their own ways. DRAWBACK: most quantities are not huge and they are all per 15 grams, which would cost way too much to eat every day. VERDICT: discard.
Antioxidant enzymes – in this study rats were forced by their scientist overlords to swim until they developed severe oxidative stress. After being fed Indian mustard bee pollen, their suppressed levels of glutathione and superoxide dismutase were both restored to normality. This mouse study observed increased levels of some but not all glutathione enzymes in the liver. DRAWBACKS: lack of studies. VERDICT: watch for future studies.
Overall, there’s no standout evidence, but the lack of studies might be to blame rather than bee pollen itself. The antioxidant content is the most interesting feature for acne. There’s great uncertainty though, which you will discover soon…
Enhanced blood flow and skin tone
Bee pollen is also claimed to be great for blood flow to the skin, due to its content of rutin. Rutin (quercetin-3-O-rutinoside) is a flavonoid antioxidant which is widespread in nature, which has the bonus power of strengthening capillaries and allowing proper vasodilation.
Bee pollen is reportedly one of the richest sources of rutin on earth. Rutin’s clear skin benefits are improved skin tone and glow, with minor benefits for acne itself due to correct flow of beneficial nutrients. Bee pollen itself was said in this study to improve cerebral blood flow, and inhibit atherosclerotic changes (stiffening) of blood vessels, which matches precisely what we would expect from rutin.
The problem is that the supposedly high content of rutin is impossible to verify. The constantly given figure is 16mg of rutin, but the quantity of bee pollen is never specified. If we assume that the figure is per 100 grams of pollen, then it’s an excellent source; the richest two grocery store foods are raw asparagus and raspberries, with 23.19mg and 11mg per 100 grams respectively. A typical content is the apple with 0.22mg.
However the exact quantity is unknown, and there’s another element of mystery…
No two bee pollens on earth are identical
…because the exact nutritional composition of bee pollen varies wildly, and with it the effect on acne.
The antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and bonus compounds all vary depending on the bee colony, the time of year, and most importantly, the plant source. The composition varies day to day and hour to hour.
The 16mg quantity of rutin could have been a fluke, a one-off which is inapplicable to most pollens. Perhaps the worker bees gathered it from a plant which is naturally high in rutin. Almost all commercial bee pollens would not improve blood flow that strongly.
This phenomenon applies to the anti-inflammatory effects, the antioxidant profile, the potential mood improvement. It’s a shot in the dark whether you buy a bee pollen which improves your acne. The overall composition is consistent:
- 55% carbohydrates
- 35% proteins
- 3% vitamins and minerals
- 2% fatty acids
- 5% other components
It’s within the 5% and 3% where the all-important variation occurs. Bee pollen is always the honeybee’s main source of protein, but there’s no confirmed reason why rutin, for example, would be an essential component.
Honeybees always need to keep their main protein source fresh and free from spoilage, so antioxidants will always be present. What we cannot confirm is the specific types of antioxidants like rutin, quercetin, or kaempferol, which depend completely on the plant.
The already weak evidence for anti-inflammatory and mood boosting properties is now even weaker. For example, one study attributed the anti-inflammatory properties to the antioxidant kaempferol, but if the bees derived the pollen from a plant which contained next to none, then the prospects for calmer and less painful acne are gone. Or they might not be, if another compound replaced it.
This is also why the multivitamin claim is weak; the vitamin C content varies massively, from 6% of the RDA to 67% per 15 grams. The vitamin E content varies from 8% to 66%. The biggest flaw with bee pollen is the uncertainty.
On the other hand, the antioxidant powers are secure. In this study, six varieties of bee pollen from the Sonoran desert had a phenolic antioxidant content of 15.91mg to 34.85mg. The study on 8 bee pollens found that all samples had good to strong antioxidant properties. Some bee pollen varieties are stronger than others but the levels are constantly decent.
If you buy a bee pollen supplement and expect great things for your acne, you can count on antioxidants but lots of powers are purely luck based.
The most interesting feature – DNA and youthful skin
Luckily we have one more power which is secure, the biggest gimmick of bee pollen – its touted content of DNA and RNA. Proponents claim that as you digest bee pollen, the DNA and RNA within will break down into their base ingredient of nucleotides. These nucleotides will be used to reconstruct our body’s own DNA, not only preventing ageing but also granting us younger and smoother skin today.
A Swedish dermatologist by the name of Dr Essen claimed that bee pollen “nourishes the skin and stimulates cell renewal with its high concentration of the nucleic acids RNA and DNA”.
This is all connected to the DNA damage theory of ageing, the idea that we get older and weaker because our DNA loses its ability to repair itself. The DNA in mammals like humans is constantly being damaged; in mice it is estimated that 1500 to 7000 DNA lesions occur per hour.
Our DNA repair systems have evolved to compensate for this. Those systems involve recycling of old nucleotides, the foundation of DNA/RNA, from dying DNA. We can also construct our own nucleotides from amino acids like glutamine, and we can obtain nucleotides from the diet.
Over time however, these systems slowly become inefficient, and according to the theory, that’s one reason why we age.
Thus bee pollen enters the picture. If there’s one claim that constantly comes up related to bee pollen and skincare, it’s the DNA one. Plant pollen contains the genetic blueprint for a new plant and it is loaded with DNA and RNA, and this does end up in commercial bee pollens. Nucleotides are found in ALL bee pollens and it doesn’t fall victim to the variation trap.
The second question is – what happens next? There’s massive debate over nucleotides in food in general. Some people think that eating DNA is a simplistic and idiotic strategy and insist that saliva and digestive juices obliterate nucleotides before they have a chance of achieving anything.
However, this 2013 study fed 50 rats five different intakes of nucleotides from age 4 weeks until their natural death. The nucleotides noticeably increased both mean lifespan and maximum lifespan. Age related deterioration in antioxidant production was also prevented. Most importantly, they were FED the nucleotides; they weren’t injected with them.
If the supposedly insane anti-ageing gurus have been proven correct after all, could the DNA and RNA in bee pollen benefit the skin after all? Elsewhere we have a study on intelligence where some rats were trapped in a maze. Rats which were fed nucleotide supplements escaped far more easily and had enhanced learning overall.
Nucleotides clearly have numerous effects and you never know, rejuvenating the skin could be one of them, including when you eat bee pollen.
Some also argue that since every human being’s DNA and RNA is unique, consuming them from foreign sources like bee pollen can never make a difference. They forget that they are dissembled into nucleotides during digestion, and since nucleotides are the baseline building blocks of nucleic acids (RNA and DNA), they can be used to manufacture your own specific version of nucleic acids.
This power is bee pollen’s most promising for acne, even though there’s not a shred of direct evidence.
The verdict – don’t underestimate bee pollen
Bee pollen is definitely a good antioxidant source and the nucleotide youth promotion theory is interesting. It’s nowhere near as glorious as its loyalists argue, but that could be completely down to the lack of research.
Bee pollen is so nutritionally complex that there could be many undiscovered acne secrets lurking in it. What if one of the 29 strains of bacteria adds itself to your gut flora and protects against digestive disorders linked to acne particularly effectively? What if, like honey, bee pollen is rich in antibacterial products to prevent spoilage, and one of them can neutralise acne-causing gut bacteria when consumed?
Consider that bee pollen cannot be synthesised in a laboratory. When scientists have removed all natural bee pollen from the beehive and replaced it with a manmade version consisting of all nutrients known to exist in it, the bees all died.
Clearly we know nothing about bee pollen. I still can’t officially recommend it but consider the greatness of complex bee products like honey and royal jelly and only a fool would write bee pollen off.
The verdict: bee pollen is an experimental supplement.
Best type of bee pollen supplement
If you do decide to experiment, take a pill-based extract. Don’t eat the whole bee pollen balls, because there’s controversy over whether they’re even digested properly. Some studies have demonstrated that whole bee pollen is largely digestible and bioavailable in humans, but even bees don’t eat bee pollen. They add microorganisms and ferment it into bee bread first.
This adds to the nutrition but makes the digestion easier, similarly to when humans ferment soybeans or cabbage. Some theorise that bee pollen is surrounded by an extra thick cellulose wall which requires breaking down.
It’s interesting that bees ferment their foods as well. Humans aren’t the only species to do so. Anyway, it’s easier to skip this nonsense and take a highly concentrated pill, or buy some bee bread if you’re rolling in cash. Besides being easier to digest, bee bread has extra nutrients which are released during fermentation.
ALERT – the allergy risk
Just like wind-carried pollen, bee pollen supplements are able to induce anaphylactic reactions in those with pollen allergies. Supporters claim that all allergenic compounds are neutralised by the nectar and enzymes which honeybees add, making bee pollen harmless…
…but this study observed a non-life threatening anaphylactic reaction in a woman who ate just a small quantity of bee pollen, who had no previously known pollen allergy. This study covered a guy who ate local bee pollen in an attempt to cure his hay fever; he too experienced an anaphylactic reaction.
Some claim that bee pollen can actually neutralise allergies. It’s possible, but there’s no evidence yet and they might be confusing bee pollen with honey, which is proven to ameliorate allergies (study).
So if you have a pollen allergy, start with a tiny dosage, or choose another acne supplement for your experiment. Make sure that it really is tiny, as small as possible, because the woman above succumbed after a reportedly “small quantity of bee pollen”. If you have a pill, crack open the capsule and swallow the tiniest amount.
Remember that bee pollen can contain a variety of plant compounds; confirm that your supplement isn’t sourced from a plant which you’re allergic to.
Thanks for reading!