Propolis—or “bee propolis,” as it’s sometimes called—might not have the same instant name recognition as hyaluronic acid or niacinamide. But if you aren’t familiar with it yet, you’re definitely about to be. The skin-soothing ingredient is quickly on its way to becoming the next hydration and glow-boosting all-star.
I first came across propolis last fall while looking for a hydrating serum that could tackle the rough patches on my combination skin without weighing it down. When I spotted the Beauty of Joseon Glow Serum during my routine Soko Glam browse, I was intrigued—it was under $20, had pretty packaging and great reviews, and most important, was developed to soothe and hydrate while also gently removing dead skin. I placed my order and waited for this potentially holy grail product to arrive in the mail.
I decided I would start off using it as part of my morning skin-care routine and the effects were immediate. My skin, which gets a bit red even after a gentle cleanse, felt instantly calmer and my skin was glowing. The type of glow that makes you pause and stare yourself in the mirror because the light reflecting off all angles is kind of mesmerizing. The serum sank into my skin nicely, so there wasn’t any stickiness and layered well under my moisturizer. And that’s when I knew propolis and I were in it for the long run.
What is bee propolis?
As the name implies, propolis is a compound created by bees. “Propolis, often referred to as ‘bee glue,’ is the material that holds bees’ hives together,” says Charlotte Cho, esthetician and cofounder of Soko Glam. “This brown resin substance is made from botanical sources, like tree buds, and is what honeybees collect to fill the spaces in their hives.”
Like beeswax, it plays an important role in the hive infrastructure, but they’re not the same. “Beeswax is often confused for propolis but they’re completely different,” says Corey Hartman, M.D., dermatologist and founder of the Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama. “Beeswax builds the ‘bricks’ of the cell wall, and the propolis acts as the mortar that holds it all together.”
It’s also not to be confused with other popular bee-produced compounds used in skin-care products—like honey, which aids with wound healing and inflammation, or royal jelly, a viscous, jelly-like substance that’s used for antiaging protection and boosting collagen production. (“It’s produced by worker bees to feed the queen bee and the larvae,” says K-beauty expert Felicia Lee, one half of the duo from Beauty Within.)
And while Cho points out that no bees are harmed in the process of collecting propolis—“beekeepers safely harvest propolis by gently scraping it off the frames and lids of hive boxes,” she says—it’s worth keeping in mind that propolis isn’t considered vegan.
What are the skin-care benefits of propolis?
While bee propolis has been used for thousands of years in eastern medicine as an herbal remedy, its adoption into skin care has taken off thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, which make it perfect for blemish-prone skin. “The rise of propolis’s popularity in Korea is due to its incredible versatility,” says Cho. “It achieves everything from hydration and healing to curbing acne and reducing oil production.” Here’s a rundown of all its superstar skin-care properties.
“For dermatologists, one of our holy grails is a product that will protect your skin barrier and keep it intact as much as possible,” says Hartman. That’s because a compromised skin barrier leads to dehydration and raises your risk of infection.
Just like it holds the hive together, propolis enforces and strengthens your skin barrier. It also undermines free radicals (like UV rays) that can cause long-term skin damage. “Like many other bee products, propolis contains flavonoids, which are antioxidants that can neutralize the effect of free radicals on your skin,” says Charlotte Birnbaum, M.D., dermatologist at Spring Street Dermatology.
“It’s a super nourishing and hydrating ingredient,” says Rowena Tsai, the other K-beauty expert from Beauty Within. “We always say hydration is key to solving most skin issues, and products that are formulated with propolis definitely give your skin that burst of hydration and subtle brightening qualities.”
Hydration is your skin’s best friend, especially during the drying winter months. But while layering on thick creams might seem like the obvious solution to prevent chapped skin, the buildup from those products can lead to clogged pores, which then opens the door to acne and irritation—no thank you. Opting for products that are lighter but pack propolis among their ingredients could be the answer if you’re looking to improve your skin elasticity but are prone to congestion.
One of the biggest selling points of propolis is its soothing properties. “One of my favorite propolis benefits is its healing ability,” says Cho. “Because of its antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties, it speeds up the healing process of wounds and sunburn.” Hartman credits its thick consistency for why propolis is able to form a protective layer over your skin barrier, which allows the skin to get to work in repairing itself.
That doesn’t mean it has to be heavy on oily or acne-prone skin though. “I really like Tosowoong’s Propolis Sparkle Ample,” says Alicia Yoon, esthetician and founder of Peach & Lily. “It’s very lightweight, not sticky, and great for all skin types. I have sensitive skin and use it when I have any redness or my skin feels a little off. It calms it down right away.”
Another reason people rush to apply propolis on their face is to achieve that healthy-looking glow. If you’re looking for a brighter complexion, Lee and Tsai recommend that you opt for a product that has propolis, plus additional hydration-boosting ingredients like hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, panthenol, and sea buckthorn. “Our absolute fave is the Dr. Ceuracle Royal Vita Propolis 33 Ampoule—it really helps even out skin tone and subtly brighten uneven areas,” says Tsai, noting that the key is to use it consistently. (It’s not an overnight kind of change.)