‘Bee glue’ allergy is on the rise

March 9, 2020 / Duncan Fisher
A new study advises caution with this natural skincare additive

If you like doing things the old-fashioned way, you probably embalm your mummies with propolis, or ‘bee glue’. This is a waxy plant exudate that caulks up beehives, and that’s supposed to have some use as a remedy for certain skin ailments. The Pharaohs used it on their dead, the Greeks and medievals used it on the living, as medicine, and we use it still, as a general soothing ingredient in lotions, balms, shampoos, and cosmetics.

Does it actually do anything? The jury is out on that. It does seem to have some anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties. But as with a lot of folk remedies, the data fund, such as it exists, needs filling out.

One thing it does do, worryingly, is cause allergy.

This is part of what was discovered in an enormous review of contact allergy in Europe, just now completed. Findings are being published in the British Journal of Dermatology.1

Allergy is when your immune system mistakenly mobilises to fight a foreign substance, spoken of as an ‘allergen’, that’s normally harmless.

In this study, 56 dermatology centers across Germany, Austria, and Switzerland pooled data on their patients undergoing testing for skin allergy between 2007 and 2018 – that’s 125,436 people – and found that propolis has been causing problems. What’s more, the problems, for some reason, have been on the increase.

The allergy rate rose during the study period from 2.35% to 3.94%. That’s a rise of 68%.

It’s impossible to know why it’s rising, at this point. That’s because we don’t know where, in all the commercially available products, people have been getting exposed to bee glue and sensitising to it.

It is a worrying trend, though, not so much because anybody will die of it (that’s hard to imagine with bee glue), but for what it says about how people use homeopathic products.

‘Natural,’ observes Professor Wolfgang Uter, lead author of the paper, doesn’t necessarily mean safe.

If the trend continues, he says, even harmless-sounding bee glue is going to need some formal risk assessment. While anything left on the skin can cause problems, theoretically (that’s the nature of allergy), propolis in particular is beginning to look like trouble. ‘Trouble’, in the form of contact dermatitis, can mean redness, skin swelling, blistering, or itching. It’s pretty unpleasant.

But it’s also avoidable. You don’t have to use it. If you are using it, and your skin starts to irritate, stop (and tell your doctor).

By all means, continue to use propolis when you’re wrapping your mummies. But on yourself? The latest word is to be careful.

1 Uter W, et al. Br J Dermatol. 2020 Fb 27. Doi: 10.1111/bjd. 18946. [Epub ahead of print]

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