The latest buzz in the beauty world is a literal one: bee venom facials. Also known as apitherapy, bee venom is said by purveyors and devotees to have anti-aging properties.
Hailed as “the natural botox,” bee venom has been used by such famous faces as Michelle Pfeiffer and Victoria Beckham. But it really gained popularity after it was revealed that Kate Middleton, now known as the Duchess of Cambridge, had a bee venom mask before her 2011 wedding to Prince William.
A quick survey of five cosmetic dermatology medical practices in the Northwest Indiana and Chicago area turned up no skyrocketing trend. None of the doctors had heard of bee venom facials. “Eeeww, bees,” said one medical practice manager. “We don’t like them and we don’t want to put them on our faces.” Thankfully, though, that’s not the way bee venom facials work.
Instead the venom is put into a cream that can slathered on the face up to twice a week, left on for twenty minutes, and then washed off. Users say the cream has a strong tingle when applied. The venom contains melittin, which is an anaphylactic responsible for the lingering pain caused by bee stings. Melittin also has anti-inflammatory abilities.
The result: your body, thinking it is under attack, increases circulation and skin-tightening collagen zooms into action. It may sound extreme, but then so does the idea of injecting a paralyzing toxin into face, yet that is what the popular botox is. And the U.S. market for botox is expected to reach $1.9 billion by the end of 2012.
Here is how bee venom is obtained: a special electrified pane of glass is put into the hives. When bees bump up against it, they feel they are being attacked—so they squirt venom on it. The bees remain unharmed. The squirts accumulate on the glass until apiary workers scrap them off by hand using a razor.
The cost of such intensive work is reflected in the price of bee venom creams, which range from $65 to $118 for a 1.7-ounce jar. So fierce is the competition in this market, that one brand—Anna’s Pocket Bees—boasts that the venom in its Vitality Venom cream can be traced back, like a pedigree, to exact hives in New Zealand.
In Britain, the desire for bee venom facial masks is so high that the brand Heaven, used by Kate Middleton, is constantly sold out. Deborah Miller, the esthetician who created it and has treated several members of the royal family, just inked a $164 million ten-year distribution deal for the cream in China.
“Really, the rage pre-dates Kate and goes back to Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, who turned Kate on to bee venom facials,” says Marta Wohrle, founder of the internet site www.truthinaging.com. “And it’s true that Camilla doesn’t look like she’s been galloping through the countryside all day, like she used to.”
Worhle, a former journalist, founded her site in 2008 because “like everyone else, I have lots of half pots of various products that I am disappointed in.” Her goal was to review various anti-aging products. Relying on an extensive reader panel, she has now expanded to include an e-commerce shop, which includes a bee venom facial using the same line of venom that the Heaven brand does.
“Of course, we always expect a bit of the Royal Family bandwagon—‘If they’re using it, I need it’ sort of stuff,” says Worhle. “But Royal Nectar, our version of bee venom, is one of our best selling products. People actually like it.” Worhle says she has been using it herself once a week for about a year. “Yes, I think it does do something good for your face.”
But doctors don’t necessarily agree. In a Wall Street Journal article earlier this year, David Leffell, a professor of dermatology and surgery at Yale Medical School, said he couldn’t find any legitimate scientific studies on the benefit of bee venom, either topical or injected. And a cautionary warning: one in 50 Americans is estimated to be allergic to bee stings. So bee venom users should proceed carefully.
As for that bandwagon: recent buzz has it that the Duchess of Cambridge also spends approximately $37,000 annually on a line of Swiss-produced oxygen-based skin products. For bee venom lovers, that is a bit of a sting.