Royal jelly is a term used to describe creamy, white secretions that come from the throat glands of honey bees. Worker bees feed these glandular secretions to bee larvae during the first few days of their life but after the first few days reserve it for larvae that are destined to become queen bees. Those bees destined to be workers go on to feed on honey and pollen. A bee hive is capable of producing a significant amount of royal jelly. A single protein in royal jelly called royalactin is the component in royal jelly that causes a young bee larva to develop into a queen bee.
Queen bees that feed on royal jelly throughout their life can live up to seven years, while worker bees have a maximum lifespan of about seven weeks. This has led some people to speculate that some ingredient in royal jelly might have health and longevity benefits for humans too. Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of interest in determining what's in royal jelly, the nutritious diet of long-living queen bees. It wasn't until the late 1800's that the composition of royal jelly was determined.
What's in this food fit for a queen? Royal jelly has a protein content of almost 13% and is a good source of vitamins including vitamin A, E, C and B vitamins, although it lacks vitamin B12. It also contains hormones, enzymes, fatty acids, sterols, DNA, RNA, gelatin and immune proteins that protect bees against infection.
A variety of health benefits have been attributed to royal jelly but not all have been substantiated by research. According to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, royal jelly has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties and helps to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It also has estrogen-like components that are purported to improve fertility, relieve menopausal symptoms and prevent osteoporosis but research in this area has been limited.
With so many possible benefits, it's not surprising that cosmetic and skin care companies have embraced royal jelly as an anti-aging ingredient in skin care products, and it's a popular ingredient in natural and organic skin care products. Some evidence suggests that is has anti-bacterial benefits and speeds up wound healing.
Royal jelly has been used as an ingredient in cosmetics and skin care products since the 1950s and was added to some high-profile cosmetic brands based on its possible anti-aging benefits. It consists of a thick, white paste that's easily added to skin care products because it lacks a distinctive color that could alter the appearance of a product. It's typically added to products only in small amounts, possibly due to cost considerations. At one time it was found in a number of face creams, eye creams, body creams, lip products, foundations and even hair care products, but the number of companies using it as a cosmetic ingredient in the United States has declined. The ingredient is more popular in Europe and Asia than in the U.S.
There isn't a great deal of research looking at the skin anti-aging benefits of royal jelly. It appears to have anti-inflammatory properties that may offer some protection against skin damage due to sun exposure. It also has estrogen-like compounds called phytoestrogens similar to the phytoestrogens in soy, and some small studies show that topical soy extracts reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and improve skin texture and firmness. Royal jelly also has skin conditioning benefits, acting as a humectant to draw water to the surface of the skin from the environment to keep skin moist and conditioned.
Is it safe? There are some concerns about the natural phytoestrogens in royal jelly and whether they are safe for women who have had breast cancer. Whether this would be a problem in the small amounts found in cosmetic and skin care products is unclear. It would more likely be a problem for people who take it orally in significant amounts. According to the University of Michigan, royal jelly can trigger allergic reactions in some people, especially people who are allergic to bees or poplar or conifer trees. It can also cause skin irritation when applied topically.
All in all, royal jelly is a safe product in the quantities found in cosmetic and skin care products but allergic reactions and skin irritation aren't uncommon.