Understanding manuka oil, a powerful essential oil from the manuka tree grown on the East Cape of New Zealand

Hundreds of times more potent than mānuka honey, mānuka oil is gaining international acclaim for its antibacterial properties. Its story begins in one of New Zealand’s most isolated regions.

Words: Cheree Morrison Photos: Brennan Thomas

When the body begins to ache, itch or spot, the first port of call is usually the local chemist. However, more and more people  are turning their attention to the natural first-aid kit found in New Zealand’s native bush, coastal hills and backyards.

What comes to mind when thinking of mānuka? Hear the hum of bees and almost taste the honey? New Zealand’s mānuka honey is famed for its medicinal abilities — who hasn’t had a honey and lemon drink for a sore throat, or been told to use it on a wound? But to discover the real power of mānuka honey, take a step back and a closer look at the plant that gives it its name — mānuka, kahikātoa or Leptospermum scoparium.

Mānuka honey comes from the nectar of the mānuka flower, a tiny white bloom that dusts the native tree from October to March. While the flowers are key for mānuka honey, what lies within the branches and leaves of the mānuka tree is a potent essential oil that encompasses all of the famed healing properties of mānuka honey, and more.

Te Araroa, a small town on the East Cape, is alive with mānuka-gathering activity. The harvest combines wild mānuka from local farms (where families have been harvesting for more than 20 years) and new, sustainable plantations created to meet rising demand.

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The crop of dried leaves and small branches is run through a chopper before being moved into large tanks and compacted by foot — a move inspired perhaps by the grape-pressing monks of Italy? The leaves are steam-distilled for five to six hours, during which the oil-laden vapour rises and travels through to a condenser where it cools and separates, creating a pure mānuka essential oil.

No chemicals are used in the extraction process, and care is taken to keep waste minimal — even the byproduct of 15,000 litres of floral water, or hydrosol, is preserved and shipped to creators and cosmetic manufacturers around the world. It takes almost a tonne of mānuka leaves to distil approximately two litres of pure mānuka oil, and each carefully extracted drop is precious and powerful.

There are a few unique properties that make the mānuka tree a rising super-plant. Mānuka oil is often compared with Australian tea tree oil — it comes from the same family, and is sometimes known as New Zealand tea tree. But while Australian tea tree oil has been used as a common antibacterial since the early 1920s, studies show that mānuka is 20 to 30 times more effective against Gram-positive bacteria. Research attributes the oil’s powerful antibacterial abilities to the levels of β-triketones present in the oil. The highest levels of β-triketones are found in mānuka of the East Cape and the Marlborough Sounds and these levels have a direct correlation to the antibacterial properties.

New Zealand’s proximity to the hole in the ozone layer may also play a role in mānuka’s medicinal talents, since many native plants such as mānuka have adapted to defend themselves against the high levels of UV-B light by producing more polyphenols, which in turn have stronger antioxidant and antibacterial properties.

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Having been used in home remedies for centuries, mānuka oil is now becoming a staple in bathroom cabinets. Whether used in skincare to protect and prevent acne, in salves to soothe and aid the healing of bruises, scrapes and bites, or in rich balms to moisturize dry skin, mānuka oil has been proven as a multi-tasking super-oil worthy of international recognition.

All pure essential oils have different properties and abilities and must be used with care. ManukaRx is a New Zealand company leading the way by specializing in manuka oil-based cosmeceuticals (cosmetics with active ingredients). ManukaRx’s carefully formulated range of gentle cleansers, soaps, oils and deodorants make it simple to introduce mānuka oil into a daily skincare routine.

By combining the antibacterial properties of high-quality, sustainably crafted mānuka oil with other natural moisturizers, waxes and oils, ManukaRx products protect, cleanse, soothe and nurture. New Zealand-owned and East Coast-created, ManukaRx places hundreds of years of natural healing in the palm of a hand. manukarx.co.nz

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