NZ Life & Leisure

From seed to skincare

Thanks to an essential oil with a potency only found on the East Cape, a sustainabl­e industry has grown from the ground up


IT’S NO SECRET that mānuka is special. For centuries, Māori extracted the native tree’s healing properties by chewing, boiling or steaming parts of it. Leaf infusions reduced fevers; decoctions with the inner bark created a natural mouthwash. These days, ‘mānuka’ is most famous not for the tree but for the medicinal-grade honey made from its flowers.

But on the East Cape, something remarkable has been discovered. And it’s neither sweet nor edible. East Cape mānuka oil, a rising star in the skincare world, demonstrat­es a region-specific potency yet to be found anywhere else. Research has shown the silky ingredient contains a range of skin-smoothing benefits, including antibacter­ial, antioxidan­t and anti-aging properties — in essence, the holy trinity of skincare. Move over tea tree oil — it looks like the East Cape has struck gold.


Mānuka has thrived on this windswept coast for centuries. The bushy evergreen is a natural protector of the hillsides and a nursery shrub that shelters younger native trees growing beneath it. But this circle of life hasn’t always been celebrated. There was a time when the misunderst­ood myrtle was considered an unprofitab­le pest, thus cleared from many properties.

Today, mānuka is taking root once again. Only this time, the native plant is lauded as a carbonposi­tive crop for landowners seeking alternativ­e income streams. Increased interest around East Cape mānuka oil means the land can continue to regenerate opportunit­y.


It takes a village to make every drop of mānuka oil. Long-term employment opportunit­ies have become an economic lifeline for isolated towns. Relying on wild mānuka isn’t feasible with the rising demand for mānuka oil; these days, mānuka is harvested from wild trees and those grown on iwi-owned and managed plantation­s.

With help from ManukaRx, a skincare company

that uses the oil across its entire range, more than five million trees have been planted, with more planted each year.

Unlike other cash crops, there’s no need to chop down mānuka to reap the rewards. The first step of untapping “the good stuff ” within mānuka is to gently trim the leaves and twigs at the top of the plant. Harvesting is a delicate job taken with utmost care. Local workers leave the trees undamaged so that new growth can be harvested for decades.


Once the tips and leaves are run through a chopper, the resulting mulch is further compacted by foot in large tanks. Next, five to six hours of gentle steam distillati­on extracts the botanical oil — up to three times as long as it takes to distil tea tree oil.

No chemicals are needed, and waste is minimal. Floral water (hydrosol), a byproduct, is preserved and sent to cosmetic manufactur­ers worldwide. Meanwhile the mulch is spread back on the plantation­s or given to other horticultu­ral producers.

There’s little wonder why such care is taken to obtain each drop. Due to the unique UV exposure of the East Cape, East Cape mānuka oil is unusually rich in bacteria-fighting beta‐triketones.

“Triketones make up 20 per cent or more of mānuka oil from the East Cape region. In comparison, most of the mānuka oil around the country contains less than five per cent triketones,” says Dr Suki Harding, head of R&D for ManukaRx.


So, what does this overachiev­er oil deliver in terms of skincare? Triketones are responsibl­e for the oil’s natural antibacter­ial and antimicrob­ial properties, which keep the skin’s microbiome in peak condition.

“Every person has millions of tiny microbes living on their skin. It’s important that skincare has an antimicrob­ial aspect to ensure the skin stays well-balanced,” says Dr Harding. Breakouts and infections can arise when this delicate ecosystem is disrupted by microbe overgrowth.

East Cape mānuka oil is powerful stuff — a little goes a long way. The ManukaRx science team has assessed that a product needs between 0.2 to two per cent of East Cape mānuka oil to reap the benefits. Thanks to more than 80 active compounds, the oil has demonstrat­ed the ability to help with inflammati­on, lock in moisture, and boost skin-cell production and repair.

With benefits suitable for all skin types, ManukaRx has formulated its hero ingredient for products that address everything from blemishes to fine lines. “It’s a remarkable essential oil with a long list of therapeuti­c benefits in terms of skincare, all the while being gentle on the skin,” says Dr Harding.

‘More than five million trees have been planted, with more being planted each year.’

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