by Martin Watt

In 1992, RIFM, the world’s leading experts in safety issues of all aromatic extracts, issued new guidelines on the use of Benzoin extracts in cosmetic products.

They recommended that only extracts processed by methods which eliminated allergens should be used.

  • This was done because of the numerous cases recorded of benzoin sensitization many of which are documented and referenced in my publications.
  • This recommendation still left a major loophole through which dangerous extracts of benzoin could slip.
  • This is that in the USA only very large cosmetics suppliers test their products for their potential skin. In Europe, all cosmetic type agents must now undergo full safety evaluation.
  • Smaller suppliers do not do that, and frequently do not have a clue as to whether the benzoin they purchase is allergen-free or not.

The cruder the benzoin, the more potential to cause sensitization.

Additionally, benzoin oil most times contains a whole range of powerful chemical solvents to make it pourable. The crude powder is, of course, free of those solvents, but who knows what the heck the variety is being used and certainly this will contain all of the allergens.

Anyone involved in product safety assessment should be familiar with RIFM guidelines, if they are not familiar with them then they are not a competent product assessor.

It may be that the use of low levels of benzoin in soap to prevent rancidity in the fats used is OK. However, RIFM does not make this distinction in relation to benzoin and their advice does cover soaps and detergents.

Any small suppliers who claim their 1000 or so customers have NOT had any problems are badly misleading people with such statements.

This is the same weak argument we hear time and time again in aromatherapy. The fact is they DO NOT KNOW. Unless someone complains of a problem it will not be recorded, and even if someone goes to a dermatologist the problem may never be traced to a particular product or specific supplier.

Neither small soap makers or the aromatherapy trade have any system of reporting adverse reactions to a centralised data gathering resource. Only with such a system can any kind of assessment be made of problems occurring with products. One person in 1000 getting sensitized is far too high.

The fact that for example, benzoic acid is a permitted food additive has absolutely nothing to do with the use of crude grades of benzoin resin.

For a start, whole benzoin will contain traces of dozens to hundreds of natural chemicals both the good ones and the bad ones. The exact chemicals causing sensitization may not be known. Incidentally, even benzoic acid is a recognised allergen within dermatology.

Secondly, the fact that an extract is used safely in food has little relationship to the same extract being used in skincare products. For example, a single drop of GENUINE cinnamon bark oil in an apple pie is fine, but it should never ever be used on the skin unless its activity has been modified by other additives.

In Europe and doubtless in the USA, there is increasing evidence that a significant number of the population (possibly up to 10%) are becoming sensitized by the use of routine cosmetic and medicated skin applications. Therefore the fact something has been used for years is without any meaning at all in regard to safety. Many people thought smoking cigarettes was perfectly safe, now look at the results!

The incidence of generalized allergic reactions is rising at a staggering rate throughout the developed world. Part of the causes are environmental, but part are almost certainly due to what we put in and ON our bodies.

Incidentally, although rosemary extract (not oil) is a superb preservative for fats, to the best of my knowledge it has not undergone formal safety evaluation trials for use in skincare products. People seem to forget that any preservative that has a powerful antimicrobial activity is just as likely to kill your skin cells as the microbes. Think about that one!

As a herbalist and essential oils educator, give me a well-tried and tested synthetic preservative any day to a natural one, particularly when the safety of the natural one has not been adequately tested. Natural is NOT inevitably safe as many seem to think.

Finally, for those that do not know, sensitization is not just an irritation of the skin. It is an immune system response and can be temporary, but can be with you for LIFE. Those that become cosmetic ingredient-sensitized can have the most appallingly disfiguring skin conditions, particularly in young women when it is on their faces or neck. No one making so-called “natural” products should ever forget what the results can be if they do not educate themselves properly on safety. Don’t think your insurance will cover you, they will opt-out as soon as they learn you have manufactured products against the advice of best trade practice.


Martin Watt is a noted researcher, the author of Plant Aromatics, a Data and Reference Manual on Essential Oils and Aromatic Plant Extracts, Frankincense & Myrrh (with Wanda Sellar), Natural Beauty: How to Use Herbs and Fruit for Skin and Body Care (with Charlotte Mitchell). He is publishing a series of CDs of interest to students of essential oils and botanical healing.