A safe preservative or not?

By Martin Watt

In 1992 IFRA, the world's leading experts in safety issues of all aromatic
extracts, issued new guidelines on the use of Benzoin extracts in cosmetic

They recommended that only extracts processed by methods which eliminated
allergens should be used in cosmetic products. This was done because of the
numerous recorded cases of benzoin sensitisation.

This recommendation left major loopholes through which dangerous extracts of
benzoin could slip:

• Only large cosmetics suppliers test their products for their potential skin

• In Europe, all cosmetics and their ingredients must undergo full safety
evaluation by law. This is rarely enforced by several leading countries, and
even in the UK, small producers often do not comply.

• In the USA and Canada, there are hundreds of home producers who are
ignorant of safety issues and seem to think anything natural is safe!!

• Smaller suppliers do not do proper safety evaluations.

• Smaller suppliers do not have a clue as to whether the benzoin they purchase
is allergen free or not.

• Many aromatherapists are still trained to use this dangerous substance.

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

Some Styrax/benzoin resins may be safe, but no one has yet overcome the
problem of knowing if what is in that little bottle is from the safer resins. No
aromatherapy supplier can be sure that what their supplier has sent is what
they declare it to be.

Additionally, so called "benzoin oil" contains a whole range of chemical solvents
to make it pourable. This can include potentially carcinogenic chemicals. The
crude powder is of course free of those solvents, but who knows what the heck
the variety is being used, and this will contain all of the allergens.

Anyone involved in product safety assessment should be familiar with IFRA
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, IFRA do 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 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 sensitised is far to high.
Other uses of Benzoin
The fact that benzoic acid is a permitted food additive has absolutely nothing
to do with the use of crude grades of benzoin resin. Crude benzoin resin will
contain traces of hundreds of natural chemicals both the good ones and the
bad ones. The exact chemical/s causing sensitisation may not be known.
Incidentally, even benzoic acid is a recognised allergen within dermatology.

The fact that an extract is used safely in food has little relationship to the same
extract being used in skin care 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.
Increasing incidence of skin reaction problems
In Europe and doubtless in the USA, there is increasing evidence that a
significant number of the population (possibly up to 10%) are becoming
sensitised 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 generalised allergic reactions is rising at a staggering rate
throughout the developed world. Part of the causes may be environmental, but
part is almost certainly due to what we put ON and IN our bodies.

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

As a herbalist and essential oils educator, give me a well tried and tested
synthetic preservative 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, or have been brainwashed into believing on blog sites.

Finally for those that do not know, sensitisation 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 sensitised can have the
most appallingly disfiguring skin conditions. I have seen this in a young woman
who badly affected on the face because she had applied benzoin oil as
advocated in a popular Aromatherapy book.

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.

BENZOIN ESSENTIAL OIL DOES NOT EXIST. It is always a processed resin,
usually containing solvents (some can be synthetic). If the solvent is synthetic
this flies in the face of the aromatherapy and natural cosmetics philosophy of
only using 'natural' extracts. The claims of its healing properties are another
issue dealt with in the newsgroup emails folder.

The above information on the dangers posed by oxidised oils, is more evidence
that the use of antioxidants in essential oils is critical to making them safe over
protracted time periods. Personally I am in favour of this as in my opinion
these chemicals are not going to cause many problems, but will prevent skin
reactions from oxidised oils. Of course added antioxidants should be declared
by the producers/suppliers, but as most of the aromatherapy distribution trade
has always operated on hype and lies I know they will not be declared.

I am aware that there has been some heated discussion on some
aromatherapy newsgroups about the issue of adding anything to pure essential
oils. However, what has not been touched on is that some producers and large
distributors have been adding antioxidants to certain oils for years. So there is
nothing new in this practice, but since most aromatherapy distributors are so
remote from the *real* essential oil trade, they are simply not aware of such
common trade practises.

People must understand that aromatherapy suppliers are NOT the big traders
in essential oils and never have been. They are tiny fish in massive pond.

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Advice on the safety issues of using essential oils