Papyrus records from ancient Egypt indicate that benzoin fragrance resins were mixed with other aromatic resins like pine, juniper, cypress, galbanum, and labdanum to create an aromatic powder that Egyptian dancers applied to their heads. Benzoin is used as a fragrance by Indonesian Muslims also. In the Middle East, an incense of scented wood chips called Bakhoor contains benzoin. Bakhoor is used on coal fires to produce a powerful aroma and is part of the ancient Arabic tribal tradition of living outdoors. Benzoin is also used as incense in Orthodox Christian and Greek Christian churches.
Traditionally, S. benzoin fragrant resin is diluted or blended with other resins and herbs. In aromatherapy, benzoin has a calming influence on the body but can cause contact dermatitis. It is a mild stimulant and antiseptic, and it is used to treat skin irritations such as itchiness, dryness, and redness after blending it with oil. The oil is blended in cream and is useful for cuts, wounds, and acne. It helps treat psoriasis and has carminative properties. It is a rapidly absorbed mild expectorant, diuretic, and urinary antiseptic when taken internally. Benzoin is also used in steam treatments for laryngitis, bronchitis, and asthma. It is sold as a throat and lung decongestant called “Friar’s balsam.” People take benzoin by mouth to relieve swollen gums and herpes sores. Benzoin is combined with other herbs like aloe, storax, and tolu balsam to relieve aches and arthritis pain. Benzoin has well-established uses in both allopathic and traditional forms of medicine.
There are references to Sumatra and Siam benzoins in allopathic and traditional medicines. British, Chinese, French, Italian, Japanese, and American pharmacopeias refer to using steam inhalants to relieve cough, laryngitis, bronchitis, and upper respiratory diseases. The British pharmacopeia (1993) specifies the use of Sumatra benzoin in inhalation and compound tinctures. The American pharmacopeia (1994) also describes a compound benzoin tincture, although it does not specify the benzoin type. The Body Shop chain sells skin lotion containing lavender oil, sandalwood, vetivert, patchouli, and benzoin. The Chinese pharmacopeia (1992) mentions benzoin preparations of pills and powders to restore consciousness, activate blood flow, and relieve pain.
Benzoin fragrance resin contains benzoic acid and cinnaminic acid. Benzoic acid is a food preservative, flavoring agent, and flavor booster that increases the spiciness of other flavors, especially vanilla or cassia. In syrups, it enhances turbidity. Sumatran benzoin has substantial amounts of cinnamates, a component of cocoa and other chocolate-flavored products. It is especially popular in Denmark and Sweden, where it is used to glaze confections such as chocolate eggs. In Japan, where it is approved for use, benzoin is employed as a chewing gum base. It is recognized as a food and tobacco flavoring agent in the United States.
Book: Holy Herbs: Modern Connections to Ancient Plants