It is the trunk of the tall Southeast Asian benzoin tree that, when cut, exudes a delicious, vanilla-scented gum resin. This essential oil has been used since antiquity in aromatherapy preparations such as frankincense. They made solid pomades that smelled like vanilla and were rubbed on the skin for both fragrance and healing.
Arabian traders brought benzoin to Greece, Rome, and Egypt, where it became prized as a fixative in perfumes and potpourris -- still one of its uses today. The Crusaders carried benzoin into Europe to scent their cherished Oriental-style perfume. Europeans highly regarded benzoin for its medicinal properties as well as its scent.
Benzoin is typically sold as an absolute, but it is so thick it may be difficult for you to get it out of the bottle. If so, dilute it with a little alcohol, such as vodka, or dissolve it in warm vegetable oil so it is easier to pour. An absolute thinned with ethyl glycol is also sold, but aromatherapists avoid oils and scents containing this chemical. You can also buy benzoin tincture in an alcohol base in drugstores.
Principal constituents of benzoin: Resin, benzoic acid, vanillin, coniferyl benzoate, phenylethylene, and phenylpropylic alcohol. Cinnamic acid occurs only in the type called Sumatra benzoin.
Scent of benzoin: It has a sweet, warm, vanillalike odor that is long lasting and makes it an excellent fixative.
Therapeutic properties of benzoin: Antibacterial, antifungal; seals wounds from infection; counteracts inflammation; decreases gas, indigestion, and lung congestion; promotes circulation; and is an antioxidant and deodorant
Uses for benzoin: Effective against redness, irritation, or itching on the skin, benzoin's most popular use is in a cream to protect chapped skin and improve skin elasticity. Since it is also a strong preservative, adding it to vegetable oil-based preparations delays their oxidation and spoilage. Benzoin essential oil can be added to chest rub balms and massage oils for lung and sinus ailments (stir in about 12 drops of essential oil per ounce of preparation), or use the tincture of benzoin to make cough medicine formulas.