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Balsam of Peru Allergy & Natural Skin Care

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Why am I writing a blog entry on Balsam of Peru? Who even knows what Balsam of Peru is? Better yet, does anybody even care? Let me tell you, I didn’t know or care about Balsam of Peru until I was diagnosed with an allergy to it that caused severe dermatitis. Now, to put it mildly, it has become a part of my everyday life. Or more accurately, the avoidance of Balsam of Peru has become a part of my everyday life. In addition, since it is found in so many things, it can be extremely difficult to elude. I am writing this blog entry to share what I have learned with the hope that it might help someone else.

My journey with this allergy began several years ago. I had never had any issues with my skin before, but my eyelids began to swell and the skin around my eyes became dry, cracked and damaged. I began waking up each morning with my eyes swollen almost completely shut with the skin stretched tight, red, and painful. My dermatologist performed patch testing and diagnosed me with an allergy to Balsam of Peru. I changed my makeup, quit using perfumes and fragrances, and used only mild soaps to wash my face. This worked wonderfully well for numerous years until I began to suffer from eczema / atopic dermatitis on my hands, arms, and torso. Initially, I didn’t associate my dermatitis with the Balsam of Peru allergy. After all, I had not had any problems with it in years and, even then, it had only affected my eyes. After multiple prescription medications did not completely clear up the dermatitis, I began to investigate the cause. When I completely removed Balsam of Peru from my skin care and diet, I began to see almost immediate results.

What is Balsam of Peru? Balsams are plant products that are secreted by the plant following an injury. Balsam of Peru is obtained from the bark of the Myroxylon balsamum tree which is grown almost exclusively in El Salvador. The balsam did not originate in Peru, but instead derived the name because it was initially imported to Peru before being shipped elsewhere. It is produced by inflicting wounds on the bark of the tree. The balsam is then secreted by the tree as a type of protective material to heal the bark’s lesions. It is collected and subsequently used in countless ways in foods, drinks, cosmetics, toiletries, pesticides, deodorizers and medicinal products. It is a dark, viscid, aromatic liquid that has a sweet aroma similar to a combination of cinnamon, vanilla, and cloves. Balsam of Peru is known for its aroma as well as its strong anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties.

What exactly is causing my allergy to Balsam of Peru? Balsam of Peru has a complex chemical makeup and any of the components can be the culprit in an allergy to Balsam of Peru.

  • Approximately ⅔ of the balsam is comprised of cinnamein, a volatile oil which contains the following chemicals: cinnamic acid, cinnamyl cinnamate, benzyl benzoate, benzoic acid, benzyl alcohol, vanillin, and nerolidiol.
  • The remaining ⅓ of the balsam is made up of polymers of esters of coniferyl alcohol.
  • According to some studies, coniferyl alcohol, benzoic acid, and cinnamic acid may be the major allergens of Balsam of Peru.
  • In addition to the above constituents of Balsam of Peru, the body may also cross-react to substances that are chemically similar to these components.

Allergic to Balsam of Peru? What to look out for. If you have been diagnosed with an allergy to Balsam of Peru, you are not alone. It is among the top five most prevalent allergens that are diagnosed through patch testing. The good news is that most people can effectively manage the allergy by reducing their exposure to Balsam of Peru in skin care products and can still eat a normal diet. The bad news is that some people, like me, will find they need to eliminate Balsam of Peru and any chemically-related ingredients (due to cross reactions) from their diet. From my experience, here are some products and foods to watch out for:

  • Any product that has a perfume/fragrance, including an “unscented” product that includes a masking fragrance. This includes body care products, laundry products, household cleaning products, candles, deodorizers, etc.
  • Chemical-based sunscreens. Especially those with the active ingredient Octyl methoxycinnamate. Look for natural, mineral-based sunscreens, instead.
  • Any product that includes a benzoate such as sodium benzoate, benzyl benzoate, or potassium benzoate. This includes both body care products and processed food items.
  • Spices (both sweet and savory) including: cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, allspice, anise, ginger, paprika, nutmeg, chili powder, and curry. Salt, pepper, and garlic are okay.
  • Any product that lists “spices,” natural flavors, or artificial flavors in the ingredient list, because these may include spices or flavors related to Balsam of Peru.
  • Chocolate unless it is free of vanilla, cinnamon, natural or artificial flavors, and benzoates.
  • Tomatoes and products that contain tomatoes. This includes: ketchup, spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, barbecue sauce, salsa, chili, vegetable juices, tomato-based soups, etc.
  • Citrus peel or any product that includes citrus peel. This could include commercially manufactured citrus juices, marmalades, baked goods, candies, etc. Oranges, lemons, limes, tangerines, and grapefruits are all citrus fruits.
  • Cola drinks, flavored tea or coffees, alcoholic beverages, and other spiced drinks.
  • Ice cream unless it is free of vanilla, cinnamon, natural or artificial flavors, and benzoates.
  • Cough drops.
  • Beverages and vinegars that are aged in oak barrels, because oak barrels infuse vanilla-type flavors into the product.
  • All peppers except for bell peppers.
  • Pickles, pickled vegetables, mayonnaise, mustard, and salad dressings may contain spices and/or preservatives related to Balsam of Peru.
  • Eugenol.  Used in dentistry and can also be found in dill, basil, bay leaves, and celery.

This list is not all-inclusive, but is a quick-start to managing a Balsam of Peru allergy. Most people will not react to everything on this list, but it is a good place to begin. You can try eliminating the items on this list for a period of several weeks or months to see if your symptoms of eczema and atopic dermatitis improve. If so, then you can try adding back one food at a time to see if your body reacts. With time and patience you may find that you have no problem with many of the possible cross-reactions listed above.

Skin care products that don’t include Balsam of Peru. It can be difficult to find good quality skin care products that don’t include a fragrance, a masking fragrance, or preservatives. This is especially difficult when you consider that many of the constituents of Balsam of Peru go by many different names and have many different derivatives. Since, as a member of the Back to Basics Naturals family, I have a Balsam of Peru allergy, this is a big part of the reason why we make our own line of all-natural, chemical-free and preservative-free products. We do not use Balsam of Peru or perfumes/fragrances in any of our products. If our products have a scent, we use pure essential oils for the aroma and the skin benefits.  In addition, we have several unscented/fragrance-free products that work well for those with allergies.  You can check out our full line of 100% natural products here.  Since you know your personal allergies better than anyone, please review the ingredient list before purchasing or using any skin care products.

Please note that I am not a medical doctor and this blog entry should not be taken as medical advice. It simply details what we have learned about this allergy and should be used for informational purposes only.