If you are a self-proclaimed fragrance lover who likes to delve deep into the notes of your favourite perfumes, you have probably come across a few mentions of benzoin.
A widely used material which is known for its vanillic, balsamic quality, benzoin is a lot more than just a perfume fixative base note and has been used by humanity since the dawn of time.
What Does Benzoin Look Like?
Benzoin is a resin that is derived from a tree in the genus of Styrax that grows in Asia. At room temperature, the resin is clear, solid and has a beautiful amber shade. In order to be used in fragrance formulation, benzoin is usually melted in a water-bath and then diluted with DPG. It can take more than 4 hours of continuous heating for the resin to liquefy and become pourable.
In perfumery, it is considered to be a base fixative note which means that it slows down the release of other aromas within the perfume. Its scent is intensely sweet, vanilla-like and a little spicy.
Where Does Benzoin Come from?
There are two types of benzoin available on the market: Benzoin Siam and Benzoin Sumatra.
Benzoin Siam comes from a plant called Styrax tonkinensis and grows all around South East Asia, primarily in places like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.
Benzoin Sumatra, on the other hand, comes from Styrax benzoin plant and grows mostly on the island of Sumatra.
The two resins are closely related but have different olfactive profiles. Benzoin Sumatra has a distinctive spicy edge because it contains cinnamic acid (which gives it the spiciness) and in addition, a higher content of benzoic acid. Benzoin Siam is sweeter, smoother and lacks the spiciness. It is made up primarily of benzoic acid, vanillin (which lends it the distinctive sweetness) and benzyl benzoate. For some inexplicable reason, Benzoin Sumatra is generally considered to be a lower grade material because of its spiciness. This reasoning seems strange to us. Here at BARUTI, we absolutely love its complex, spicy scent.
How Is Benzoin Resin Produced?
Benzoin collection is an important cottage industry in countries like Laos where Styrax trees grow. The collectors make a series of incisions all over the trunk and then wait for the exuding resin to solidify. It is not unusual for the resin to be left to dry for 4-5 months before being collected. Since Styrax trees are such an important of the local economy, sustainability plays a big part in the process. Resin can only be harvested from trees that are a minimum of 3-5 years old. Resin collection from one tree generally goes on for no longer than eight years – anything longer than that can cause permanent damage to the tree.
What Is the Difference between Styrax (Storax) and Benzoin?
“Wait” – you say – “But isn’t there another note in perfumery called styrax (storax)? Are styrax and benzoin the same thing?“
The confusion is understandable, but let us clear it up once and for all. What is known in perfumery as “styrax” is an entirely different material that has no relation to benzoin resin or benzoin trees. You will sometimes see “styrax” or “storax” listed in perfume notes next to benzoin and other base notes. Styrax resin is derived from Liquidambar styraciflua tree (also known as sweetgum) and grows in North America, Mexico and Central America.
Its olfactive profile is also sweet and balsamic, with a slight undertone of gasoline. Here is a fun fact: unlike benzoin, it is heavily restricted by IFRA regulations.
Is Benzoin Used outside of Perfumery?
Historically, benzoin has been used extensively in medicine. To this day, Benzoin Sumatra is occasionally used in some pharmaceutical preparations such as cough mixtures. This is because of its expectorant qualities; in other words, it can help to clear mucus from the airways.
Pretty much up until the Victorian times, benzoin was frequently used as an antiseptic wound-dressing due to its high content of benzoic acid.
A popular household remedy during the Georgian period was a lotion called Virgin’s Milk.
“Storax and gum Benjamin (also known as Benzoin resin) , in equal parts, dissolved in spirits of wine, with the addition of balm of Gilead, and dropped into a glass of water will likewise make an excellent Virgin Milk, equally innocent and efficacious.”
This tonic was used primarily for maintaining a clear complexion of acne-prone skin.
Benzoin Siam, because of its intense vanillic flavour, is frequently used as a flavouring ingredient in many foods such as chewing gum, ice cream, soft drinks and candy.
Benzoin resin was also widely traded across Asia and was considered to be a major commodity in the luxury trade due to its use in incense-making and religious ceremonies.
The Arabs also found uses for benzoin in the preparation of bukhoor (incense burning over charcoal).
If you want to experiment with your own incense blends, why not try powdering equal parts of myrrh, frankincense and benzoin and burning over some bamboo charcoal? You can find a visual guide to incense burning in our Instagram stories by clicking on the “Raw Materials 2” tab.