Your skin is a vital organ that often communicates with you through various symptoms. If your skin suddenly becomes dry, red, and itchy, it may be a sign that you have an allergy. In simple terms, an allergy is an immune reaction to a chemical in the environment, resulting in your body releasing inflammatory mediators that creates the itchy red rash that becomes your worst enemy for the next few days.
The first time you’re exposed, you shouldn’t expect to have a rash. Your body uses that first encounter as a sensitization or “priming” your immune system to react upon repeat exposure. If you’ve ever suffered a terrible flare-up of your eczema or found it difficult to control, you may be allergic to something that you didn’t even know about.
One of the most common allergens found in today’s consumer products is a little known ingredient called “Balsam of Peru”. Found in South America, BOP is extracted from Myroxylon tree and often used as a flavoring agent, incorporated into fragrances, and sometimes for its antibacterial properties. Its versatility makes BOP great for products that contain added flavor or fragrances such as candy or scented candles.
Common Products that Contain Balsam of Peru (not an exhaustive list):
- Fragrances: perfumes, deodorant, oils, cosmetics, air fresheners
- Foods: Chewing gum, wines & liquors, chocolate, cola, candy, juices, ice cream
- Household Items: dental cements, insect repellent, toothpaste, mouthwash, cleaning products
- Other Topical Products: shampoos, conditioners, baby powder, medical ointments and creams
As you can surmise, the list goes on and on. If you have identified a product that gives you an itchy rash after 2 days of use, take a second to look at the ingredients! The culprit may just be BOP. Alternative names for BOP include: Black balsam, China oil, Honduras balsam, Indian balsam, and Surinam balsam.
To make matters more complicated, BOP cross reacts with many other common substances! What this means is that, just because it doesn’t show BOP doesn’t guarantee that your skin is safe. Check your products for any of these other ingredients that are known to cross react with BOP.
- Spices (e.g. Jamaican pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, paprika, curry, vanilla)
- Fragrances (e.g. citrus fruit peel, Essence of orange peel, roses, carnations, hyacinths and violets)
- Preservatives (Benzoic acid and its derivatives)
- Miscellaneous (Tiger balm, balsam of Tolu, Storax)
What a headache, right? Sometimes dealing with an unknown allergen can be one of the most frustrating problems you will ever face. If you don’t know where to start, just take a deep breath and follow these 3 simple tips to help you get a handle on your BOP allergy!
- Avoid it! As easy as it sounds, BOP can be everywhere and it is important to recognize a few of the most common products. Think of it this way. If you can smell it, it’s already on your skin. Be mindful of where you are and who you stand next to. If their perfume contains BOP, you are at risk for a flare-up. Look for fragrance-free products and avoid products marked “unscented” as they may include a masking fragrance!
- Wash it! Typically an allergic reaction is localized to the site of contact. If you found yourself making contact with BOP, washing your skin with warm water and soap may reduce or even prevent a flare. Over-the-counter hydrocortisone or an oral antihistamine may help reduce some of the symptoms of redness and itching.
- Moisturize with truly hypoallergenic skin barrier optimizing moisturizers. If you suffer from atopic eczema or allergy-prone skin, your sensitive skin needs protection. Being vigilant about using moisturizers will help restore the skin barrier and leave you well protected.
It is important to talk to your dermatologist if you are struggling to control your symptoms. There may be other lifestyle modifications and preventative measures that your dermatologist will be able to help you with. You may also benefit from seeing a dermatologist who specializes patch testing—check the American Contact Dermatitis Society website to find one near you.
Most importantly, do your due diligence to learn about allergens that are specific to you. Being aware is the first step to regaining control of your eczema and preventing the dreaded flare-up that keep you miserable for days!