حنا (Tolu Balsam)

حنا Tolu Balsamحنا Tolu Balsam

Tolu Balsam
lat. Myroxolon Toluiferum
Group: Resins and Balsams
Tolu Balsam Myroxolon Toluiferum
Tolu Balsam Myroxolon Toluiferum
Odor profile: sweetish, treackly balsamic note that project deep and ambery, giving warmth, dimension and balance to citrus and floral components

Among fragrant materials that lend themselves to cooler w...

حنا (Tolu Balsam)

حنا Tolu Balsamحنا Tolu Balsam

Tolu Balsam
lat. Myroxolon Toluiferum
Group: Resins and Balsams
Tolu Balsam Myroxolon Toluiferum
Tolu Balsam Myroxolon Toluiferum
Odor profile: sweetish, treackly balsamic note that project deep and ambery, giving warmth, dimension and balance to citrus and floral components

Among fragrant materials that lend themselves to cooler weather and our desire to indulge ourselves when we hanker after the diminishing light, Tolu and Peru Balsams distinguish themselves thanks to their refined and soft ambience. The fragrances which contain them exude a warm, majestic, plush character...


The distinction between resin and balsam in perfumery is one of form, on a fundamental level: Simply put and generalizing, resinous materials come in the form of solidified, gum-like "tears" seeping from the elixir vitae circulating into the bark of big trees, such as the Boswellia Carterii (which produces frankincense). Balsams on the other hand are trickly materials, not necessarily tree secretions, often coming as they do from flower pods or bushy twigs (such as vanilla orchids or the Mediterranean rockrose).  Balsam simply means a resin rich in essential oil. When dealing with a tree the trunks are marked with cuts excreting viscous dark resin. It is then usually steam distilled or vacuum distilled to obtain the oil which we name "balsam."


Peru balsam comes from the Myroxylon tree, literally "fragrant wood" in Greek, or Quina/Balsamo, which also produces Tolu balsam; the latter differs in production and in its odor profile, being a little sweeter and fresher than Balsam of Peru. The species is also known as Myroxylon toluiferum HBK (which is mainly used for the production of Tolu balsam as its name suggests), M. balsamamum (L.) Harms and Myroxolon Pereirae (i.e. from Peru, which is mainly used for the production of Balsam of Peru). The plant is mainly cultivated in the South America and the West Indies, although it has spread to other part of the world as well. Today El Salvador is the main exporter of Peru Balsam.

Myroxylon tree by mauroguanandi

Interestingly, the name of Balsam of Peru is a misnomer, since it was originally assembled and shipped to Europe from the ports of Callao and Lima, in Peru, even though the species is not indigenous to Peru; however it is a highly invasive species when introduced into tropical countries where it is not native due to the absence of natural enemies and its increased adaptability to differing light conditions. Tolu balsam owes its name (Tolú singular and Tolúes plural) to the name of the native precolumbian people that used to be the inhabitants at the same place where now is located Tolú, a small town and municipality in Sucre Department, northern Colombia (South America) by the Caribbean sea. Tolúes were indeed the first people reported to be using Tolu balsam in early Spanish chronicles.

The indigenous use of Myroxylon led to its export to Europe in the 17th century, where it was first documented in the German Pharmacopedia.

The use of these balsams in rash ointments, soaps, detergents, creams, body lotions, hair tonics, anti-dandruff preparations, cough syrups, and feminine hygiene sprays is only a small part of the beneficial role they play. Balsam of Peru has been successfully used by dentists in the case of post-extraction alveolitis, while the Myroxylon plant has been reported to inhibit Mycobacterium tuberculosis (responsible for the lung disease) as well as the common ulcer-causing bacteria, H. pylori in test-tube studies!


Tolu balsam is comprised of 3/4 fragrant resinous compound, containing approximately 15% free cinnamic acid and benzoic acid and about 40% of the benzyl and related esters of these free acids. A volatile oil is present in small amounts (from 1.5% to 7%). Traces of styrene, coumarin and vanillin are also present.

The Tolu resin is tapped from the trunk of the tree through incisions into the bark, trickling yellow-brown semi-fluid or near solid material in thick "drops" and collected. The cold material fractures like flint and is stored for use in pharmaceuticals and perfumery. The dry resin has a complex aroma consisting chiefly of cinnamon and vanilla, while at the same time it has a floral aroma that is inviting and soft.

Peru Balsam on the other hand is a dark brown, thick liquid also with cinnamic and vanillic facets and with a gentle green olive base note that is earthier and bitter. The process of producing it from the Myroxylon tree differs: The balsam in the bark is obtained by boiling. Following removal of strips of bark from the tree, the exposed wood secretes balsam. The material soaks into rags wrapped around the tree, which then are boiled in water. The naturally heavier balsam sinks to the bottom and the water on top is thrown away. Approximately 1 kg of balsam per tree is yielded annually.

Peru balsam, photo from perubalsam.org

Both of these materials have a gentle tone, while at the same time they're softly enveloping and have a pronounced character. They fix flowers into lasting longer and thanks to their properties when used in large quantities produce the Semi-Orientals or "Florientals" (i.e. in conjunction with rich floral essences).


A great example of a fragrance featuring copious amounts of a balsam is Tolu perfume by Ormonde Jayne. The opulence of the balsamic note mollifies the rest of the composition, giving the golden sheen of a multi-faceted citrine.

Compare and contrast with the balsamic base of Guerlain's Vol de Nuit which features a generous helping of Peru balsam; the oriental accord gives it its opulence under the green top note. In classic Shalimar Eau de Cologne a smidgen of Peru balsam gives a darker vanilla character which however remains lighter than the smoky, dense, leathery vanilla of the extrait; the same effect is repeating itself in the clotted, dark, intense 1950s icon Youth Dew of Lauder. Baume Tolu by Esteban beautifully highlights the ambery facets of Tolu Balsam. Peru balsam on the other hand provides the anchoring of Elixir des Merveilles (Hermes), as well as the Parfum des Merveilles, solidifying a sweet, mysterious almost chypre character under the unisex and lighter top notes. Patricia de Nicolai uses Peru balsam in both Sacrebleu and Sacrebleu Intense, giving us modern, wearable orientals that do not eschew the great tradition of the classics.

Both benzoin and Tolu balsam make up the surprisingly monastic backdrop of Bal a Versailles by Jean Desprez, allied to the austerity of cedar. The marmoreal quality of these somnobulent resins is queenly and feels like the most luxurious cashmere shawl imaginable in hues of rich burgundy or shady olive.


The main contact sensitizers in Peru balsam and Tolu balsam have been identified and include cinnamates, benzoates, and terpenoids, which makes them ingredients in the IFRA-approved list of potential skin sensitizers when used in perfumery. Therefore additional patch testing is recommended in sensitive individuals to trace how sensitization is acquired.

Ref: Hausen BM. Contact allergy to balsam of Peru. II. Patch test results in 102 patients with selected balsam of Peru constituents. Am J Contact Dermat . 2001;12:93-102


Elena Vosnaki

Elena Vosnaki is a historian & perfume writer from Greece and a Writer to Fragrantica. She is the founder and editor of Perfume Shrine, one of the most respected independent online publications on perfume containing fragrance reviews, industry interviews, essays on raw materials and perfume history, a winner in Fragrantica Blog Awards and a finalist in numerous blog awards contests.

Her writing was recognised at the Fifi Awards for Editorial Excellence in 2009 and she has been contributing to publications around the world.


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