I've always loved the name "Friar's Balsam". Balsams are plant resins secreted by wounds in tree bark. The resin is a thick liquid that oozes out of the plant and covers an injury. It slowly hardens, blocking the entry to the plant and preventing infection and water loss.
|Gum Benzoin: photo by Wibowo Djatmiko,|
via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 License
Perhaps because they are associated with covering plant wounds. resins have been investigated for their ability to help human ailments, too. Some resins are said to have many medicinal benefits. Most of these claims haven't been tested scientifically, but there is preliminary evidence that certain resins may be beneficial.
Friar's Balsam is actually a mixture of several substances. One is tincture of benzoin, which can also be bought on its own. A "tincture" is an alcohol extract of a substance. In this case the substance is gum benzoin.
Gum benzoin is a vanilla-scented resin of a tropical tree. It ranges from light yellow to red-brown in color. Gum benzoin is also known as gum benjamin and styrax gum. The gum contains oil and is sometimes used as incense.
Compound Benzoin Tincture is another name for Friar's Balsam. This mixture contains other substances besides gum benzoin and alcohol. The recipe varies slightly depending on the manufacturer, but aloe and tolu balsam, another plant resin, are generally present.
Compound Benzoin Tincture is used as a skin protectant under bandages or tape. It reportedly reduces itching and allergy to the tape or dressing and helps the tape adhere better. It's also used as a treatment for skin problems, such as sores, cracked skin, minor cuts and blisters. It seems to act as a styptic (a substance that stops bleeding).
Compound Benzoin Tincture is also said to act as an expectorant. It's sometimes used in inhalants or humidifiers for a cold or chest congestion. It has also been dabbed on swollen gums to reduce the swelling and discomfort. Personally, I would never take it internally without consulting a doctor or a dentist who was familiar with my health background. Just because a product is natural doesn't mean that it's safe. It may interact with other medications, for example.
The use of Compound Benzoin Tincture for health problems seems to fall into the "I've tried it, and it works" category rather than the scientifically proven category. Some of its benefits may be due to its alcohol content. It's a very interesting substance, however.