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May 24, 2009

IFRA Reveals its Toxicological “Evidence” against Melissa Oil

by Tony Burfield May 2009


It has always been something of a curiosity that IFRA has previously seen fit to prohibit melissa oil (lemon balm oil) which derives from Melissa officinalis L. ssp officinalis, as an ingredient of fragrances. The reasoning behind this, according to the published IFRA Standard for melissa oil, issued on 16-07-2008, was said to be:

1) presence of structural alerts as defined in the Human Health Criteria Document (Ford et al., 2000) and/or

2) adverse data on the material itself and/or

3) adverse data for a structurally related material based on toxicological concerns about its contained components from structural point of view.

Whilst melissa oil enjoys a considerable reputation in aromatherapy for its alleged beneficial properties, the usage volume of melissa oil in corporate perfumery nowadays has to be vanishingly small, perhaps running to no more than a few kilos per annum, since many perfumers consider the high cost of the ingredient is not justified by any contained unique notes, overall odour value, stability, or performance in product. In the days of early perfumery, the situation may have been different, for example Melissa officinalis was said to be an ingredient of the 17th Century cordial Eau des Carmes. Melissa extracts on the other hand contain classes of compounds not found in the essential oil, which may have acetylcholinesterase inhibiting, anti-oxidant, anti-viral (e.g. exhibit action against herpes simplex viruses: Wolbling & Leonhardt 1994). and other useful properties Melissa leaf (under ‘lemon balm’) is official in the European Pharmacopoeia.

The Composition / Authenticity of Melissa Oil

There is a considerable amount of scientific literature on the composition & authenticity of melissa oil, and this brief review should only be taken as merely illustrative rather than fully comprehensive. Melissa oil rarely been commercially available in unadulterated form in the past, and was often a construct of citronella oil, litsea cubeba oil, lemon oil and various isolates & synthetics (Burfield 2008). Tisserand & Balacs (1995) had only identified possible toxicological concerns for melissa oil via its citral content, which they maintained was in the range 35-55%, concerns which presumably also apply to other high-citral containing oils such as lemongrass oil & litsea cubeba oil. Previously Schultze (1992) had investigated melissa flower oil, and found the corolla oil (yield 0.002%) to be different from the calyx oil, the latter resembling more the oil of the leaves. The main constituents of melissa leaf oil (Schultze 1989) were found to be citronellal (36.2%), germacrene D (13.5%), b-caryophyllene (10.9%), geranial (7.6%), and methyl citronellate (4.9%). Clery (1992) drew up some pointers to distinguish authentic melissa oil (including estimation of the geranial: citronellol ratio), in order to distinguish it from lemon-scented catnip oil from Nepeta cataria var. citriodora; this same topic was subsequently re-investigated by Klimek et al. (2000). In addition Clery indicates that the b-caryophyllene: geranial ratio is also important for the verification of authenticity, and the author cites a checklist of components normally found in genuine melissa oil. The position is further complicated by the ratio of top leaves to bottom leaves gathered, as the neral / geranial content is higher in the top leaves, whereas the sesquiterpenes are relatively higher in the bottom leaves – a topic further investigated by Mrlianova et al. (2001), who investigated essential oil composition at various harvest cut heights. Further, oil produced from the dried herb is claimed to be higher in neral & geranial, and lower in b-caryophyllene & caryophyllene oxide, than the fresh herb (Salaby et al. 1995). Melissa plants grown near the equator usually only grown in vegetative (non-flowering) form and so slight compositional differences may also arise from this consideration.

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The evaluation of criteria for melissa oil authenticity was also discussed by Hener (1995) who used enantioselective gas chromatography, isotope ratio mass spectroscopy on-line coupled with capillary gas chromatography. Soresen (2000) reviewed the analysis, composition and pharmacological uses of Melissa officinalis extracts. Later, Lawrence (2008) reviewed a number of publications on melissa essential oils showing differences in composition due to the effect of different geographical sourcing, differing stages of maturity etc. Other melissa oils produced commercially include Melissa romana Mill.

Melissa Oil under IFRA’s 44th Amendment

Under the draft proposals for IFRA’s 44th Amendment, melissa oil (which they describe as ‘genuine Melissa officinalis L.’) has been downgraded from an outright ban in fragrances, to a concentration restriction in the fragrance compound (as opposed to the finished cosmetic product). QRA data for melissa oil, which is categorised as a weak sensitiser, is presented by IFRA for the various established product categories, based on a No Expected Sensitization Induction Level (NESIL) of 1400mg/cm2. The problem for those of us who like to consider the robustness of the “evidence” supporting these proposed restrictions, is that it is alluded to in the form of 3 unpublished reports, not available in the public domain. These are as follows:

RIFM (Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, Inc.), 2001. Human repeated insult patch test. Unpublished study from Robertet, 21 February. Report number 36641. (RIFM, Woodcliff Lake, NJ, USA).

RIFM (Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, Inc.), 2008. Local Lymph Node Assay. Unpublished study from Robertet. (RIFM, Woodcliff Lake, NJ, USA).

RIFM (Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, Inc.), 2008. Human repeated insult patch test. Unpublished study from Robertet. (RIFM, Woodcliff Lake, NJ, USA).

Cropwatch has written to Robertet, Grasse, and to RIFM N.J., requesting that they make these reports publicly available, in the interests of transparency. We feel that this is particularly important in this case, in view of the devastating criticisms concerning the use of the QRA technique outlined in SCCP Opinion SCCP/1153/08, which directly related to the submitted RIFM / IFRA-generated data concerning citral as an alleged sensitiser (see feature on SCCP Opinion SCCP/1153/08 in Cropwatch Newsletter August 2008).

What to do about IFRA’s Discredited QRA Policy

In a new development, Matthias Vey of IFRA, speaking at the SCS Symposium (Grantham, May 2009) mentioned the fact that there are to be discussions on the QRA between the SCCP and IFRA. Previously Cropwatch had been told in a meeting at Brussels in 2007 with the European Cosmetics Commission, that communication between the SCCP and third parties (like Cropwatch) was not permitted, in order not the prejudice the SCCP, and to defend the committee from any criticism of partiality. We now seem to be in a situation where IFRA, a trade-funded business organisation, whose main activity is to sell scientific information on fragrances, is to have privileged access to a supposedly independent EU scientific committee to discuss an inherently contentious safety technique. Of course, IFRA has a lot to lose if the SCCP continue to discredit the QRA technique as the flawed piece of corporate-contrived science which it is, since IFRA have adopted this methodology as a tool to distinguish & restrict the use of any allegedly sensitising fragrance ingredients. Cropwatch has written to the Cosmetics Commissioner asking that this situation of unique access be either reversed, or that in the interest of fairness & to prevent possible bias, other interested parties should be granted similar opportunities to interact with the SCCP. Failing this, again in the interests of transparency, other parties should at least be granted observer status at important meetings which determine future cosmetics policy in this area.


Burfield T. (2008) – see http://www.cropwatch.org/adulterationupdate08.pdf

Clery R.A. (1992) An investigation of the variability of essential oil production in plants. Ph.D. Thesis, Univ. Reading, UK.

Hener U., Faulhaber S., Kreis P. & Mosandl A. “On the authenticity evaluation of balm oil (Melissa officinalis L.)”. Pharmazie (1995) 50(1), 60-62.

Klimek B., Majda T., Gora J. & Patoa J. (2000) “Investigations of the essential oil from lemon catnip (Nepeta cataria L. var. citriodora) in comparison to the oil from lemon balm (Melissa officinalis L.) Herba Pol. 46, 226-234.

Lawrence B.M. (2008) “Progress in Essential Oils. Melissa or Lemon Balm Oil.” Perf & Flav. 33 (*Sept 2008), 66-70.

Mrlianova M., Tekel’ova M., Felklova M., Renohl V. & Toth J. (2001) “The influence of the harvest cut height on the quality of the herbal drugs Melissa folium & Melissa herba.” Planta Med. 68, 178-180.

Salaby et al. (1995) “Oil of Melissa officinalis L., as affected by storage & herb drying” J. Essen. Oil Res. 7,: 667-9.

Schultze W.. Zanglein A.., Klose R. & Kubeczka, K.H. (1989) “Constituents of the essential oil from Melissa officinalis.” Planta Med. 57, 89-90.

Schultze W., Zanglein W., Hose S., Kubeczka K.H., Czygan F.C. (1992) “Volatiles in Flowers of Balm (Melissa officinalis L.)” in R. Hartley & T. Renolds (eds) Advances in Labiatae Science pp 357-366, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Sorensen J.M. (2000) "Melissa officinalis." Int. J. Aromatherapy 10(1-2), 7-15

Tisserand R. & Balacs T. (1995) Essential Oil Safety. Churchill-Livingstone 1995.

Wolbling R.H. & Leonhardt K. (1994) “Local therapy of herpes simplex with dried extract from Melissa officinalisPhytomedicine 1. 25-31.

Posted by Tony Burfield on May 24, 2009 in Essential Oils/Plant Extractions, Regulatory Issues, Safety/Toxicity | Permalink


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This is quite a detail article on the Toxicological “Evidence” against Melissa Oil from IFRA. It gives us a lot of information and insight on the subject. :)

Posted by: Organic Cosmetics | May 28, 2009 3:32:35 PM

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