Allergic Contact Dermatitis from Propolis

Susan E. Walgrave; Erin M. Warshaw; Lynn A. Glesne


Dermatitis. 2005;16(4):209-215. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Propolis is commonly used in cosmetic and medicinal preparations because of its antiseptic, antiinflammatory, and anesthetic properties. Its therapeutic qualities have been well documented. However, 1.2 to 6.6% of patients who are patch-tested for dermatitis are sensitive to propolis. The main allergens are 3-methyl-2-butenyl caffeate and phenylethyl caffeate. Benzyl salicylate and benzyl cinnamate are less frequent sensitizers. Propolis is found in a number of "natural" products, including lip balms, cosmetics, lotions and ointments, shampoos, conditioners, and toothpastes. Dermatologists should consider patch testing with propolis in users of such remedies.

The term "propolis" comes from two Greek words: "pro," which means "before," and "polis," which means "city." This ancient term came into being centuries ago when an early Greek student of nature established the fact that honeybees use propolis to narrow the openings into their "cities," or hives.[1] Propolis, also known as bee glue, is a lipophilic brownish resinous substance collected by bees, mainly from poplar and conifer buds; it is mixed with wax to seal the hives and to protect the bees against invaders and cold weather. It is hard and waxlike when cool but soft and sticky when warm.[2] Bee glue is not the same as beeswax. Beeswax is secreted by bees and is also used widely in cosmetics. However, it is a rare sensitizer unless contaminated with propolis.[3]

Propolis has a long history of use in folk medicine. In fact, more than 15 Greek and Roman authors reported on the preparation and application of the so-called third natural product of bees (besides honey and wax).[4] Records from the twelfth century describe medicinal preparations with propolis for treating mouth and throat infections as well as dental caries,[5] and propolis was even documented as a medication in the 1600s in London.[6] It was also often used to treat skin wounds and to protect raw skin before bandages were available. Today, propolis is used for many purposes and is sold in many health food stores as a remedy for many diseases.[3,6] Propolis products are marketed in various forms such as oral pills and lozenges, and propolis is often found in cough syrups, shampoos and conditioners, ointments, lotions, lipsticks, cosmetics, toothpastes, and varnishes.[6] Many of these products claim to be "all natural," which consumers often equate with safety.