Frankincense has always had a very special spiritual connection with humankind.
The first perfume was incense, its earliest uses bound up in religious rites. … With their complex aromatic layering, these substances are a vehicle for spiritual exaltation. … The burning of aromatics opens the door between the mundane and the supernatural, an elevation of consciousness that has been incorporated into the rituals and belief systems of many religions. Indeed, incense has permeated spiritual practice as thoroughly as spiritual practice has permeated human life.1
Botany and Origins
Frankincense, also known as Olibanum, is a natural oleo-gum-resin formed from the physiological exudate from the bark of various Boswellia species. There has been much confusion and little clarity about the various types of Frankincense over the years.
The most commonly used species are;
- Boswellia sacra – from Oman, Yemen and Southern Saudi Arabia
- Boswellia carterii Birdwood – from Somalia
- Boswellia frereana Birdwood – from Somalia
- Boswellia papyifera – from Western Ethiopia
- Boswellia serrata – from Western India2
Originating from the mountainous areas of Western India, Southern Arabia and North Eastern Africa, the trees are not cultivated, resin is collected where the trees are most abundant. Nowadays, the major Frankincense producing countries are Somalia, Yemen, India and Ethiopia.3,4
Tisserand suggests that B.carterii and B.sacra are the same plant, however this has been disputed by some.4 DeCarlo says that there are two types of Boswellia that grow in Somalia – Boswellia sacra (syn B.carterii) and Boswellia frereana.5
It appears that B.frereana originates from Somalia with small amounts coming from Oman. B.papyrifera is found in Eritrea, Yemen, India, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. Tisserand says the Frankincense oils with higher α-pinene levels (50-80%) probably indicate B.frereana, while lower concentrations (10-50%) indicate B.sacra. He also says there may be an α-thujene chemotype for B.sacra.4
It is reported that the best Frankincense occurs from trees growing in the narrow strip of Oman’s desert plateau that borders the mountains of the former South Yemen, where the trees have ideal soil conditions and tropical sun, accompanied by heavy dew from the monsoons.5
The Arabic name for B.sacra includes numerous variants of mogar, whereas the Somali name is mohar, and the most common name is mohar madow. In Somali, B.frereana is called yagar. 6
Most of the resin is produced from B.papyrifera. However, there is very little oil in the resin of this species, so it is not commonly used for producing Frankincense essential oil.4
The oleo gum-resin is tapped from an incision made on the trunk of the tree. A milky–white liquid appears, which then solidifies into amber or orange-brown crystals of resin. The gum-resin is then graded according to flavour, colour, shape and size. The age, appearance, moisture level and odour characteristics determine the quality of the oil.2
According to Pliny the Elder, in ancient times, Frankincense could only be harvested by specially appointed families. The resin was considered to be divine and gatherers were restricted from impure acts during harvesting of the resin.6
The method for harvesting Frankincense has not changed much in the past several thousand years. Incisions are made in the bark of the trunk or branches, where the secretory tissues occur, the resin exudes and is collected when it hardens sufficiently.6
Cropwatch lists several Boswellia ssp. that are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008. B.sacra is the only one which is of commercial importance.7
Method of extraction
Frankincense essential oil is produced from the steam distillation of the resin of various Boswellia species. A resinoid absolute of Frankincense is also produced for the perfume industry by solvent extraction.2
The essential oil of B.carterii is colourless to yellowish-green or amber-green. It has a diffusive, fresh-terpene-like, almost green-lemon-like aroma with a slight peppery note and a rich, sweet-woody, balsamic undertone.2 Lis-Balchin says that it can be tenacious, however, this depends on the distillation procedure. She also says it can have a “cistus-like, amber-type, balsamic dry-out note”.8 The odour of Frankincense has also been described as fresh-balsamic with a fruity overtone.6
Historical and Traditional uses
The name olibanum is thought to be derived from Latin, olium libanum, meaning oil from Lebanon. The name ‘Frankincense’ is derived from the Old French word Franc, meaning free, pure or abundant, and the Latin word incensum, meaning to smoke.9
Frankincense played a very important role in the religious and domestic lives of Ancient Egypt, Persia, Hebrew, Greek and Roman civilizations. It has always been considered an important ingredient in cosmetics as an aromatic incense and in religious rituals of these ancient civilisations.2
Frankincense is believed to be part of the oldest global supply chain. The Nabataeans, an Arab tribe, monopolized the trade nearly 2,000 years ago and maintained their lucrative competitive advantage for more than five centuries.5
The Egyptians obtained Frankincense from the land of Punt, believed to have been a region in Somalia. The famous Kyphi, a renowned scent used by ancient Egypt, was made with Frankincense. Kyphi was used as an incense and added to beverages.10
In Ancient Egypt a dead king had to be perfumed with incense in order to be accepted by the Gods. Incense was considered the scent of the Gods and it was believed that by acquiring the scent of incense, the king would affirm his basic identity with the gods.11
Kohl, a black powder used by Egyptian women to paint their eyelids, is made from charred Frankincense.12
During the Roman times transport costs and the high demand for incense far exceeded the supply of Frankincense and Myrrh, which were considered such precious commodities that their value was similar to that of gold.13
More than 3,000 tons of Frankincense was imported by the Romans each year. However, by this stage the original sacred use of Frankincense to honour the gods had been transmuted into extravagant, luxurious use for mortals. Nero was said to have burned so much Frankincense at the funeral of his wife that Arabia’s supply was exhausted for an entire year.13
Frankincense is regularly mentioned in the Bible;14
Your two breasts are two fawns,
twins of a gazelle,
that feed among the lilies.
Before the dawn-wind roses,
before the shadows flee,
I will go to the mountain of myrrh,
to the hill of Frankincense
Song of Solomon 4:5-4:6
The most commonly known reference to Frankincense is that infamous gift to the infant Jesus;14
…and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
Aftel explains that beautiful smells, such as those emanating from Frankincense, were not only offered up to God – they were said to emanate from the divine. She says that it was a basic precept that heaven was filled with beautiful smells and hell radiated a putrid stench.1
She also says that the sense of smell was seen as “uniquely incorruptible among the senses” and cites a passage from the Old Testament describing how the Messiah would be misled if he trusts the evidence of his eyes or ears, but will choose rightly if he follows his nose.
a spirit of wisdom and insight,
a spirit of counsel and power,
a spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Yahweh. (the fear of Yahweh is his breath)
He does not judge by appearances,
he gives no verdict on hearsay. 1
Stoddart says that the burning of incense became very popular with the ancient Hebrews. The rituals associated with burning incense became increasingly complex, reaching their peak in the temple of Herod, two decades before the birth of Christ. Incense was always burned when a burnt sacrificial offering was prepared, most likely to soften the harsh odour of the slaughtered animals and burning flesh.15
However, early Christians scorned the use of incense. Stoddart cites Lactantius, who said that odours are not required by God and should not be offered to him. He also says there is little doubt that the revulsion that early Christians had to incense resulted from the heavy usage by the Jews. However, Christians soon began to use incense only as a fumigant for sanitary protection such as a burial, or if a church building smelt particularly unwholesome.15
It is still used in many parts of the Arab world. For example, the Muslim inhabitants of the United Arab Emirates say that a dirty, smelly body is vulnerable to evil, the scented person is surrounded by angels. They believe that the most useful scent for attracting angels and dispelling evil spirits is Frankincense. For this reason, children, houses and mosques are censed weekly with Frankincense.16
Holmes says that Frankincense resin was a very valuable remedy in traditional Greek, traditional Ayurveda and traditional Chinese Medicine. He says that Persian physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna) used Frankincense for ulcers, tumours, fevers, dysentery and vomiting.
In Ayurveda, Frankincense is primarily used as a drying, astringent remedy for damp and Kapha conditions of the digestive, respiratory and urogenital organs.17
Indian Frankincense (Boswellia serrata), commonly referred to as “dhoop”, is considered one of the most valued herbs in Ayurveda. It was mainly used to treat arthritis, but also beneficial for diarrhoea, dysentery, ring worm, boils, fevers, skin and blood diseases, cardiovascular diseases, mouth sores, bronchitis, asthma, cough, vaginal discharges, hair loss, jaundice, haemorrhoids, irregular menses and stimulation of the liver.
Modern pharmacology suggests that the gum-resin extracts of Boswellia serrata has excellent anti-arthritic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic and hepatoprotective (protect the liver) properties.18
Frankincense essential oil is used in fine perfumery in citrus-based perfumes, incense-like perfumes, oriental, floral and masculine perfumes.3
The chemistry of Frankincense is very complex. It has more than 20 monoterpenes and 28 sesquiterpenes.
The typical chemical composition of Boswellia serrata from India is as follows:19
α-thujene (71.74%), α-pinene (5.22%), thuja 2,4 (10) diene (0.4%), sabinene (5.2%), β-pinene (0.37%), Myrcene (0.91%), α-phellandrene (2.24%), d-3-carene (3.86%), α-terpinene (0.38%), limonene (1.64%), β-phellandrene (0.49%), cis- β-ocimene (0.6%), (p-cymene 1.66%), trans-β–ocimene ( 0.27%), ɤ-terpinene (0.79%), terpinolene (0.26%), α-thujone (0.13%), terpinene-4-ol (0.67%), methyl chavicol (1.37%), β-bourbonene (0.32%), germacrene D (0.17%), valencene (0.13%), kessane (0.12%).
The typical chemical composition of Perfect Potion’s certified organic Boswelia carterii from Somalia is as follows:20
α-thujene (trace to 10%), α-pinene (30 to 60%), sabinene (trace to 8%), β-pinene (trace to 14%), b- myrcene (trace to 10%), limonene (2-15%), viridiflorol (trace to 10%).
What about boswellic acid?
In my blog, The Truth about Frankincense, I have cited Martin Watt, who is concerned about the ingestion of Frankincense essential oil, as he says it is common to find Frankincense tainted with toluene.21 Toluene is a very strong chemical, often used in paint thinners and has the potential to cause severe neurological damage.
We had both Perfect Potion’s Boswellia serrata and Boswellia carterii tested for toluene and both tests confirmed there are no traces of toluene in either oil.
I am concerned that many companies have fraudulently misled the public by inferring that Frankincense essential oil has potential anti-carcinogenic properties. Much of the research that they cite to justify their claims is based on research done on Boswellic acid. As I stated in The Truth about Frankincense, Boswellic acid is only found in the resin and no traces of it are found in the essential oil. As Tisserand points out;
…Boswellic acid is much too heavy a molecule to be volatile so it would be impossible to find it in the essential oil. Boswellic acid has a molecular weight in the range of 450-500. However, volatile molecules all have molecular weight below 300 .22
Therefore it is deceitful for anyone to claim that Frankincense essential oil can cure cancer based on its Boswellic acid content.
Analgesic, antiseptic, astringent, carminative, cicatrisant, cytophylactic, expectorant, sedative, vulnerary.2,9,28
I agree with Lis-Balchin who says is very difficult to make generalisations about the bioactivity of Frankincense because there is so much variation in the chemical composition depending on the source of the resin.8
B.serrata is used in Ayurveda for treating inflammatory diseases. A number of researchers have investigated the anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic effects of the Boswellic acids found in the gum. It is believed that the mechanism of action may occur via the inhibition of 5-lipoxygenase and leucite elastase. Both these enzymes play key roles in inflammatory and hypersensitivity–based diseases.23
Therefore, I would suggest that Frankincense essential oil may not be as effective as we have made it out to be given that it does not contain any Boswellic acid. The herbal extract of Frankincense gum would be more effective for this purpose as it contains the Boswellic acids.
Lis-Balchin says that Frankincense’s anti-bacterial effects are strong, however, it has poor anti-fungal effects.8
Several studies have confirmed that Frankincense has pronounced activity against a range of bacteria.24,25
Almost all the research on Frankincense and cancer is related to Boswellic acid that can be found in the resin – not the essential oil. Frankincense extract contains about 50% Boswellic acid and there has been extensive research on the anti-tumoral activity of Boswellic acid.22,23
Many researchers have identified Boswellic acid found in the FFrankincense resin extract as having very strong anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor activity. Researchers found that more than 50% of the myeloid leukemia cells underwent apoptosis for 24 hours after treatment with 20 µg/mL Boswellic acid isolated from Boswellia carterii resin. This apoptotic process was p53 independent.26
Another researcher examined the effects of acetyl-11-keto-b-boswellic acid (AKBA) on pancreatic cancer. The results of the study demonstrate that AKBA can supress the growth and metastasis of human pancreatic tumours in an orthotropic nude mouse model that correlates with modulation of multiple targets.27
Again, I would suggest that Frankincense essential oil may not be effective for this purpose. The herbal extract of Frankincense-gum would be more effective as it contains Boswellic acids.
Price cites Frankincense as being a very effective immunostimulant essential oil.28 Frankincense essential oil exhibited a strong immunostimulant activity (90% transformation) when assessed by a lymphocyte proliferation assay.29
For topical and dermal functions Frankincense essential oil has been recommended for;17
· non-suppurating sores, wounds, chronic ulcers, swollen gums, bleeding
· acute tissue trauma, pain of rheumatism, arthritis
· joint stiffness
· boils, carbuncles, abscesses
· dry and mature skin types, wrinkles, scars, ulcers, wounds
For physiological functions Frankincense essential oil has been recommended for;17
· bronchitis, especially with copious sputum production
· amenorrhoea, dysmenorrhoea
· nervous depression
· immunodeficiency conditions
For psychological functions Frankincense essential oil has been recommended for;
· nervous tension, restlessness, grief, anxiety, mental confusion, nervous depression, sensory overstimulation, over reactive. 17
Price says Frankincense is well known for its effects on the human psyche and is recognised as being beneficial for nervous depression.28 Mojay says Frankincense’s most important sphere of action is the nervous system. He says it is able to relax and yet revitalise, making it excellent for treating both nervous tension and nervous exhaustion.30
Frankincense can be used to alleviate anxiety, nervous tension and stress-related conditions.2
Holmes believes that the fragrance of Frankincense primarily stimulates two cerebral centres;
· the raphe nucleus to release serotonin and GABA for the calming effect
· the hippocampus and amygdala to release various neurotransmitters for mental stimulant effect17
He suggests that the sesquiterpenes in Frankincense contribute to the oil’s calming action, while the monoterpenes may be the basis for the oil’s mental stimulant action. 17
Frankincense has traditionally been used to treat respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, and catarrhal conditions.2
Frankincense oil has anti-catarrhal and expectorant properties that make it beneficial for treating bronchitis and asthma, especially associated with nervous tension.30
Frankincense is well known in skincare for its wound healing properties. It is also recommended for treating dry and mature skin, scars, wounds and wrinkles.2
Price says that Frankincense can be very helpful for palliative care. He says that when we are confronted with our mortality we may turn inwards and question our innermost thoughts, beliefs and values in an attempt to make sense of what is happening. They say that aromatherapy can provide spiritual support, bringing comfort and peace in the form of deep relaxation. This allows patients to focus on their spirituality.28
Worwood describes Frankincense personalities as displaying an air of mystery and secretiveness. They are often considered eccentric and prefer to use their own initiative to get something done. There is a sense of maturity, confidence and efficiency about a Frankincense personality. They seem to have an understanding of the nature of the universe.31
She says that while they are not necessarily religious people, they love all things spiritual and have a profound love of God in their heart. They are usually good communicators – clear and eloquent, however they may be perceived as being blunt.31
When they are negative, she says that the Frankincense personality can be destructive and bitter. They can be sceptical, cynical and are often inclined to be guilt-ridden, insecure and uncertain. They are liable to suffer from anxiety and stress and be short tempered and agitated. However, as they are such an enlightened person, Worwood says they are able to realise what is going on and make a concerted effort to change direction – into positivity.31
They are typically very steady, upright citizens and will be attracted to jobs that command respect and honour. In their business dealings they have the ability to sense accurately whether a deal will turn out well or if it will be a waste of time. She says that they make very good counsellors as their advice is very down to earth and practical.31
According to Myers-Briggs personality types, I would describe Frankincense as Introversion, Intuition, Thinking and Judgement (INTJ). This is the Mastermind Archetype. INTJ’s are very responsible and dependable. They are people of very few words and tend to be private. They are punctual, precise, fastidious and they have the ability to concentrate, bring difficult to distract. They prefer to work alone and dislike distractions. They are extremely devoted in their relationships.
Frankincense is often recommended to quiet the mind and assist in meditation, prayer and spiritual practices.
Frankincense cleanses the aura, is finely attuned to the subtle energies and paves the way to the higher self.32
Frankincense is elevating, spiritual and meditative, and holds some of the wisdom of the universe, that which is manifested in the spiritual self.33
Worwood recommends using Frankincense to help ground us and reconnect us with our body in cases of spiritual shock or loss.33
Loughhran and Bull say that it enhances a meditative state so that we can better receive and integrate healing energy. It also focuses and strengthens spiritual consciousness and enlightenment, connecting us with the divine.34 Davis says that Frankincense will help us cut ties with the past, especially where these may block personal growth.35
Mojay compares Frankincense to Sandalwood;
…like sandalwood, it is an ideal aid to meditation, contemplation, and prayer, ceasing mental chatter and stilling the mind. Facilitating a state of single pointed concentration, it allows the spirit to soar.30
He also says that Frankincense contains the power to focus our spiritual consciousness;
Whenever we have allowed ourselves to become oppressed by the mundane or tied to the past – indeed, restricted or weighed-down by any form of over-attachment – Frankincense can help us break free. This, it will achieve through encouraging tranquillity, insight and spiritual self-discipline, allowing the ego-self and trans-personal self to work in unison. 30
I have always felt that Frankincense oil can be used for the lower chakras (base chakra and solar plexus) and that it also helps balance all the upper chakras. Holmes’ explanation really sheds some light on this;
By promoting both an upward and downward movement of energy, here is an oil that creates connection between the lower and upper body parts, thereby generating a dynamic balance between them. Energetically we can say that Frankincense connects the lowest chakra with the middle and upper chakras.17
He goes on to explain that Frankincense helps integrate the personality by creating connections between the different aspects of our individual self.17
This explains why Frankincense induces the state of contemplation that religions around the world have engaged in their ceremonies for thousands of years. Frankincense can lead to a state that can be the doorway to transcendent liberation from the physical body.17
Holmes attributes Frankincense oil as having unique energetic qualities that he says are due to the essential oil’s complex aroma. According to Holmes, the aroma of Frankincense is spicy, sweet, woody and green.
He explains that the spicy component of the aroma causes energy to rise and disperse, whereas the sweet, woody and green aromas have the effect of causing energy to go down and stabilise.
The sweet woody and green note on the other hand exerts a more calming, grounding and balancing effect that reduces excessive energy. As such, Frankincense is used for nervous tension, anxiety and mental confusion. The spicy aspect of Frankincense is generally uplifting and tonifying. This is why the oil is often recommended to alleviate fatigue, grief, depression and poor mental focus.
Mojay says Frankincense is able to smooth the flow of stagnant Qi-energy whenever there is stress that leads to irritability, restlessness and insomnia.
In terms of the Five Elements, Mojay says Frankincense is associated with the Earth Element. He says that it has a deep, clarifying effect on the Intellect (Yi), associated with the Earth Element.
I also suggest that Frankincense is associated with the metal element. It has anti-catarrhal and expectorant properties that alleviate respiratory congestions associated with weak Lung Qi.
Mojay also says that Frankincense strengthens the Defensive Qi, which is the responsibility of the Lungs.
In Ayurveda Frankincense oil is perfect for balancing Vata and calming excessive Pitta energy.
How to use
Typically for a full body bath in a tub, use up to 5 drops of essential oils in the tub of warm water. Foot or hand baths may be prepared by adding 2-3 drops of essential oil to a bowl of warm water.
Use a 2.5% dilution of the appropriate blend of essential oils to the chosen carrier oil.
A 2.5% dilution this equates to 5 drops of essential oil to 10mL of carrier oil.
The best way to use essential oils for inhalation is by diffusing them. When you are using essential oils in an ultrasonic diffuser, please follow the instructions of the diffuser that you are using.
Schnaubelt recommends 1 drop in a glass of water for immune deficiency and depression. However, I would only recommend doing this when using authentic certified organic essential oil.
Aftel describes Frankincense as having a soft, incense-like odour. In perfumes it is used as an important fixative in spicy, exotic and flowery perfumes. It also blends well with citrus oils. It does have a very diffusive, lighter base note with Aftel noting that it can blend with milder notes without dominating them. However, I have always found Frankincense to have a rather overpowering aroma and if you add too much it tends to overpower the overall aroma of the blend.
In aromatherapy blends, I suggest Frankincense be used as follows;
Musculoskeletal – for inflammation and joint pain, consider blending with black pepper, clove bud, everlasting, ginger, spike lavender, sweet marjoram and rosemary.
Respiratory – to assist with breathing, consider blending with blue mallee eucalyptus, fragonia, everlasting, pine and tea tree.
Skin – for wound healing and dry skin, consider blending with everlasting, lavender, rose otto or absolute, patchouli and sandalwood.
Mind – for uplifting and cognitive enhancement, consider blending with bergamot, coriander seed, fragonia, juniper berry, lavender, lemon, cold pressed lime, pine and rosemary.
Spirituality – to assist in meditation practice, consider blending with Roman chamomile, lemon, neroli and sandalwood.
Perfect Potion Classics with Frankincense
Frankincense is used in many of the chakra essential oil blends due to its unique qualities that promote spirituality. It has been used for Cosmic crown chakra blend, Expressive throat chakra blend and to help balance Harmony solar plexus chakra blend.
Both our Green Goddess and Chakra Balancing blends are very complex, consisting of at least 23 essential oils. Frankincense plays a very important role to give spiritual depth and a wonderful subtle incense-like aroma to these two Perfect Potion classic blends.
Frankincense also plays an important role in Desert Dreaming blend where it is blended with essential oils such as Santalum spicatum, kunzea, fragonia, sage and vetiver to recreate the sacred energy of the Australian desert.
We have taken advantage of Frankincense’s unique ability to heal the skin by using it in our Skin Elixir Nourish, and Replenish skincare ranges. It is also blends perfectly with rose and is featured in our best-selling Frankincense and Rose Moisture Cream for dry and mature skin.
Frankincense oil intensifies the rich floral aroma of rose. This gives our peace perfumes, Turkish Moon and Salam, both containing Frankincense and Rose Absolute, their exquisite rich, floral and deep aroma.
Frankincense oil is considered non-toxic, non- irritant and non-sensitising. No contraindications known.
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- Lijuan Xia, Duo Chen, Rui Han, Qicheng fang, Samuel Waxman and YongKui Jing, Boswellic acid acetate induces apoptosis through caspase-mediated pathways in myeloid leukemia cells, Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, 2005;4(3), March 2005.
- Byoungduck Park, Sahdeo Prasad, Vivek Yadav, Bokyung Sung, Bharat Aggarwal, Boswellic acid supresses growth and metastasis of human pancreatic tumors in an orthotopic nude mouse model through modulation of multiple targets. PLos ONE, www.plosone.org, Oct 2011, (6)10, e26943
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- Mikaeil BR et al, Chemistry and immunomodulatory activity of Frankincense. Zeitschrift fur Naturforschung Teil C, 58:2-4 (230-238) 2003.
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