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Frankincense Essential Oil

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Frankincense is a fascinating substance.  As a sap from the Boswellia tree that is intentionally harvested and then dried into a resin, it has been used as an incense, a perfume, a medicine, and a tea for over 6,000 years.

What is the history of Frankincense Essential Oil?

Frankincense may be best known for its mention as one of the gifts brought by the Wise Men to Jesus at his birth, but it was also important to many other cultures and for many other uses.  The name frankincense is derived from the Old French “franc encens” which means “high-quality incense” as franc meant “pure” or “noble”.  In Arabic, the resin of frankincense is called “olibanum” which means “that which results from milking”.  [1]

Frankincense has been used historically by several world cultures from Egypt to Asia to India and the Mediterranean.  [2]

  • Egypt: Frankincense was viewed as sacred and was part of the embalming lotions for mummification and they created khol (black eyeliner) from charcoaled remains of the burned resin, mixed with oils and waxes.  For the Egyptians, the benefits went beyond the cosmetic and ceremonial: they believed it was protective and good for vision.  [2]
  • Arabia: A major exporter of frankincense in ancient times, Arabia traded as extensively as China.  [1]
  • Arabian Peninsula: A major harvester of frankincense since antiquity.  [1]
  • Saudi Arabia: The Coptic church of Egypt bought and still buys 80% of the Frankincense harvested from Saudi Arabia and is brought back by Muslim pilgrims.  [3]
  • Hebrew Nation: Frankincense was used as a consecrated incense in Jewish ceremonies.  They believed that this incense was a symbol of divinity and prayer.  [2]  It was called “lavan” meaning “white” and was used to accompany the offering of a meal and was often associated with myrrh.  [1]

In particular, the type of incense mentioned in the Bible is that of Boswellia sacra.  [4]

  • Ethiopia: The people in Ethiopia believed the soot of the resin is good for eyes and often fumigated tired eyes with frankincense smoke.
  • Dhofar: The people of Dhofar perfumed and fumigated their clothes with frankincense smoke and used it as a cleansing smoke.  They also made an ointment from the bark to relieve severe muscular pain.  [2]
  • Europe: Frankincense was made popular in Europe by the Frankish Crusaders (not related to the origin of the name, frankincense, but to the culture of the Franks instead)
  • Greece: Herodotus, a Greek historian, wrote that harvesting frankincense gum was dangerous because there were venomous snakes in the trees, and he described how the Arabs harvesting the resin would burn the resin of another tree, the styrax, and the smoke would make the snakes flee.  His fellow scholars Pliny the Elder and Theophrastus also mentioned frankincense.  [1]
  • Rome: Emperor Nero made a pomade of Frankincense gum and wax as a concealing makeup for black circles under his eyes.  [2]

It is important to note that all of these cultures used almost every part of the tree.  Its roots, bark, flowers, bud, fruit, oleoresin, and essential oil all had value.

Types of Frankincense

Frankincense is oil or resin of the Boswellia tree, harvested by hand.  There are several species of Boswellia that grow in very little soil and arid climates.  They grow in the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia, parts of Pakistan, Ethiopia, India, and Sudan. [7, 3 ,5]

  1. Boswellia serrata

Also known as “Indian” Frankincense or Indian oli-banum, Sallaki, and Salai guggul in Sanskrit.  It is native to Pakistan and the Punjab region of India.  [5]

  1. Boswellia sacra

Also known as B. carteri and B. bhaw-dajiana.  It grows mostly in the Dhofar mountain range (known as the Nejd) in the Arabian Peninsula, and produces a superior quality resin that forms large, white clumps.  Most Omanis and Arabs believe B. sacra to be the best and it is the most expensive.  This species is declining because the remaining mature trees are dying due to animals in the Oman chewing the top of the tree’s flowers, leaves, and seedlings.  [6]

  1. Boswellia frereana

Also known as “Maydi” or “Dhidin”.  It grows in northern  Somalia where it is called “the king of frankincense”.  They also call B. frereana the “Yigaar” or “Yegaar” tree, or “Luban.”  It may be cultivated in the Yemen and Oman areas, but it is vague and represented by a written record in 1870 so there has been no scientific verification of it growing or being cultivated in those areas.

In other areas B. frereana is used by the Coptic Church of Egypt. [3]

  1. Boswellia papyrifera

Also known as “Sudanese frankincense” and called “itan zaf” in Ethiopia. It grows in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.  The smoke of this species has a characteristic lemon-pine scent, and it may be the principal source of frankincense used in ancient times.  [7]

What is an essential oil?

The term “essential oil” is called essential because it signifies the most important part of the aromatic plant:  its essence. An essential oil is a secondary metabolism of plants, especially aromatic plants.  Secondary metabolites are a natural defense mechanism against pests and microbials and consist of either color, pollinator attractants, or scents.  These essential oils are also known as volatile oils.  [8]

How is frankincense essential oil made?

Frankincense is harvested through multiple steps.  First, several deep cuts–but less than 5 or it stresses the tree–are made, and the adjoining small piece of bark is removed.  The tree secretes a milky white fluid which seals over the wound.  In three months, that fluid has hardened and can be scraped off the trunk.  For the best quality frankincense, the cutting must be repeated 3 times and the resin of the third harvest is collected and considered the best.  Resin that is sticky on the inside indicates a high concentration of volatile oil and is sent off for distillation.  Resin is judged by the degree of cloudiness, or opacity.  Some resin is sold as small tears, or grains of varying size and color.  [2]

Essential oils are mostly produced through steam distillation or mechanical expression.  Some plant extracts need a solvent such as ethanol, acetone, or hexane for extraction.

Essential oils produced through distillation are exposed to water condensate which separates through gravity and leaves a small amount of a volatile liquid behind—the essential oil.  Essential oils are extremely concentrated.

Though they are called oils, essential oils do not contain any lipids and do not qualify as true oils.  They consist of very complex volatile compounds with twenty to sixty constituents.  The constituents can be classified into two groups:  terpenes and aromatic compounds.  Usually, two or three major constituents are in very high concentrations, and the others are trace amounts.  The difference between whether terpenes or aromatic compounds are the higher concentration depends on the plant.  [8]

What is frankincense essential oil made of?

Boswellia trees contain 60-85% resins.  A resin is a mixture of terpenes.  Boswellia also contains 6-30% gums (which are a mixture of polysaccharides) and 5-9% essential oil.  Boswellic acid is the active component in the resin portion which has a specific type of terpene:  the pentacyclic triterpenes.  In the gum portion there is hexose and pentose sugars and some digestive enzymes, while the essential oil is a mixture of mono- and di-terpenes and sesquiterpenes.  [9]

There are four different types of boswellic acids:  b-boswellic acid (BA), 11-keto-b-boswellic acid (KBA), acetyl-b-boswellic acid (ABA), and 3-0-acetyle-11-keto-b-boswellic acid (AKBA).  They are anti-inflammatory because as they inhibit pro-inflammatory enzymes.  AKBA inhibits the enzyme 5-lipoxygenase that is the main inflammation enzyme.

Phytochemistry of Boswellia Oil:

  • Monoterpenes: 13.1%
  • Sesquiterpenes: 1%
  • Diterpenes: 5%
  • Duva-3,9, 13-trien-1,5alpha-diol-1-acetate: 4%
  • Octyl acetate: 13.4%
  • O-methyl anisole: 6%
  • Naphthalene decahydro-1,1,4a-trimethyl-6-methylene-5-(-3-methyl-2-pentenyl): 7%
  • Thunbergol: 1%
  • Phenanthrene-7-ethenyl-1,2,3,4,4a,5,6,7,8,9,10,10a-dodecahydro-1, 1, 4a,7-tetramethyl: 4.1%
  • Alpha-pinene: 1%
  • Sclarene: 9%
  • 9-cis-retinal: 8%
  • Octyl formate: 4%
  • Vertical: 2%
  • Decycl acetate: 2%
  • N-octanol: 1%     [10]

How to use Frankincense Essential Oil

Essential oils need to be diluted with a carrier oil because they are very concentrated, and this will help reduce the risk of skin irritation.  Unless otherwise directed by your healthcare practitioner, always use a diluted essential oil blend, and for internal use, please speak with an aromatherapy practitioner.  Dilutions and dosages for children have specific guidelines and should be supervised by your healthcare practitioner.

For Aromatherapy (inhalation):

  • Add to a diffuser
  • Burn resin as incense
  • Use a Diffuser necklace

Safety and Side Effects

Frankincense oil can irritate the mouth, esophageal tract, and stomach, and is only classified as “possibly safe” for oral use when not incorporated in a food source.  Speak with a practitioner about the best way to take frankincense oil internally.  [11]

Frankincense oil should not be used on children, pregnant, or breastfeeding women without caution.  It should be kept away from mucous membranes like the eyes and other sensitive parts of the body.  [11]

Frankincense oil should not be directly inhaled by those with respiratory ailments [11]

Frankincense essential oil should not be used by those individuals who have a bleeding disorder because it may increase the risk of bleeding, or bruising.  [11]


  1. “Frankincense.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankincense.
  2. “Frankincense.” Sacred Earth Ethnobotany & Ecotravel, www.sacredearth.com/ethnobotany/plantprofiles/frankincense.php.
  3. “Boswellia Frereana.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boswellia_frereana.
  4. “Boswellia.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boswellia.
  5. “Boswellia Serrata.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boswellia_serrata.
  6. “Boswellia Sacra.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boswellia_sacra.
  7. “Boswellia Papyrifera.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boswellia_papyrifera.
  8. Yap, Polly Soo Xi et al. “Essential oils, a new horizon in combating bacterial antibiotic r esistance.” The open microbiology journalvol. 8 6-14. 7 Feb. 2014, d oi:10.2174/1874285801408010006. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3950955/.
  9. Hamidpour, Rafie et al. “Frankincense ( rǔ xiāng; boswellia species): from the selection of traditional applications to the novel phytotherapy for the prevention and treatment of serious diseases.” Journal of traditional and complementary medicinevol. 3,4 (2013): 221-6. doi:10.4103/2225-4110.119723
  10. Mikhaeil, BR, et al. “Chemistry and Immunomodulatory Activity of Frankincense Oil.” Z Naturforsch C., vol. 58, no. 3-4, 2003, pp. 230–8., www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12710734.
  11. “Frankincense Essential Oil History.” sallysorganics.com/frankincense-2/frankincense-history/.


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