As the holiday season approaches, I am, as ever, drawn to thinking about Frankincense essential oil. It's impossible for an aromatherapist not to be. The sacred oil is so beautiful for slowing the breath, so excellent for prayer and meditation and panic attacks and asthma. It restores elasticity, and aromatherapists use it to nourish dry skin, prevent wrinkles, and preserve the complexion. In the same way, Frankincense essential oil restores elasticity to tendons and overly stretched and strained muscles. Frankincense is impressive for embalming mummies and relaxing and soothing tired muscles.
Where Does Frankincense Essential Oil Come From?
Frankincense is a shrubby tree that grows in the deserts of Omar, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Somaliland. The finest comes from the Dhofar regions of Yemen, a foggy climate that delights the trees into bleeding milky resins prolifically. In summer, the shrub's bark is slashed, and resin pours from it. These "tears" dry hard and form one of history's most important sacred ingredients, incense.
One of my favorite things is to send Frankincense and myrrh to the local primary schools so the kids can see these strange little pebbles given to Jesus at the nativity. Surely that can't be. The consensus of the class tends to think that Jesus was a bit ripped off, and I've got to admit I can see where they are coming from.
Two thousand years ago, though, they'd have seen a very different narrative.
How Was Frankincense as Valuable as Gold?
The answer is an economics lesson in its own right - a study of supply and demand, piracy and transport costs.
Incense in Antiquity
Across the Mediterranean world, people of antiquity believed that gods delighted in sweet fragrances. Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all worshiped pantheons of Pagan gods and goddesses, each of whom needed to be cared for and kept on their side. Incenses were used as offerings to the gods and ways to purify and cleanse the space. Every service was accompanied by incense burning.
In ancient Greece, the offering of fragrant smoke was seen as aeros which meant loving intention. There were believed to be rules about how the gods interacted with mortals and that they could not intercede on their behalf unless they were asked. It seems rather quaint when you write it like that, but that is the nature of prayer. So the deity was seen as patiently waiting for the mortal to signal the desire to interact. That came not only from the feelings of love from the prayer but also from a sacred signal in the form of fragrant smoke.
Frankincense In Ancient Egypt
Over 1400 deities were worshiped in the temples and shrines of ancient Egypt, and most of those were offered incense four times each day. At Heliopolis, the City of The Sun, Frankincense was placed for one of their creation gods, the Ben-Ben bird, a dying and rising phoenix whose birthplace and tomb was a nest of Frankincense.
Frankincense was seen as encapsulating the searing energy of the sun. Of course, the sun is reborn each day, a key component of their beliefs in the Afterlife. It was one of many plants used to preserve their mummies, not just of humans but sacred animals too. It does have powerful antibacterial, antimicrobial and antifungal qualities that will have helped prevent the skin from rotting, but a far more aspect of the success of Egyptian embalming. In effect, the sun desiccated the bodies, which was necessary since they believed they would need their body in the hereafter.
The sun connection follows Frankincense in medical astrology. The sun is warming and drying like Frankincense is. It is seen as a person's conscious mind and ego and being fortifying, strong, and brave. The sun is the bringer of life, the most exalted one—the ruler, deity, and king.
Offering to G-d of The Hebrews
Of course, in opposition to the Pagans and their "False Idols," the Hebrews worshiped one deity. In Exodus, He commanded Moses to create incense to help his people worship in the Tabernacle. "Take for yourself spices, stacte and onycha, and galbanum, spices with pure Frankincense; there shall be an equal part of each.
It was regularly added to burnt offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem. It comprised a unique incense blend that was reserved only for divine service. In Leviticus 2, we are told it was an essential aspect of making grain offerings, especially ground flour, although it is unclear why. (Grossmann, 2019).
It is mentioned several times in the Song of Solomon;
Who is this coming up from the wilderness like a column of smoke, scented with myrrh and Frankincense from all the spices of the merchant? The Queen of Sheba was on a mission to create a political alliance with King Solomon.
In 4:6, it appears again in a starkly different context. This time Solomon gazes at his bride;
Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle grazing among the lilies. Before the day breaks and the shadows flee, I will make my way to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of Frankincense. You are altogether beautiful, my darling; in you, there is no flaw.…
Men knew how to speak to women better back then, wouldn't you agree?
Christianity and Incense
This extensive usage of incense - probably used in part to disguise the stench of sacrificed animals- was to become part of the narrative used by the early Church to establish its initial rules.
It was the Roman Emperor Theodosius I who ordered the closure of the Pagan sanctuaries in 392CE. Still, through the third and fourth centuries, Christian papers were written about incense's dangers. Pagans, they said, used incense as a way to lure their demons to them. Thus Christians should stay away from such toxic fumes. Mixed marriages between Christians and Pagans became prohibited; after all, how could they live together when Pagans would not give up their smoke? Instead, a campaign of "the sweet smell of Christ," "the fragrance of the Church," took its place. It wouldn't be until the sixth century that Frankincense would find its way back into Christian rites.
So, we're only talking about Frankincense as an incense here. As stated, it also played a valuable part in embalming, not just in Egypt but also in the Roman world. To clarify, when people say Frankincense essential oil was used in the ancient world, that is misleading. Old oils were made by soaking the resin in warm oil, not through distillation. However, their Frankincense was also well sought after for medicinal or perfumery uses. Demand was astronomical, particularly in Egypt, where no incense trees grow, so trade was lucrative!
All these people to sell to, but no planes, trains, or automobiles to get it there…only camels. And along the way, there was caravanserai to stop and refuel. Still, at every stop, there were astronomical tolls to be paid.
When I was bored in lockdown a couple of years ago, I made a video. In it, I am The Spirit of Frankincense, The Queen of Sheba, and talk about these tolls that were charged along the incense route. Looking back now, I am astonished at how much I remembered my lines…but I have no idea why the queen of Sheba would sometimes sound Welsh!
Today's Value of Frankincense
So when we think of the enormous value it had then, then the small price we pay for it now, one could be forgiven for thinking the bottom has fallen out of the bottom of the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. A 2021 market report estimated the Global Frankincense Essential Oil Market to be worth US$ 222.8 Mn in 2020, with projections to reach US$ 406.1 Mn by 2030. (MarketResearch.biz, 2021)
Year on year, the market value increases by 7.7%, with China being the biggest customer for Frankincense's use in Traditional Chinese Medicine. We'll talk about how they use it in TCM, but just before we do….
Cleansing The Temple Space
One of my favorite studies of 2018 was done on the effects of using Frankincense to cleanse spiritual spaces. If they burned incense, what impact did it have on airborne germs and fungi spores within the beautiful walls of churches?
Frankincense essential oil did well, clearing 65% of airborne bacteria and 45% of fungi. The incense resin was better, killing 91% bacteria and 80% fungi. (Grbić, 2018)
I don't know what differences in constituents cause that shift in results there. We do, however, know the sensation of warmness that slowly blankets you as you pray is partly down to a constituent called incensole. Incensole acetate is known to exert a neuroprotective effect after brain trauma. It has anti‐depressive and anxiolytic effects in mice. (Moussaieff, 2009) However, since incensole is such a large molecule, it is too heavy to pass through distillation. It is not found in essential oil.
One of the critical lessons to learn when using Frankincense is the value of seeing something for what it is, not what you want it to be. Not everything you read about Frankincense will be the same for the essential oil. Indeed, in the case of spiritual practice, Frankincense essential oils slow the breath and quieten the mind. It leads you to a place of sacredness, but the sensation that G-d sits close to you is likely to feel more robust if you use the incense.
So if incensole is an antidepressant that helps anxiety but is not in the essential oil, does that mean it won't have those properties? Well, in my opinion, frankincense essential oil certainly does help anxiety. It lifts the spirits, so potentially these properties must be echoed by other constituents who find themselves in the oil. Alpha pinene, for one…
What Is Frankincense Good For?
Research into Frankincense is prolific since the resin has been proven to be anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer. Let's start there.
Does Frankincense Essential Oil Treat Cancer?
Sadly, there is no proof that essential oil does.
Frankincense resin contains a constituent called boswellic acid, which has proven anti-cancer abilities. Specifically, boswellic acid stops tumor cells from spreading, prevents the stem cells from splitting and creating more specialized cell lines, and triggers cell death in leukemia cell lines. These acids are toxic to human glioblastoma and leukemia cells as well cells. Research suggests that Boswellic acids may reduce cerebral edema in patients with brain tumors. (Robinson, 2013)
However, like incensole, boswellic acid molecules are too large and heavy to pass through the steam distillation producers use to extract commercial essential oils. As such, then, there is no boswellic acid in Frankincense essential oil.
To be clear, that is not to say that there may not be other molecules in the essential oil that may turn out to have anti-cancer abilities in the future. Still, sadly, there is no reason to think Frankincense essential oil may help alleviate tumors. Indeed, work is also being done to find ways to capture the acid better. The essential oil is captured with steam distillation, but hydrodistillation can provide a solution. Frankincense essential oil extracted this way is active against pancreatic cancer cells. (Ni, 2012) However, to stress, you will not currently find this kind of Frankincense essential oils available on sale commercially. It is made in minimal amounts by research scientists in their laboratories, specifically for their experiments.
In addition, even though these are human cancer cells used in these trials, they are only in a petri dish. Getting the treatment to work predictably in a non-sterile complex human blood circulation environment is hundreds of miles away.
On the other side, though, frankincense essential oil is a beautiful emotional and physical support for people who are undergoing cancer treatments. It is so powerful, relaxing, and has a fascinating effect on sleep.
Insomnia is a common side effect of a cancer diagnosis. Sleep is an integral part of the body being able to rest and restore. Rodent studies show that Frankincense essential oil helps you claw back sleep debt. (Pun not intended, apologies) and to relieve the general fatigue associated with the illness. (Okano, 2019)
One case history published in Holistic Nurse Practitioner described how one lady had gone from barely lifting her head off the pillow to going about her daily duties after the topical use of Frankincense essential oil. (Reis, 2018)
But then, this year, Reis published the results of her study where they have been giving people foot massages before and after chemotherapy; here, though, she stated that results did not indicate any particular benefits on fatigue. (Reis, 2022) Interesting to see what a powerful aid to healing the placebo effect can be for some people and that essential oils can work so differently from person to person. That's both the beauty and the agony of aromatherapy.
My fellow NAHA Director, Jessie Hawkins, published a brilliant study where she and her team at Franklin Health helped women to overcome the fatigue remaining from having endured COVID-19. They inhaled the blend of Frankincense, clove, and orange essential oils twice daily for two weeks and saw significant changes in their vigor. (Hawkins, 22)
Aromatherapists like to use frankincense essential oil for inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, bronchitis, and asthma. Additionally, when we think of inflammation, we can say inflamed tempers, inflamed skin, and hot angry urinary infections.
The anti-inflammatory abilities of Frankincense essential oil mainly come from alpha-pinene, which can suppress inflammatory cluster proteins ICAM-1 and the inflammatory chemokine IP-10. (Roy, 2005) (Nam, 2014) This is being investigated as a possible help for rhinitis and allergies.
Understanding Frankincense Essential Oil from A Chinese Medicine Perspective
The Chinese call Frankincense Ru Xiang extensively for its anti-inflammatory actions on many things, from gout to breast mastitis.
The actions of Frankincense, according to TCM, are that it moves Blood and Qi and relieves pain.
Frankincense disperses Wind-Damp from the Meridians and relaxes the sinews. Its general medicine is to reduce swelling and heal wounds.
So, let's think about Qi first…the essence of a person, their spirit. Vapor, air, or breath. So we can think of it in terms of air moving more quickly through the lungs or flatulence through the intestine, but also how those carry emotions, energy, and thoughts.
Depression and anxiety both have this notion of things lingering, fear, dark clouds, always present, never shifting….
So when we use Frankincense, it's like a soothing breeze through the tissues, the heart, and the mind.
Notice how that helps us to understand the next bit… Wind damp…(Kind of like the desert winds of the Saraha drying the Egyptian mummies, isn't it?)
The wind we're feeling now and damp refers to things like mucus, rheumy joints, diarrhea, and accumulation of toxins…
Again this idea of accumulation feels the same as the stasis we spoke of before.
Damp wind manifests as the common cold, listlessness, nausea, anorexia, and sore limbs and can cause diseases like arthritis. If you enjoy these ways of understanding a plant, there is a tremendous paper you might want on Wind in TCM. The more understanding you have of these concepts, the better you can use your oils. Indeed, so much hidden stuff around Frankincense essential oil reveals itself through methods like these. I particularly like how they see things like colds manifesting in the body.
In Yemen, rather than washing, some women ritually cleanse using frankincense smoke. Yoni smoking is an art in its own right. Frankincense helps align menstrual cycles and wash the vagina after birth, miscarriage, or sexual trauma. Frankincense remedies stagnation in the blood, so not only does it help get the periods more regular and reduces clotting and, thus, pain.
In the same way, blood stagnation is seen as reducing the power of the heart; again, we can relate to cardiovascular disease but also melancholy and anguish. Blood stagnation is also seen as causing cysts and abscesses in TCM. These, too, would be indications for them to use the resin and for us to use Frankincense essential oil.
Relaxes the Sinews
This is my favorite indication for Frankincense essential oil how the muscles seem to give way and release under your hands when you give a massage. It's like the soldiers of stress that keep the muscle fibers so taut stand aside to allow the healing in.
We know it's anti-inflammatory and pain-killing; it's relaxing and soothing. As stated at the beginning, it restores elasticity to the tissues. The tennis player's elbow frees us, the typist's hand starts to unclench, and for the rest of us, our shoulders drop down from being bunched around our necks. We breathe the Frankincense slow breath of relief.
What Is Frankincense Essential Oil Good For?
Soothing, calming, softening, comforting, reassuring, accepting, and hopeful.
Slowing the breath spiritually, emotionally, and physically, then coughs, colds, asthma, bronchitis, COPD, and emphysema.
In particular, my son believes the Magi brought Frankincense for the baby in case he had a cold. Kids love how comforting Frankincense is when they are ill. It helps them breathe more easily, unblocking stuffy noses, helps them sleep, and is safer to use than eucalyptus. Marvel at how effective one drop on a teddy bear's head can be.
Aches and pains, sore and tight muscles, repetitive strain injuries, the tension in mind and body.
Skincare and as a preservative: Dry, dehydrated, and saggy skin. Best suited to very mature and dry skin and for tightening skin like stretch marks, cellulite, or after weight loss. Suitable for blending with helichrysum for scars.
What Does Frankincense Essential Oil Smell Like?
The breath of the wind through pine trees, with a slightly clinical note. It is bright, airy, and accessible.
What Does Frankincense Essential Oil Blend Well With?
In blending, Frankincense works as a middle-to-top-note, which means you will mainly feel it in the head and upper body.
Herbs are lovely with Frankincense. Ones like oregano, marjoram, and hyssop are all great if you want to leverage their clever mechanisms with colds. Flowers like lavender and chamomile work well. The soothing, slow energy of the woods is excellent for meditation. Other resins are lovely too.
Safety of Frankincense Essential Oil
Maximum dilution is 3% and safe for children. Very safe and easy to use.
Not suitable for use in the first 16 weeks of pregnancy.
Some DIY Recipes for Frankincense Essential Oil
Tennis Players Best Friend
Method of Use: Massage into swollen and aching joints twice a day for a week.
Safety: Not suitable for use during pregnancy (Juniper)
Cozy Cold Friend Diffuser Blend
Winter Dry Skin Repair Butter
Let's use our body butter knowledge here.
- 3 oz Cocoa Butter (Cocus Nucifera)
- 2 oz Shea Butter (Vitellaria paradoxa)
- 1.5 oz Coconut MCT Oil (Cocus Nucifera)
- 1 oz Almond Oil (Prunus amygdala)
- 1 oz Grapeseed Carrier Oil (Vitis Vinifera)
- 6 drops Frankincense Essential Oil (Boswellia carterii)
- 6 drops Rose Geranium Essential Oil (Pelargonium asperum var roseum)
- 6 drops Helichrysum Essential Oil (Helichrysum splendidum)
Method of Preparation
- Melt your butter in a double boiler over a low heat
- When they are liquid, add your carrier oils
- Remove from the heat, and pour into a bowl or measuring jug so it can cool before placing it in the fridge. Then leave it there for 45 minutes or until it turns opaque.
- The mixture must be solid but not so hard that you can't stir it.
- Use an electric mixer to beat the mix for a couple of minutes.
- Now add your essential oils carefully
- Continue to beat the mix till it slackens to a fluffy texture.
- Adding extra oil will loosen it more. Add it very gradually. As it settles, it will thicken slightly more by itself.
There is probably more misinformation about Frankincense essential oil than any other. To reiterate, the Egyptians didn't use it to embalm mummies; they used the resin macerated into vegetable oil. No, it's not proven to cure cancer.
Honestly, no one wishes that it were indeed more than I do. But it is a tool of faith, and one of the critical messages of frankincense medicine is to hope and pray, so we will continue to do that.
I believe in the powers of the men in white coats almost as much as the powers of plants and bees. And none of that should detract from just how amazing an ingredient it is.
Excellent for slowing the breath, opening the lungs, and restoring elasticity, it most surely is G-d-given.