Frankincense Oil

Frankincense Oil (Boswellia carterii)

By Hwaa Irfan

Native to Somalia, the tree Boswellia carterii has its place firmly planted in medicinal and religious history. Known as Moxor in Somal, and alliban Arabic (from which its other the name Olibanum is derived), the gum from the stems of this tree, frankincense is an everyday item that is chewed much like chewing gum, lacking flavor, but strengthening and whitening the teeth as it is chewed. Protected by the lifestyle of the desert Bedouin for thousands of years, the resin/gum is in response to a cut/wound to the tree, and in turn the resin/gum heals the wounds of the tree, having the same affect on the human body.

There are other species which originate from northwest India, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen, but the Boswallia carterii named after an English botanist originates from the Dhofar Valley of Somalia. The trees may have been plentiful enough at one time for the resin to have been exported to China, as records demonstrate exports to China during the Ming Dynasty as the time of Queen of Sheba, and King Solomon. The Roman emperor Nero burned tons on the many funeral pyres during his time. The earliest records to date of use are those found in an ancient Egyptian tomb during the time of Queen Hatsheput, and again during the time of the boy who would be king, Tutankhamen. Frankincense was burned by the ancient Egyptians, and is still burned today as an incense. The ancient Egyptians also burned the resin into a powder called kohl, the earliest form of eyeliner still used today, but not made from frankincense.

Frankincense belongs to the Burseraceae family of the plant kingdom. Meaning dry fire, Burseraceae grows in areas where the heat is very strong (fire), and the climate very dry. Being a member of the Burseraceae, the qualities of frankincense oil, which according to Marcel Lavabre, filters the sun’s rays, and freshens the air around them, the nature of which makes them strong anti-inflammatory. The members of the Burseraceae family act on the fire in the body, which transpires as upper respiratory tract infections. The other qualities that the Burseraceae family take from their environment is the essence of infinity thus elevating the soul, which transpires as being supportive of the practice of meditation; and is the reason why since antiquity, frankincense has been used for religious ceremonies. It is for this reason that the Latin/botanical sometimes used is Boswellia sacra.

This evergreen tree is far from attractive, looking aged and snarled, with an ancient quality about its thick bark with white patches. Only growing to a maximum height of 15 feet, the trunk is not long portraying bonsai-like features before it branches out with scanty, curled leaves.

The flowers compensate for the appearance of the tree although not plentiful, bearing marble-sized berries

The human relationship with offerings of the tree are very strong, describing the resin/gum as noble as it protects the tree from infestations both fungal and of the crawling kind. Even in the market, the resin/gum is described as ‘tears’, as it is the result of the tree being wounded. This is probably best understood through the exploitation of accessible trees, where those who sell the resin are offered low prices. The best resin-tears are the first tears, which are yellow in colour, and gets darker each time the tree is tapped/wounded. Ideally, a tree should not be tapped more than twice a year, but in practice, meeting demand, the first ‘phase of tapping takes place Jan- Mar, the second, August – October. An incision is made by the tapper, and a white emulsion appears. On contact with air, the emulsion congeals into ‘tears’ turning pale yellow – dark amber depending on the amount of tapping, and the age of the tree. As a horse is put to pasture after years of hard labour, the Boswellia carterii tree is given a chance to rest after 5 – 6 years.

Today, the main supply of frankincense is from Somalia, with Oman exporting in limited amounts. Sometimes frankincense essential oil can be found under the name ‘African elemi’, not to be confused with Elemi essential oil from Philippines. Frankincense essential oil is steam distilled from the resin. When buying look for a slightly viscous with the best quality a pale yellow, with an essential balsamic aroma fused with a woody camphoraceous-cum-lemon scent. Unfortunately one can find adulterated frankincense essential oil o the market, often with a turpentine-like solvent or synthetic alpha-pinene with an aroma that does not last long.

Chemical Properties

Frankincense is non-toxic. Some of the bioactive constituents of Frankincense essential oil are:

  • 1-a-pinene
  • β- pinene
  • Borneol
  • Cadinene
  • Camphene
  • Cembrane A
  • Cembrane C
  • Cymene
  • Dipentene
  • Farnesol
  • Incensole
  • Limonene
  • Linalool
  • Myrcene
  • Ocimene
  • Octanol
  • Octyl acetate
  • Olibanol   Verbenone, verbenol, and some other terpene alcohols
  • Phellandrene
  • Sabinene
  • Terpinene
  • Thujone
  • Verbene

The Academy of Science in Leipzig, Germany have found that the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol is produced on burning the resin, and it is believed that this compound is responsible for expanding the subconscious. The sesquiterpenes help to oxygenate the pineal and pituitary glands.

The monoterpenes pinene, dipentene, phellandrene, cymene, myrcene, terpinene are well known for their anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and astringent effect; and verbene is a powerful antifungal, which is helpful in preventing infection of wounds along with its antiseptic action in the prevention of sepsis in slow healing wounds.

The essential oil of Boswellia carterii in clinical trials exhibited the ability to inhibit the causative virus in Epstein-Barr disease.

Inhalation of Frankincense slows and deepens the breath and is calming and relaxing.

Therapeutic Properties

Frankincense essential oil has an uplifting aroma, which is important in vapour therapy for clearing the head, easing the mind, releasing emotional blockages, aligning the physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies, and meditation. The breath slows, and deepens bringing about calm. Some of the therapeutic properties are:

  • Anticatarrhal
  • Antidepressant
  • Antiseptic
  • Astringent
  • Balsamic
  • Carminative
  • Cicatrisant
  • Cytophylactic
  • Disinfectant
  • Diuretic
  • Emmenagogue
  • Expectorant
  • Sedative
  • Tonic (respiratory, immune, nervous systems)
  • Uterine
  • Vulnerary

For glossary see It All Makes Good Scents!

The powerful astringent quality contracts the gums, and blood vessels. The aroma instills deep breathing allowing for greater calm, and clarity helping a person to feel centered, facilitates emotional healing, and move into a state of meditation if desired. In Islamic medicinal practice (Tibb-e-Nabi) frankincense is used as a germicide, for stomach pains, to heal wounds, upper respiratory tract infections, eczema, for arthritis, and as an insecticide.


None yet indicated.


The oil can only be used for external use, and when used it should be diluted by means of Carrier Oils like Sweet Almond Oil. Drops of no more than 5 should be used for:

General – Lethargy

Gastro-intestinal – Dyspepsia, flatulence

Gender – Tender breasts, hormonal imbalance,

Mind – Anxiety, depression, grief, living in the past, lack of self confidence, mental fatigue, nervous tension, paranoia, stress, 6th and crown chakra,

Respiratory – Asthma, hyperventilation

Reproductive – Delayed menses,

Skeletal – Rhematism,

Skin –  Tired/ageing skin, skin diseases, slow healing wounds, scar tissue, acne scars

Systemic –  Low vitality, weak respiratory system, weak immune system, sluggish circulatio

Urinogenital – Gonorrhea, urinary tract infection, Water retention


  • Vapor therapy – Upper respiratory problems, for facing emotional blockages, depression, to calm the mind, asthma
  • Massage oil – With friction along the spine releases emotional blockages, and at the base of the skull
  • Topical – Added to a cream/lotion relieves asthma, rheumatism
  • Facial Mask for dry ageing skin – (1tspn plain yoghurt, 2 tspsns. Honey, 1 drop of Vitamin E oil, 1 tspn. Of oat flour)
  • Bath – 8 drops added before filling the bath, helps to calm the mind, ease upper respiratory and urinary tract infections, stimulate the immune/respiratory/digestive system, lubricates and regenerates the skin.


Ahmed, M. “Useful Medicinal Flora Enlisted in Holy Qur’an and Ahadith.” American-Eurasian J. Agric. & Environ. Sci., 5 (1): 126-140, 2009 ISSN 1818-676. IDOSI Publications, 2009

Lavabre, M. “Aromatherapy Workbook.”  Healing Arts Press, Canada. 1990.

Salveson, C. “Common Adulterations of Essential Oils.”

Aromatherapy Series:     

It All Makes Good Scents!

Amber Oil

Angelica Root Oil

Anise Oil

Bath Oil

Basil Oil

Bay Oil

Bergamot Oil

Bitter Almond Oil

Bitter Orange Oil

Black Seed Oil

Calendula Oil

Carrier Oils

Camphor Oil

Cedarwood Oil

Cinnamon Oil

Citronella Oil

Emergency First Aid Kit

Eruca – Rocket Oil

Eucalyptus Oil

Fennel Oil

Forsythia (Orchid) Oil

Fragonia Oil

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