Frankincense oil is a widely used and discussed essential oil, but personally, I don’t have an intuitive idea of where it comes from, the way I do lemon or peppermint. The only place I’ve seen frankincense at all is in churches where it is used in its resin form; it is burned and the smoke is used ceremonially to bless things.
However, I have been noticing a large number of posts about frankincense oil popping up on Pinterest claiming it to be a cure-all, so I decided to see what all the fuss is about (and whether or not there is scientific support for all the fuss).
As a young scientist, I know how hard sifting through and understanding academic articles can be, so I endeavor to remove (or explain) the jargon for you guys, making this research accessible to everyone. Because this information shouldn’t be limited to people who know words like antiplasmid and ambulatory (or those who have a crazy amount of free time to google each word).
Want to skip straight to the verified uses? Download this free frankincense cheat sheet from my resource library by clicking below!
Origin of Frankincense Oil
Frankincense, also often called olibanum, is an opaque resin harvested from trees of the genus Boswellia, particularly from the species B. frereana, B. sacra, B. papyrifera, and B. serrata, which are found in Somalia, the Hadhramaut region of Yemen, Oman, and parts of India and Pakistan. To harvest the resin, workers slash the trunks of the trees such that the frankincense drips out, similar to maple syrup. It is allowed to harden on the trunk and is collected as opaque chunks. 
Frankincense has been widely used historically in religious rites, starting in ancient Egypt, progressing into Jewish tradition, and continuing today in Christian tradition. It has been said that it can be “used to treat every conceivable ill known to man,” and has even been mentioned in Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest known medical records from ancient Egypt. See a translation of the full text here.
Key Constituents of Frankincense 
- Alpha-Pinene (30-65%)
- Limonene (8-20%)
- Sabinene (1-8%)
- Myrcene (1-4%)
- Beta-Caryophyllene (1-5%)
- Alpha-Thujene (1-15%)
- Incensol Acetate
What are the claims for Frankincense oil?
Since frankincense oil is often quoted as being able to treat “every conceivable ill known to man,” there are a lot of uses it is recommended for. Here are the top recommendations for use:
- Skin Health (anti-aging)
- Respiratory Infections
To me, these sound a little far-fetched. But let’s see what research has to say about it, one claim at a time.
There are several studies that cite the ability of frankincense oil (or one of it’s constituents) to cause the death of cancer cells.     Researchers have tested frankincense oil on a wide variety of cancer cells, and have found that it can induce apoptosis (death of a cell by ‘popping’) in some strains of cancer cells, most notably breast cancer cells  and pancreatic cancer cells. 
However, all of these studies are in vitro, meaning they were conducted in petri dishes outside the human body. Why is this a problem? When studies are conducted in vitro, researchers have a lot of control over the variables in the experiment, which can be very good for figuring out what’s going on. But due to the high level of control exercised, these results cannot be taken as indicative of what would happen in the human body. When anything (food or drug) enters the body, it mingles with everything else in our bodies, binding to things and either breaking them or being broken apart by them. So until we study the way our bodies process frankincense oil, we don’t know for sure if they will have the same effect on cancer cells inside our body as they do outside our body.
Research seems to show that frankincense is definitely capable of affecting the immune system, however the effects seem to be more of a modulation rather than simply a stimulation.    As far back as 1993, researchers saw that frankincense oil stimulated one part of the immune system while inhibiting another part, and they called that immunomodulation.
What they found is that frankincense oil stimulates TH2 cells, which help regulate intercellular (outside the cell) threats such as parasites while inhibiting TH1 cells, which help regulate intracellular (inside the cell) threats such as bacteria and viruses.
So is frankincense oil helpful during flu/cold season? Not really. The flu and the common cold are both viral diseases, meaning frankincense oil might actually make things worse (assuming these in vitro studies can be extrapolated to have a similar in vivo effect). However, it would probably be helpful in the case of a parasite, such as Helminths (parasitic worms that generally reside in the intestines). Inhaling or rubbing frankincense oil on your skin would allow it to absorb into your bloodstream to stimulate your TH2 cells.
Most research that associates frankincense oil with painkillers are inflammation-focused, and some study specific constituents of the oil that have anti-inflammatory effects   . However there are some that dare to compare frankincense oil directly to painkillers such as Aspirin. 
In that study specifically, the researchers found that frankincense oil of all varieties held up well when compared to Aspirin, and even performed better in some cases. To measure this effect, they induced pain in mice and orally administered a dose of either Aspirin or frankincense oil (or nothing for control) at the recommended dose of Aspirin (300mg/kg of body weight). I really like this study because this is the first example of in vivo testing in this post so far. While it’s only in mice, it’s still quite promising.
Note: Please refrain from trying this at home without assistance from a licensed physician. It would be very easy to accidentally overdose when taking an essential oil orally. The LD50 is 5g/kg and the MSDS obtained from Aromatics International for the oil does not recommend it for oral consumption.
Studies have shown that frankincense oil can be effective for skin health in terms of anti-aging , but they are rare and not entirely convincing.
However, there is a wealth of research concerning the anti-inflammatory properties of frankincense oil (as mentioned above) but not all focused on how it acts when applied topically.   Some researchers, though, are quite convinced that frankincense oil is effective at reducing redness and irritation of skin, as well as helping heal bruises and acne. 
Due to the seeming scientific consensus that frankincense oil is a good anti-inflammatory, these claims make sense, because inflammation is the definition of redness and irritation of the skin (regardless of the cause). Acne is a product of inflammation of a bacterial infection on the skin, so it also makes sense that frankincense oil would be helpful when treating acne. Especially when you consider that frankincense is mildly antimicrobial as well.  
Recommended topical usage is a dilution of approximately 6 drops per ounce of carrier oil. Some websites say you can dilute it in water, but recommend adding a little alcohol to help it dissolve. According to , diluting frankincense oil in a fatty acid or fatty alcohol is essential for it’s function, as other carriers won’t disperse it well enough.
As mentioned in the two previous sections, there is a pretty good consensus within research that frankincense oil is an effective anti-inflammatory, sometimes outperforming Aspirin.  There is research to support both topical and internal use, but take special care if you intend to use internally. The LD50 both orally and topically (lethal dose able to kill 50% of a population in a given time period) is 5g/kg, and the MSDS (material safety data sheet) from Aromatics International does not recommend oral consumption. Always consult a licensed physician before consuming any essential oil orally.
There seems to be some good evidence for an anti-depressant effect of frankincense oil… at least in mice.   However most places that mention a study supporting their claims link back to . This, combined with the fact that Pubmed doesn’t turn up any results, leads me to believe that there is limited research available on the subject. In addition, this well-cited source (and others ) actually states that key constituent incensole acetate, and not frankincense oil itself, has the anti-depressant effect.
That being said, due to it’s extensive use historically in religious ceremonies, it is common belief that frankincense has some level of positive psychoactive effects, leading to the ‘spiritual’ feeling that is commonly associated with inhalation of it.
Mentions of the use of frankincense oil being used to treat respiratory infections dates back to ancient Egypt and Somalia, where ‘oil of olibanum’ was used to treat a wide variety of ailments ranging from open sores and wounds to rheumatoid arthritis to respiratory infections.
The antimicrobial properties of frankincense oil have been well-established  , although it is by far NOT the best antimicrobial oil out there. However, due to the distinct lack of side effects observed in ancient cultures from use of the oil, it was probably a very attractive option for treating mild infections both internally and externally.
As far as I can tell, though, there have been no controlled human trials testing the use of frankincense oil to treat respiratory infections. (If any of you know of one, link it in the comments) But since frankincense is generally safe to inhale both in it’s burning resin form and it’s diffused oil form, giving this a try if you have a respiratory infection probably won’t hurt.
Cautions and Safety
- Pregnant women should be cautious when using any essential oils, as long term effects on milk production and the unborn child have not been determined.
- Frankincense contains many monoterpenes, which are toxic to cats, so take care to make sure your cats (if you have any) are not exposed.
- The LD50 of frankincense is 5g/kg of body weight. An average person weighs about 70kg, so this is actually quite high. However caution should always be taken when ingesting an essential oil orally, especially regularly.
- The recommended dilution for frankincense oil is 6 drops per ounce of liquid or carrier oil, however some sources say that it is safe to use undiluted for topical applications.  I would recommend dilution for two reasons: one, it’s safer to just dilute it and two, essential oils are expensive and diluting helps them go farther.
- There have been cases of allergic contact dermatitis after contact with frankincense oil , so when using for the first time, always test on a small patch of skin for allergic reactions.
So thanks for reading guys! If you enjoyed it, let me know in the comments! I’d love to chat. You can read more Just the Facts posts here.
Looking for ways to put this newfound knowledge to good use? I’ve put together a printable sheet with recipes and instructions for the scientifically proven uses of frankincense! Click the picture below to get access to the printable + my entire library of free resources!
 “frankincense”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 06 Feb. 2016 <http://www.britannica.com/topic/frankincense>.
 Essential Oils Pocket Reference Sixth Edition. Life Science Publishing, 2014. Print.
 Hanaa H Ahmed, Ahmed A Abd-Rabou, Amal Z Hassan, Soheir E Kotob. Phytochemical Analysis and Anti-cancer Investigation of Boswellia Serrata Bioactive Constituents In Vitro. Asian Pacfic Journal of Cancer Prevention, Vol 16, 2015.
 Chen Y, Zhou C, Ge Z, Liu Y, Liu Y, Feng W, Li S, Chen G, Wei T. Composition and potential anticancer activities of essential oils obtained from myrrh and frankincense. Oncology Letters 6: 1140-1146, 2013.
 Xiao Ni, Mahmoud M Suhail, Qing Yang, Amy Cao, Kar-Ming Fung, Russell G Postier, Cole Woolley, Gary Young, Jingzhe Zhang and Hsueh-Kung Lin. Frankincense essential oil prepared from hydrodistillation of Boswellia sacra gum resins induces human pancreatic cancer cell death in cultures and in a xenograft murine model. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2012, 12:253.
 Suhail MM1, Wu W, Cao A, Mondalek FG, Fung KM, Shih PT, Fang YT, Woolley C, Young G, Lin HK. Boswellia sacra essential oil induces tumor cell-specific apoptosis and suppresses tumor aggressiveness in cultured human breast cancer cells. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011; 11: 129.
A note about the above reference: This study was partially funded by Young Living. While two authors have conflict of interest, the rest claim no conflict. As with anything, we all know that your funding source can sway your opinions. And also while this can happen, it is not necessarily always the case. These things are good to watch for and keep in mind though.
 Marc R. Chevrier, Abigail E. Ryan, David Y.-W. Lee, Ma Zhongze, Zhang Wu-Yan, and Charles S. Via. Boswellia carterii Extract Inhibits TH1 Cytokines and Promotes TH2 Cytokines In Vitro. Clinical and Diagnostic Laboratory Immunology. May 2005, p. 575–580.
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 Ahmed Al-Harrasi, Liaqat Ali, Javid Hussain, Najeeb Ur Rehman, Mehjabeen, Mansoor Ahmed, Ahmed Al-Rawahi. Analgesic effects of crude extracts and fractions of Omani frankincense obtained from traditional medicinal plant Boswellia sacra on animal models. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine. Volume 7, Supplement 1, September 2014, Pages S485–S490.
 Oi-Sook Choi, Mi-Hwa Kwon, Min-Kyu Kong, Soon-Hee Lee, Sung-Rye Gang, Pil-Sun Kim, Young-Chul Kim. Inhibition Effects of Frankincense Oil on Skin Aging (II): Focussed on Histological Observation. Journal Environmental Toxicology 2008;23(2):129-138.
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 S.F. Van Vuuren, G.P.P. Kamatou, A.M. Viljoen. Volatile composition and antimicrobial activity of twenty commercial frankincense essential oil samples. South African Journal of Botany. Volume 76, Issue 4, October 2010, Pages 686–691.
 Naouel Chaftar, Marion Girardot, Jérôme Labanowski, Tawfik Ghrairi, Khaled Hani, Jacques Frère, Christine Imbert. Comparative evaluation of the antimicrobial activity of 19 essential oils. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2015 Nov 14.
 Zhang Ye-qui, Deng Kun-hua, Yang Yi, Wang Yu-ting, Wang Shi, Ding Hong. Anti-depression effect of frankincense essential oil. Natural Product Research and Development. 2015, 27(1) 31-34.
 Arieh Moussaieff, Neta Rimmerman, Tatiana Bregman, Alex Straiker, Christian C. Felder, Shai Shoham, Yoel Kashman, Susan M. Huang, Hyosang Lee, Esther Shohami, Ken Mackie, Michael J. Caterina, J. Michael Walker, Ester Fride, and Raphael Mechoulam. Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain. FASEB. 2008. 22, 3024.
 Moussaieff, Arieh; Gross, Moshe; Nesher, Elimelech; Tikhonov, Tatiana; Yadid, Gal; Pinhasov, Albert (December 2012). “Incensole acetate reduces depressive-like behavior and modulates hippocampal BDNF and CRF expression of submissive animals”. Journal of Psychopharmacology 26 (12): 1584–93.
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