An essential oil commonly used in aromatherapy, frankincense oil is typically sourced from the resin of the Boswellia carterii or Boswellia sacra tree. Also called olibanum, frankincense oil has a sweet, woody scent and is sometimes used to ease stress.
In aromatherapy, inhaling the scent of essential oil (or absorbing it through the skin) is thought to send messages to the limbic system, a brain region that influences our emotions and nervous systems. Proponents suggest that essential oils may affect a number of biological factors, such as heart rate, stress levels, blood pressure, breathing, and immune function.
Frankincense essential oil is also used as an ingredient in perfume, incense, and skin care products.
The history of Frankincense usage has Medieval roots and is closely linked with being burned in sacred places and religious rituals, as it was valued for its powerful aroma and the white smoke it exuded when burned. It was also used in perfume, cosmetics such as eyeliner, salves, and Egyptian mummification methods. Today, there are still daily uses for Frankincense in many cultures, namely Somali, Ethiopian, Arabian, and Indian cultures. It is believed that its fragrance will bring good health, cleanse the home, and purify clothing. In Ayurvedic medicine, Frankincense is referred to as “dhoop” and is used to heal wounds, relieve arthritis, balance hormones in females, and to purify the air.
While preliminary research suggests that frankincense essential oil may offer certain health benefits, there is currently a lack of research testing the health effects of frankincense oil. A component in frankincense, boswellic acid, has been studied for its anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties.
May Reduce Arthritis: Frankincense has anti-inflammatory effects that may help reduce joint inflammation caused by osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers believe that frankincense can prevent the release of leukotrienes, which are compounds that can cause inflammation (1, 2). Terpenes and boswellic acids appear to be the strongest anti-inflammatory compounds in frankincense (3, 4). Test-tube and animal studies note that boswellic acids may be as effective as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — with fewer negative side effects (5). In humans, frankincense extracts may help reduce symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (6). In one recent review, frankincense was consistently more effective than a placebo at reducing pain and improving mobility (7). In one study, participants given 1 gram per day of frankincense extract for eight weeks reported less joint swelling and pain than those given a placebo. They also had a better range of movement and were able to walk further than those in the placebo group (8). In another study, boswellia helped reduce morning stiffness and the amount of NSAID medication needed in people with rheumatoid arthritis (9). That said, not all studies agree and more research is needed (6, 10).
May Improve Gut Function: Frankincense’s anti-inflammatory properties may also help your gut function properly. This resin appears particularly effective at reducing symptoms of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, two inflammatory gut diseases. In one small study in people with Crohn’s disease, frankincense extract was as effective as the pharmaceutical drug mesalazine at reducing symptoms (11). Another study gave people with chronic diarrhea 1,200 mg of boswellia — the tree resin frankincense is made from — or a placebo each day. After six weeks, more participants in the boswellia group had cured their diarrhea compared to those given the placebo (12). What’s more, 900–1,050 mg of frankincense daily for six weeks proved as effective as a pharmaceutical in treating chronic ulcerative colitis — and with very few side effects (13, 14). However, most studies were small or poorly designed. Therefore, more research is needed before strong conclusions can be made.
Improves Asthma: Traditional medicine has used frankincense to treat bronchitis and asthma for centuries. Research suggests that its compounds may prevent the production of leukotrienes, which cause your bronchial muscles to constrict in asthma (5). In one small study in people with asthma, 70% of participants reported improvements in symptoms, such as shortness of breath and wheezing, after receiving 300 mg of frankincense three times daily for six weeks (15). Similarly, a daily frankincense dose of 1.4 mg per pound of body weight (3 mg per kg) improved lung capacity and helped reduce asthma attacks in people with chronic asthma (16). Lastly, when researchers gave people 200 mg of a supplement made from frankincense and the South Asian fruit bael (Aegle marmelos), they found that the supplement was more effective than a placebo at reducing asthma symptoms (17).
Frankincense oil has been linked to treatments for ovarian, breast, and skin cancers. Studies are generally done in vitro, or on cells in a laboratory. No studies have been conducted on people living with cancer.
The findings of one 2015 study suggest that breast cancer cells may stop growing and die off when exposed to frankincense oil. The researchers concluded that their approach is cost-effective and less time consuming than other methods.
Researchers in a 2009 study looked exclusively at frankincense oil derived from the Boswellia carteri species and assessed its anti-tumor activity on bladder cancer. Researchers concluded that, when administered, the oil appears to differentiate between healthy and cancerous cells. The oil can also suppress cancer cell viability.
Similar results were found in a 2011 study assessing the effects of oil from B. sacra on breast cancer cells.
More research is necessary to determine whether the oil or its extract can be consistently and effectively used to treat people who have these cancers.
Frankincense is used in traditional medicine to treat a wide variety of medical conditions.
This resin may benefit asthma and arthritis, as well as gut and oral health. It may even have cancer-fighting properties.
While it has few side effects, pregnant women and people taking prescription medications may want to talk to their doctor before taking frankincense.