Gold, we can agree, we’re all still on board with, but if presented with a sack of frankincense or myrrh, most of us would be pretty mystified. Leaving myrrh to one side for a moment, the resin from frankincense trees remains highly valuable in Chinese medicine and religious ceremonies, and is actually dubbed ‘liquid gold’, which is stealing another crown from the wise men’s gift selection somewhat, but it expresses the extent to which it’s prized the world over. Even its name indicates its worth: frankincense is derived from the French “franc encens”, meaning ‘high quality incense’. Aside from lighting a joss stick, here’s how frankincense is used in the modern day, and what to know before you tap into the “king of oils” (frankincense really does have some rather complimentary street names going on).
Be careful where you source it
We’ll start with the fundamentals: frankincense is derived from the sap of trees that only grow in certain areas of the Middle East and Africa, and due to a combination of factors, the trees are fast becoming endangered, as spokeswoman for Neal’s Yard Remedies Adele Clark-Whittle explains:
“The world’s finest quality frankincense comes from Oman. Sadly in recent decades Oman’s native frankincense trees, Boswellia sacra, have come under pressure through urbanization, desertification, quarrying, neglect and an increase in the number of camels that eat the young trees before they can become established.”
“To safeguard the future for frankincense in Oman, we are putting in place a sustainable development project to not only ensure that the existing wild trees are maintained, but also to increase the number of trees for the future. This will be achieved through a seed propagation and replanting project, underpinned by an educational program, managed in partnership with the Environmental Society of Oman. All is in the planning stages at the moment but we’re absolutely going to be making this an ongoing project to ensure to frankincense is looked after in the years to come.”
It’s not just in Oman that frankincense faces ecological challenges either, as aromatherapist and founder of Therapie Roques O’Neil Michelle Roques O'Neil highlights:
“Frankincense also hails from countries such as Ethiopia and Somalia, however, civil unrest and climatic conditions such as drought have affected the collection of both frankincense and myrrh. One of my suppliers has said that they are teaching Somalian farmers how to collect this precious resin ethically, but as always it’s the wider distribution that sometimes drives poverty stricken farmers to seek out the easiest distribution routes due to demand, which is an issue further complicated by political and economic policy and external market forces.”
“There are initiatives that aim to turn this around, but the yields are low and therefore prices are high for premium wildcrafted frankincense. Governments and the private sector ought to be more involved in helping to protect this ancient tradition. In terms of sourcing sustainably produced oils, it’s down to the relationship and ethics policy of the company you buy from.”
In short, ask ALL of the questions, and if your frankincense unction is dirt cheap, treat it with a hefty dose of suspicion.
It’s got ceremonial kudos
Frankincense is often used in churches and prior to meditation , and it has centuries old connotations with bringing about a sense of peace. Aromatherapist, acupuncturist and holistic facialist Annee de Mamiel underlines its most traditional use:
“In its rawest form frankincense comes as a resin, and you can burn it which is often done in a church - it helps to clear a space energetically and inhaling it can ease fear, anxiety and stress.”
All helpful if you’re aiming for a ‘living in the moment’ state of mindfulness, or just having a really bad day and needing to centre yourself- try adding a few drops of Aromatherapy Associates De-Stress Pure Essential Oil , £30, to an oil burner or onto a tissue and inhale deeply to dissolve frazzle. Speaking of taking a deep breath...
It can get your breathing back in check
Clearly it can’t rival an inhaler, but frankincense is renowned for its calming effect on the respiratory system according to Annee:
“Frankincense helps with our breathing rate as it relaxes the diaphragm which encourages deeper breathing, which in turn helps you to feel less stress and can help prevent the onset of panic attacks and anxiety.”
Michelle seconds its grounding and steadying effect on our breathing, and subsequently our mood:
“It’s a warming oil both physically and emotionally and exudes a sense of security and comfort. In aromatherapy it’s commonly used to support the respiratory system.”
Seeing as our emotions are so intrinsically related to our breathing, Michelle emphasises that frankincense can be a source of support during particularly testing times:
“Frankincense is an oil that I might suggest to a client who feels a little vulnerable and it can be incredibly powerful if you’re undergoing grief, as generally grief and unexpressed emotions are linked to issues with breathing and our respiratory system. I developed Therapie Restore Aura Spray , £32, with this in mind.”
“A simple dab of frankincense oil anointed over the solar plexus, soles of the feet and back of the neck will also help to garner a sense of security.”
For on-the-go aromatherapy, keep This Works Stress Check Breathe In rollerball , £18, to hand- it’s formulated with eucalyptus to clear your airways and frankincense to both bring down stress levels to help to regulate breathing and in theory act as an antiseptic to boost immune function. Which leads us to…
It’s touted as an antiseptic
Frankincense has long been used for antiseptic purposes in Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, and a study published in Biochemie Open in June suggests that frankincense essential oil could have immune-enhancing properties, as the main compound present within frankincense, alpha-pinene, appeared to increase human T-cell activity (a subtype of white blood cells that play a key role in strong immunity) and decrease the activity of stress hormones in an evaluation of two relevant studies. Reviews of other studies also indicated that the anti-inflammatory effect of alpha-pinene inhibits immune response, although it should be noted that the authors evaluating the studies were funded by dōTERRA, a manufacturer of frankincense essential oil. Owing to a possible conflict of interest, more independent trials and studies are required to determine if frankincense essential oil can have any beneficial effect on immune function, but if you’re planning on using it for aromatherapeutic purposes (do not ingest it), any potential antiseptic benefit would likely be welcome. It’s just not a given for immune system shielding in the way that washing your hands or getting enough sleep have been proven to be.
It’s got anti-inflammatory potential
An active compound within frankincense, boswellic acid, is thought to have anti-inflammatory effects, and scientists at the University of Cardiff have linked the traditional herbal remedy to an alleviation of inflammation in patients suffering from arthritis and osteoarthritis, thereby reducing pain. Researchers from the university’s School of Biosciences investigated the impact of a rare frankincense species traditionally used as an anti-inflammatory within the Somali community in particular, and found that the frankincense extract helped to inhibit inflammatory molecules involved in the disease process that can lead to the breakdown of cartilage tissue. This is one of the only studies of its kind, however, and further research is required to establish whether or not frankincense can have any overall success in helping to treat arthritis- following medical advice and taking any prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs should be your first port of call if you do suffer with arthritis, but any promising new route of pain management, herbal or not, is worth exploration.
It’s got form in skincare
Formulators at Neal’s Yard Remedies cite frankincense’s history of anti-inflammatory and antiseptic action as a key benefit of using the diluted resin within skincare, alongside the fact that it’s thought to help to speed up cell turnover and promote healthy skin, particularly when combined with beneficial skin cell communicating ingredients such as peptides and antioxidants, alongside humectants and moisture binding agents to boost hydration. A case in point is Neal’s Yard Remedies Frankincense Intense Lift Serum , £75, but if you’d rather dabble in a more affordable frankincense entry point the range takes in everything from cleansers to shower creams, and you can also buy pure frankincense from the brand’s apothecary. The ancient Egyptians mixed such frankincense with honey to make nourishing face masks, and its soothing effects are sometimes credited with aiding blemish healing, although never apply the oil undiluted to skin as it’s likely to trigger irritation.
If you are keen to combine frankincense’s skin-improving rep with its sensual effects, opt for a well-formulated aromatherapeutic range over ever applying it neat. Annee de Mamiel harnessed frankincense extract as a key ingredient in her Winter Facial Oil , £80, as “it is a powerful essential oil that optimises cellular function and helps to preserve the skin.” Michelle also advocates the use of frankincense in a skincare context:
“It is often used in face serums as it is very regenerative and preserving for the skin. I would also use it as a wound healing oil if people have any scarring or stretch marks.”
If winter is gnawing away at your skin, one such frankincense infused moisturiser is Voya Pearlesque Hydrating Moisturiser , £54, which is a consistent sell-out for the brand thanks to its skin barrier strengthening effects and instantly dewy finish.
If green beauty is your jam, it also contains 81 per cent certified organic ingredients, while the brand has a commitment to sustainable ingredient sourcing. The same goes for Michelle’s own range, so for body benefits and well as mental tension melting, Therapie Joie Bath Infusion , £26.99, combines a rich frankincense base with a probiotic rich, exfoliating lactic acid and pink clay for smooth limbs after a soak in the tub. You should also feel pretty zenned out afterwards, which brings us to…
It’s used a sleep aid
Alongside its soporific sidekick lavender, frankincense is a common addition to sleep tinctures and aromatherapeutic sleep preparations, thanks to its renown for instilling calm and regulating breathing. Create a sanctuary-like atmosphere in your wind-down routine by burning a frankincense infused candle such as the aptly named ESPA Soothing Candle , £26, or spritz a pillow spray about for instant zen- Tropic So Sleepy Pillow Mist , £20, fuses seven sleep-promoting essential oils, with frankincense coming to the fore to create an aromatic yet not overwhelming scent- it’s more light and herbal than heavy and cloying (frankincense can be a subtle as a flying brick in some blends).
If you’d like to hit two birds with one stone in the sleep and skincare department, Amly Botanicals Beauty Sleep Face Mist , £52, combines calming frankincense and chamomile with snow algae to promote collagen synthesis, alongside antioxidant passion flower and hops. If you think it smells rather funky, that’s probably the valerian...it’s one of the most well known sleep enhancers, but whether you get on with the rather pungent scent is a matter of personal taste. On the matter of smellies…
You could already be wearing it…
Frankincense is used in 13 per cent of fragrances on the market worldwide, proving that it’s not reduced to niche nativity gift. Dab ‘the sweat of the Gods’ (those ancient Egyptians getting creative again) over pulse points by way of ELEMIS Embrace Perfume Oil , £28. It’s a cosy scent that doesn’t whack you over the head, and frankincense nuzzles alongside uplifting rose pepper and vetiver to make for a mood elevating scent. Failing that, pop along to midnight mass, breathe deeply and take a moment away from defrosting turkey anxiety. It’s what the wise men would prescribe.