What is Frankincense?

What is Frankincense?

If I had to pick a natural ingredient I’m most drawn to, it's definitely Frankincense.

In its oil form, the scent and energy feel subtle and understated to me. A little bit quiet. Warm and earthy. As I've interacted with it over the years and learned more of its benefits, I've come to appreciate it as a deeply complex and healing oil - physically, mentally, and spiritually - with a long and fascinating history.

(In my workshop, I affectionately refer to my bottle of Frankincense oil as ‘Frank’ … as if it’s a wise old soul with a super laid-back vibe and tells the best stories. Lol)

So what is Frankincense? 

Frankincense (also know as Olibanum or Boswellia) is an aromatic resin that comes from trees in the Boswellia genus. The resin is actually the sap from the tree that’s been dried into clusters or ‘tears.’

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If you’ve seen (or seen references to) Frankincense burned as an incense, it’s these pieces of resin that are lit, often placed on disks of charcoal, to release a fragrant smoke. 

The resin is distilled to produce Frankincense essential oil. The oil component within the resin is usually somewhere between five and ten percent, with the remainder being alcohol-soluble resin and water-soluble gum. 

Where do Frankincense trees grow?

Frankincense trees are native to the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia), the Arabian peninsula (Oman, Yemen), and parts of India. They’re mostly found wild, either as single trees or in small groups, with small crinkly leaves and bark that resembles scorched, papery parchment. 

These trees are hardy, long-lived, and thrive in dry, desert climates. 

There are several different species, but Boswellia carterii, Boswellia serrata, and Boswellia sacra are three of the most common. 

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How is the resin harvested?

To draw out the resin, incisions or cuts are made by harvesters in the trunk of the tree to allow sap to seep out from the exposed inner bark. Over a few weeks, the sap dries into clusters, which are then scraped off, further dried, and then sorted according to color, shape, size, and flavor (various ‘grades’). Trees are often tapped (or cut) multiple times, since with each successive tap the resin becomes darker and more fragrant.

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Harvesting practices are important to note. Demand has led some harvesters to tap the trees year-round, which puts stress on the forests. Because of the demand, different species have moved more quickly towards ‘threatened’ status. And political conflicts and climate change also have an impact on the lives of Boswellia trees year to year. 

It’s all an intricate, changing system. Thankfully, due to Frankincense’s importance as a commodity world-wide, efforts to manage ethical and sustainable harvesting standards are increasing. 

All of this to say: it’s important to choose reputable and environmentally conscious suppliers when purchasing Frankincense. This is critical for any essential oil (quality, ethics, and environmental stewardship matter), but Frankincense has some unique considerations. 

Learn more from the Global Frankincense Alliance.

How long has it been used?

Frankincense has long been a source of trade and income for the local communities it grows near. It was a key commodity on the ancient Incense Road trade route centuries ago. 

It’s been part of the traditional medicines of Africa, China, and India for centuries, as well as part of religious and cultural ceremonies and perfume-making. It’s one of the oldest traded products in the world, with references going back at least 5,000 years. And it remains a highly sought-after product today. 

What are the benefits of using Frankincense?

There are many historical and cultural uses of Frankincense throughout the world, highlighting its wide variety of properties and benefits. In traditional medicines of the East, it’s most often been used to treat inflammatory and respiratory conditions. 

Frankincense is also a powerful aid to meditation and prayer that can help deepen and slow the breath (which also helps relieve anxiety). From an energetic perspective, frankincense oil is contemplative in nature, spiritual, and associated with the crown chakra. 

Key therapeutic properties of Frankincense essential oil:

  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic
  • Slows and deepens the breath 
  • Calming and grounding
  • Clears the mind
  • Analgesic/pain relieving
  • Antioxidant, reduces irritation and redness in the skin
  • Anti-tumor, anti-proliferative

Today, its pharmacological properties and effectiveness for a variety of medical conditions have been widely studied and supported. There’s considerable interest in its use for cancer treatments. So much research (and history) to explore... A few articles to get you started:  Article 1 / Article 2 / Article 3

    Which Pure Luxe Apothecary formulas feature Frankincense?

    I’ve incorporated Frankincense into several products for its cellular repair and regeneration properties. And I also value it as a grounding agent to help center, calm the spirit, and ease a busy mind. Calm energy... yes, please.

    Argan & Rosehip Face Oil 
    Rich Regeneration Face Creme
    Scar & Burn Repair Serum  
    Tranquility Massage & Body Oil
    Rejuvenate Massage & Body Oil
    Rejuvenate Body Scrub 

    Frankincense is such a versatile and beautiful oil for wellbeing. I hope you enjoy using it in your own self-care rituals as much as I do!  


    I believe in keeping things simple, yet sophisticated. Using beautifully effective, natural ingredients, I create luxurious skincare and wellness goods for everyday rituals. In every small batch of Pure Luxe Apothecary products, you'll find a fusion of pure, plant-based ingredients, thoughtfulness, and intention. These modern and minimalist remedies are rooted in holistic health to support your entire being - mind, body, and spirit.

    Cheers to good health!
    With gratitude,

    Pure Luxe Apothecary blog about image

    I'm Leslie, founder and maker behind Pure Luxe Apothecary. I formulate luxurious, clean skincare products to help you live your healthiest, most vibrant life. I believe simplicity is sexy and health is holistic. Join me in exploring the beauty of living well. 
    Holistic Health / Skincare / Ingredients
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    This is an interesting and informative blog post. Thank you.

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