Frankincense Oil: Benefits, Side Effects, and Myths

  • Medical Reviewer: Mahammad Juber S
Medically Reviewed on 7/26/2022

What is frankincense?

Frankincense oil is sometimes called the king of all oils. Frankincense helps with pain and inflammation, but it may irritate your skin or interact with certain medications.
Frankincense oil is sometimes called the king of all oils. Frankincense helps with pain and inflammation, but it may irritate your skin or interact with certain medications.

Frankincense oil is sometimes called the king of all oils. But does it live up to its legendary status? Studies show that this essential oil might have some health benefits. Still, many false claims and misunderstandings about this botanical. 

Frankincense (species name Boswellia) is an evergreen green native to Africa, India, and the Middle East. There are a few species of frankincense, each from a different area. Supplements and extracts from the frankincense tree are called boswellia. 

The tree in plant compounds and volatile oil, or essential oil. Traditional cultures have used frankincense for thousands of years in perfume, as incense, and to smoke out bugs or critters. Today, you can find frankincense in skin care products, dietary supplements, and aromatherapy, perfumery, and incense. 

The essential oil comes from the tree resin, harvested from the tree in a process called tapping. Farmers make a small cut in the bark. The resin oozes out and hardens into golden pieces called tears. 

The frankincense tears are added to a boiler for distilling. The processors collect the steam and condense it from vapor to liquid. The result is essential oil and water, which they separate and bottle. Other methods, like vacuum or carbon dioxide extraction, are also common.

Frankincense oil benefits

Frankincense oil might have some health benefits. It contains some essential plant compounds that act on the body, including alpha-pinene and limonene.

Might lower stress

In one animal study, researchers applied frankincense in a fatty carrier oil to sleep-deprived rats and compared it to carrier oil alone. The rats that received the frankincense had lower stress markers, including lower stress hormone and antioxidant levels. Alpha-pinene and limonene were responsible for these activities. 

Might help pain

Animal studies show frankincense oil applied to the skin might help lower swelling and pain. In one study, researchers applied frankincense oil to some mice and frankincense water to others. The mice with the frankincense oil had less swelling and pain than those without. 

These activities come from alpha-pinene and other compounds. The study found that alpha-pinene lowers pain by blocking pain receptors and an inflammation and pain enzyme called COX-2

Might calm your nervous system

In one study, experts tested a blend of frankincense, sandalwood, clove, and other oils on mice. The animals inhaled the blend of essential oils and had lower drug-induced seizures, higher antioxidant levels, and longer sleep times. The study concluded the oil blend was sedating and had antioxidant and antiseizure activities. 

But there are a lot of plants in the blend, so it’s hard to know if these benefits come from frankincense. These are also early animal studies, so experts need to do more research. 

Frankincense oil myths

You might read many claims about what frankincense can do, but there are often a few major concerns. 

Misunderstanding frankincense products

The most active compound in the frankincense tree is the boswellic acid. Studies show these acids have many effects on the body, so people link these activities to frankincense oil. But there is a debate about the oil chemistry. 

Some research journals suggest that the essential oil has these acids, but other aromatherapy experts insist they aren’t found in commercial frankincense oil. These experts are likely right.

Boswellic acids are non-volatile, which means they don’t vaporize very well. They’re too heavy to boil out in steam or other methods, which means there aren’t any boswellic acids in frankincense oil. Aromatherapy experts insist that this is the biggest problem in a lot of the information, including some interpretations of study results. 

It doesn’t mean frankincense oil doesn’t work. There are lots of other compounds in the essential oil that can affect the body. It just means that many claims are linked to the wrong product, which leads to confusion and myths. 

On top of that, most of the research on frankincense oil is early and from small studies. While studies are promising, more research is necessary. 

Doesn’t treat cancer

The most common myth about frankincense oil is that it can treat or stop cancer. This is where the chemistry issue comes up the most. 

Studies show that boswellic acid has antitumor and anticancer activities. In mice, boswellic acid prevents cancer tumor growth in the intestines. But these activities are from the acid, which isn’t in the essential oil.

On the other hand, some lab-dish studies show that frankincense oil does block cancer cell growth. The researchers say the oil could activate genes that stop cancer cells from growing or cause them to die. But the same study also showed frankincense oil had no effect on other cancer cells. They also write that they didn’t check the oil’s chemistry.

Frankincense extract might help ease symptoms from cancer treatment, like lower brain swelling and skin damage from radiation treatment. But again, these are linked to boswellic acid in extracts, not the essential oil. 

Overall, drugs have to undergo a lot of testing for approval as a cancer treatment. Scientists are studying frankincense extracts for cancer, but research in humans is often mixed. Plus, essential oils and supplements aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. So frankincense oil and extracts are not cancer treatments. 


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Side effects

While frankincense is generally safe to use and well-tolerated, frankincense oil might irritate your skin. If you apply it to your body, mix it with a fatty carrier oil, like jojoba oil or sweet almond oil. This will dilute the essential oil and lower your risk for skin irritation. 

You might also read that you can ingest or swallow essential oils. Some oils are approved as a flavoring for cooking, but these aren’t medicines. There are also no quality regulations, so you might be taking a product with unsafe ingredients. Don’t swallow essential oils.

Essential oils can also interact with your medications and other health conditions. Talk to your doctor and pharmacist before using frankincense or other essential oils. 

Try frankincense extract 

The research on frankincense is promising, and the essential oil might have some health benefits. The frankincense extracts with boswellic acids might be better than the oil for some conditions and symptoms. Talk to your doctor if you’re considering taking frankincense extract. 

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Medically Reviewed on 7/26/2022

American Chemical Society: "B-Boswellic Acid."

Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin: "Inhibitory Effects of the Essential Oil from SuHeXiang Wan on the Central Nervous System after Inhalation."

BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies: "Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicity."

Center for International Forestry Research: "Management guide for sustainable production of frankincense."

Cleveland Clinic: "11 Essential Oils: Their Benefits and How to Use them."

Journal of Ethnopharmacology: "a-Pinene, linalool, and 1-octanol contribute to the topical anti-inflammatory and analgesic activities of frankincense by inhibiting COX-2."

Journal of Oleo Science: "The Effects of Frankincense Essential Oil on Stress in Rats."

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "Boswellia."

Tisserand Institute: "Frankincense Oil and Cancer Perspective."