One of the questions I get asked most often is “What do you use frankincense essential oil for?” People have heard of it, recognize its name, understand it is something rather spectacular, but are unsure just how its magic can be used in their own lives. Frequently, I marvel at how detached frankincense has become from how it was revered two thousand years ago when it was one of the most precious holy objects of the Eastern world.
As I write, snow falls heavily outside of my window; Christmas carols are running through my head, and, of course, Frankincense has a very special connection with the Christian nativity story. In the book of Matthew, we hear that three wise men came from the East to bring gifts. While we do not hear of their names until the fifteenth century, Matthew is clear when he wrote, that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Compare this to the book of Luke, who tells us the visitors were not kings, but instead shepherds who had been tending their sheep, and rather than being guided by a wondrous star, they had been visited by a heavenly host of angels bearing news.
Several other discrepancies between the gospels lead scholars to believe the stories of Jesus were not eye witness accounts (which would probably have been written in Aramaic) but rather, tales written down by Greek scholars of the early church in the 1st Century AD. (No-one debates that a man called Jesus lived; instead the argument is the gospels must have been written several decades after his death.)
What’s important here, then, is the gifts given, carry extraordinary symbolic importance to the story. A foreshadowing, if you will, of the destiny of this special child born that night in Bethlehem. More, it bestows great cultural significance of the time. The gold, the choice metal of great kings; myrrh, an embalming oil, and a portent, from the astrologers, that death might soon be near, and finally this mystical resin, frankincense. The only person at that time, who would have needed such a resin, would have been a holy man, a priest, and the resin was often used to consecrate things as holy or righteous.
We know very little about the childhood of the Christ-child, except that Herod the Great wanted Him dead and so Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, hiding him from the slaughtering of the innocent babies as the King of Judea searched for a child people whispered might be the Messiah and savior of the Jews.
Strangely, this account echoes the story of Moses, also hidden in Egypt, then who subsequently led the Israelites out of Egypt. When God appears to Moses, in the Exodus, he commands Moses build the Tabernacle, and gives him the recipe for the sacred incense Ketoret and anointing oil for the priests. This recipe contained frankincense and dates usage of frankincense to around 1400BC.
So, this strange milky white resin, brought to Bethlehem, what was it for?
The Ancient Egyptians had used frankincense oil, along with myrrh oil for embalming their mummies, and evidence shows they used small spoon-like containers to burn incenses too. To be clear, their frankincense oil would be different to ours, distillation not being discovered until around 1000AD. Instead they steeped the resin, in warm vegetable oil, most probably olive, and waited for the active constituents to pass across into the oil. Interestingly, incense trees did not grow in Egypt, so these were imported from the Land of Punt, having been grown in the areas we now know as Oman, Yemen and Somalia. It is believed the Queen of Sheba controlled the frankincense market, and part of the reason the value of the resin was so high was its harvesting was historically very hazardous. The ancient writer Theophastrus explains that snakes living in the branches of the trees would often attack harvesters as they climbed out into the branches of the trees that often grew on perilous outcroppings of rock. The infamous Queen protected her business so ferociously that any merchant leaving her designated trade routes was immediately punishable on death. These transactions led to Arabia becoming one of the wealthiest civilizations in the world.
So, what was so important about frankincense?
It has profoundly sedative properties, slowing the breath and calming the mind, bringing about an incomparable state of serenity. In this tranquil place, the mind relaxes, releasing troubling thoughts and a profound stillness descends.
In a few days, on Dec 23rd, I’ll attend my favorite evening of the year, the Carol service at St Laurence’s church in Ludlow. Electric lights will be extinguished and in their place, thousands of candles will be lit. Each year, the verger walks through the aisles swinging the censor full of frankincense and timeless mysticism descends on the congregation. As we join, together, in glorious song of lyrics sung the same way for centuries, you can really feel the presence of God in that place and a very rare emotion these day…a deep sense of gratitude and hope.
This is the medicine of frankincense.
It is a prayer.
But more, it’s a prayer with voice; glorious symphony of song.
For frankincense relaxes and restores, opening the lungs, dissipating grief, and releasing a voice long forgotten. As the newly remembered voices of young and old soar in that frigidly cold church, suddenly released by the sacred medicine, the same thing happens to me every year. Tears stream, and I’m never quite sure what caused it. Is it seeing my own medicine touching so many people in one place, or feeling like God just touched me and reminded me of His grace. Consistently, it overwhelms and sustains me.
Astrologically, frankincense is categorized as a sun medicine, fortifying, sustaining, and invigorating us, and yet, it is gentle, quiet and comforting. When life becomes impossible, you somehow sense a whisper of “One day, you’ll be glad you learnt this. Worry not, I am here.” It becomes possible to be present in the lesson, and the need to run seems to disappear.
Naturally, this focusing of the mind is not only a belief belonging to Christendom, but also being part of the Hebrew story of Moses. Indeed the medieval Arabic Theologian Ibn al-Qayyim wrote that Prophet Mohammad (Peace be upon Him) had once recommended burning frankincense and thyme to a companion who had complained to him about memory loss and forgetfulness. I would concur, especially the kind of scattiness that comes from anxiety and worried thoughts. Frankincense stills the mind and centers you to an inner peace and you may find it interesting to discover that scientists are now also researching these same chemical constituents from frankincense as possible innovations against Alzheimer’s.
From a mind body medicine perspective, it’s impossible to ignore the enigmatic parallel between respite from inflamed anger and fear, and the simultaneous retraction of inflammation in the body, and yet, frankincense has a potent anti-inflammatory property. Illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis and coughs are helped greatly as frankincense allows people to “take a breath”.
It restores elasticity. This is one of my favorite aroma-watchwords. Often medicines have themes and elasticity is a frankincense theme.
Again, think of those Ancient Egyptian mummies, whose tissues remain intact today protected by the oils of so long ago. (Although if Cleopatra had been embalmed in Wales she would still have rotted, frankincense, or no. It was the efficacious combination of oils and desiccation of the scorching Egyptian sun that created that fantastical property.) Today, we still find it tightening sagging skin, smoothing out wrinkles and restoring elasticity to stretched skin of pregnancy or weight loss.
Remember how I said it was a lung medicine, helping singers to raise praises to God? It’s because it restores elasticity to pulmonary tissue too. Imagine the help it brings to an emphysema whose lung tissues are now stretched so much they cannot inflate. Physically their breathing improves but think of the emotional and mental strain struggling to breathe has day to day. Surely, a chance to breathe again is God-given? A chance to re-embrace the very life force of being.
Frankincense always makes me think of saccharine sweet sentimental Christmas films; you know the ones; those where the impossible always becomes possible. Because mentally, frankincense also restores elasticity to fixed thinking, so the cynic who was going to close the factory might suddenly meet Santa and love again! It’s that strange movement of “It’s always this way….” To suddenly newfound hope; a heart softening, a slight bend, a smile as frankincense…restores elasticity.
See? Aromatherapy is always about themes.
What else can be overstretched? Tragically as I write this my poor dog has just hobbled in after slipping in the snow. She is the perfect patient for the essential oil. The oil sedates her as she warms by the fire, comforts her and the restores elasticity to the connective tissue in her leg. In human medicine, think tendonitis, bursitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive strain injuries. The connective tissue is over extended, it swells from inflammatory markers trying to protect it. The inflammation causes pain. The pain causes bad tempers and withdrawal from social activities and leads to anxiety and depression.
And then we have a drop of frankincense….
Truly, aromatherapy, used the right way can be life changing.
Frankincense Essential Oil for Cancer
There might only be one thing I hate about my job and that’s the days when I get emails from readers who ask:
“How do I use frankincense essential oil for my aunt/uncle/mum etc. who has cancer?”
Sadly, these notes are coming ever more frequently, and they break my heart. I can never answer them straight away, needing time to steal myself to the bitter news I must impart that so far, there is no proof that frankincense essential oil can help cancer. There is an active constituent, in the resin, proving extremely hopeful against main tumors and cancer cells, Boswellic Acid. However, this is a very large molecule, too heavy to be lifted by steam in distillation and thus remains in the resin and does not find its way into the essential oil. We may find, over time, there are other active constituents in the oil supporting and doing the same job, but so far, none has been identified.
So, what is the right way to use Frankincense Essential Oil?
Blending Note: Middle to top
Frankincense Essential Oil Blends Well With
Top Notes: Evergreen Notes, Pines, Firs & Spruces, Citruses Like Orange and Lemon
Heart Notes: Herbaceous Lavenders, Eucalyptus, Rosemary & Sage
Base Notes: Resins & Woods
Character of The Oil: Resinous, Herbaceous, Pine-y, Opening, Comforting, Lifting, Reassuring, Connecting & Slowing
Maximum Dilution of Frankincense Essential Oil3%
Cautions of Using this Oil: Not suitable for topical use during first 16 weeks of pregnancy.
How to use frankincense essential oil in a diffuser.
There are a multitude of ways. Use as a very benign and gentle way to sooth colds especially in little ones. Frankincense, of course, is a much safer alternative to eucalyptus for littles one’s colds.
It’s citrus-y pine freshness is very relaxing after a hard day, and is particularly useful if you are angry or anxious.
It is calming, reverent and prayer like so is the perfect oil to choose for meditation.
Much of the art of aromatherapy cannot be learned from a book but instead is inflections of personality and body language. Consider the person who speaks very quickly, rambling and spewing jumbled and confused information, their mind speeding out of control whether from fear or excitement. Frankincense anchors the energy, and you will notice over time how their breathing changes noticeably as their speech slows down and becomes more coherent.
Of all its qualities, remember “comforting” and that will help you to choose.
How to Make Frankincense Essential Oil Candles
Tranquillity at the strike of a match.
Line up some plain tea lights in a baking tray. (They need to be the ones in the foil containers!) Place into an over pre-warmed to 120 degrees, gently warm for 12 minutes. As the wax melts, drip three drops of frankincense oil into each one, and then place somewhere to cool. A little warning: avoid getting oil on the wick which smells horrible when it burns.
How to Use Frankincense Essential Oil in The Bath
Bliss, perfect peace. It can only be enhanced by adding lavender, camomile, mandarin, or vetiver (or all of them if you feel indulgent). It relaxes body and mind, soothing aching muscles and releasing tension.
Remember, scientists now know it takes nineteen minutes for the oils to process through the skin and into the blood stream, so you are going to need at least a twenty-minute soak. Simultaneously though, frankincense molecules rush up the nose to the brain and begin to alter our perception. Don’t be surprised if after just five minutes your body begins to feel heavier and the world seems a little further away.
If you are like me, and you love your bath very hot, consider that frankincense might make it feel even hotter, so you might want to run a little more cod water for comfort. Scholars now understand that the deep sense of relaxation comes from the TRPV3 protein in the brain. The TRPV channels perceive our reactions to heat and pain, so as the molecules hit them we feel warmer, more comforted, and safer. Potentially, these are the seeds of the psychoactivity reducing depression and anxiety.
How to Use Frankincense Essential Oil in Massage
For inflammatory conditions such as arthritis consider blending into a carrier oil such as borage, sea buckthorn or tamanu carrier oils. Maximum dilution of frankincense essential oil is 3% so add no more than 3 drops per teaspoon of carrier oil.
For relaxation you might want to use the same dilution in a thicker more seductive carrier. Perhaps rosehip, sesame, or almond oil? These oils too, are wonderful for facial massage, no more than once a week to increase circulation in the complexion. Hazel nut carrier oil also improves exfoliation revealing younger fresher skin cells from the skin layers beneath.
How to use Frankincense Essential Oil in Creams, Lotions, and Ointments
Add up to 10 drops of frankincense essential oil to 1oz of blank ointment to warm aching and swollen joints. A few drops of lavender will help to reduce pain even more.
Don’t forget, of course, this is THE best moisturizer oil for mature skins. Add a few drops to your cleanser, moisturizer, and night cream to turn back the hands of time.
Author: Elizabeth Ashley, AKA The Secret Healer.
Elizabeth Ashley is The UK Director of National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy and overseas speaker for the International Federation of Aromatherapists, also the author of 20 books about aromatherapy including 12 Amazon category number one best sellers, as well as being a regular contributor to five professional trade journals.