Essential oils, aromatic substances that are extracted from different kinds of plant materials using the process of steam distillation, work in a wide range of ways. But while essential oils such as lavender, tea tree oil, citrus, and peppermint are pretty popular, frankincense can often fly under the radar, at least here in the U.S. But it absolutely shouldn't. Frankincense oil uses and benefits are so great that The Healing Powers of Essential Oils author Eric Zielinski, DC, says it's often referred to as the "king of oils."
Frankincense oil is sourced from frankincense trees, which are native to Africa and the Middle East. The oil is sapped straight from the bark, a practice that's been done for over 6,000 years. It's been used historically in religious ceremonies, perfumes, and as medicine. Its scent is often described as woodsy, with a touch of lemon. Here, Dr. Zielinski explains more about frankincense, including its benefits, ways to use it, and buying tips.
What are the benefits of frankincense oil?
1. It may improve mood
Dr. Zielinski says frankincense can be used to briefly improve mood. "Aromatherapy hand massage using a blend of bergamot, frankincense, and lavender was evaluated several years ago on hospice patients with terminal cancer," he says. The researchers found that it was connected to improving both their mood and pain levels. Because the mixture was a blend, it's impossible to credit the frankincense entirely, but the connection is still noteworthy.
2. It could help with arthritis
Dr. Zielinski says another one of the noteworthy frankincense oil uses is for potentially reducing symptoms of arthritis, offering relief to those who don't want to use pain medications. "Alpha-pinene and linalool, two of the top constituents of frankincense essential oil, are widely recognized as anti-inflammatories," he says. "Frankincense has also been shown to help with tissue remodeling, which suggests a cellular rejuvenation ability that can possibly help slow down the progression of bone and joint disorders." However, since this research has mostly been performed in vitro (meaning it was on cells, not live human subjects), this benefit is not conclusive.
3. Frankincense oil could help support a healthy immune system
Because frankincense has anti-inflammatory properties, Dr. Zeilinski says it could help support the immune system. "Because it contains boswellic acids, frankincense extract contains more prominent and specific immune-modulating properties," he adds. These acids potentially bolster your white blood cells (which protect you from disease) so they get into fighting shape. Dr. Zielinski adds that more research needs to be done to firmly establish a link between frankincense oil and immunity, but the preliminary research is worth paying attention to.
While all three of these uses are powerful, the key is knowing exactly how to use frankincense oil so you can truly benefit from it. Next, Dr. Zielinski explains exactly that.
How to use frankincense oil to unlock its benefits
1. Frankincense oil can be used topically
If you want to use frankincense oil to alleviate pain, applying it topically directly to the source of your pain is the best way to do so. There are a couple ways to do this. One is to put a few drops of frankincense oil into your palms, rub them together, and then massage the pain point. You can also pour the drops into a wet washcloth (hot or cold will both work; go with whatever temperature you prefer and will feel good on your body) and wrap the part of your body in pain with the washcloth.
"[I like to] create a 2 percent dilution by adding 12 drops of frankincense essential oil to 1 ounce of a carrier oil like jojoba and apply after you shower or as a body moisturizer," Dr. Zielinski says.
Whatever method you choose, he says it also works to support the immune system and improve mood, too. Part of applying the oil topically is smelling its aroma, which is where the connection to mood comes in.
2. It can be inhaled
As mentioned, simply breathing in frankincense could improve mood. "Try adding two drops each of frankincense, bergamot, and lime essential oil in your water diffuser and enjoy throughout the day," Dr. Zielinski says, highlighting two other essential oils linked to improving mood as well.
3. Frankincense oil can be ingested
If you want to ingest frankincense oil, Dr. Zielinski says to look for it in a capsule form; don't consume the same oil you would use in your diffuser or on your skin. "Take it after breakfast or dinner and of course consult with your physician before taking, especially if you are currently on any medication," he says.
What to keep in mind when buying and using frankincense oil
Like any essential oil, some may have an allergic reaction or sensitivity to frankincense oil, so it's best to start using it very slowly—just one drop—if you've never used it before. If your eyes or skin start to feel irritated, stop immediately. Dr. Zielinski says anyone who has a medical condition or is going through any sort of medical treatment, such as chemotherapy, should check with their doctor before using frankincense oil, just to be safe.
In terms of what to keep in mind when you're buying frankincense oil, Dr. Zielinski says he likes buying slightly different varieties and mixing them together for a "super frankincense blend." "They create a synergistic cornucopia of healing properties and a delightful aroma," he says. "Use what you have available to you and, if you can get your hands on a few different varieties, try them out to see which ones respond best for you." Examples of the varieties include: boswellia carterii, boswellia sacra, boswellia frereana, boswellia rivae, boswellia neglecta, boswellia papyrifera, and boswellia serrata. Regardless of what variety you choose, they will all have the healing properties highlighted earlier.
When buying frankincense oil, Dr. Zielinski says it's important to seek out Fair Trade certified products so you're supporting brands that treat workers ethically. "A review of Somaliland’s Frankincense industry has uncovered the need to greatly improve the working conditions for the workers who sort and clean the frankincense resin after it has been harvested," he says. "According to a study published by the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy & Security at the University of Vermont, improvements to working conditions for female workers engaged in sorting and cleaning is needed. Currently these women are sitting on concrete floors for 12 hours per day, in low light conditions, slumped over their sorting boards making between 50 cents to a max of $2 per day."
While the study was conducted six years ago, he says in many cases the conditions have remained unchanged. By supporting Fair Trade certified companies, it ensures workers are treated and paid fairly.
The best way to know if frankincense oil is beneficial for you is simply to try it. And if the woodsy scent isn't for you, rest assured that there are plenty of other essential oils out there to choose from. This is just one aromatic tool in your wellness toolbox—and it's one that's been used for centuries.
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