The small, shrub-like frankincense tree (Boswellia carteri or Boswellia thurifera) produces abundant foliage, white to pale pink blossoms, and a milky-white juice when the bark is peeled back. When this juice comes into contact with oxygen, it solidifies into amber-colored lumps that are used to create frankincense essential oil. The sap is steam distilled, and renders a clear, pale-yellow, or yellowish-green oil. Some frankincense oil is extracted with alcohol or chemical solvents, but only steam-distilled oil should be used for healing purposes.
The oil has a warm, woody, spicy and rich aroma with a light, lemony undertone. In The Essential Oils Book, Colleen K. Dodt describes the fragrance of essential frankincense oil as sweet and balsam-like. It is a favorite oil for inhalation in aromatherapy, and has a variety of healing properties that have been used for thousands of years. Frankincense was presented to the baby Jesus in its resinous form more than 5,000 years ago, according to the Christian Bible. Many people still associate the smell of frankincense essential oil with churches, temples and religious ceremonies, because of its reputation for cleansing and purifying sacred spaces.
History and Folklore
Frankincense has been associated with spirituality since the beginning of written history. The fragrance could be found wafting through the corridors of many ancient Egyptian temples. In fact, the Egyptians once offered frankincense to their Gods in the hopes that it would help get rid of evil spirits and prevent them from returning. It has been incorporated into incense not only in Egypt, but also China and India, from antiquity. Monks, priests and simple worshipers inhaled frankincense to help them reach a deeper level of consciousness. Today, many holy temples and churches still burn frankincense for this purpose.
Considered a prized possession, almost as valuable as gems and gold, frankincense actually influenced political activities in many ancient countries. Many conflicts arose when one government or another tried to monopolize the frankincense market. Some Arabic countries, for example, relied on frankincense as their primary economic resource. The Queen of Sheba, whose country was a major supplier of frankincense, reportedly went on a dangerous journey to visit King Solomon just to secure a trade agreement for this precious commodity. Traders in camel-drawn caravans braved treacherous terrain and conditions to bring frankincense to other parts of the world, where they were paid handsomely.
Ancient peoples valued frankincense for its delightful aroma and its purification properties. The Egyptians combined it with cinnamon, and used the combination to treat sore muscles and limbs. The Babylonians and Syrians dedicated massive amounts of frankincense to their Gods. The Romans used it for religious rites, and also burned it at government ceremonies and used it for medicinal purposes. The Chinese treated serious illness such as leprosy and tuberculosis with frankincense. In the East and West, healers used the substance to treat digestive problems, nervous disorders, respiratory complaints, skin diseases, rheumatism, syphilis and urinary tract infections.
Egyptian embalmers used frankincense to help preserve the bodies of dead rulers, which spurred its use as a restorative cosmetic ingredient. They began formulating various masks and facial oils with the substance to promote smooth, supple skin. Other popular cosmetics of the time included ointments and perfumes, many of which were made with frankincense. Today, it is still used for a variety of spiritual, medicinal and cosmetic applications, many of which are the same as they were thousands of years ago.
Modern Medicinal Uses
Modern healers in Europe often prescribe frankincense essential oils for treating wounds and inflammation. It soothes the mucous membranes, works as an expectorant to clear out the lungs, and may reduce swelling in the lymph glands in the neck. Other respiratory problems often treated with frankincense include colds, cough, the flu, bronchitis, laryngitis and asthma. In addition, today’s aromatherapists also use the oil in natural remedies to soothe stomach problems, ease digestive complaints, and to treat reproductive or urinary tract disorders.
Many medical practitioners believe that frankincense essential oil helps ease the pain and discomfort caused by cystitis, genital infections and sexually transmitted diseases, kidney ailments, breast inflammation, uterine hemorrhaging, heavy menstrual flow and other menstruation problems. Frankincense oil is also prescribed today for treating urinary incontinence, easing labor pains and decreasing postpartum depression. Although many of these frankincense essential oil uses have not been evaluated by scientific studies, thousands of years of anecdotal evidence exist to back them up.
In natural cosmetics, frankincense essential oil is most commonly used for its regenerative, restoring and rejuvenating properties. It is of particular benefit to dry, sensitive, aging and mature skin types. The oil helps smooth lines and wrinkles, and softens raw, chapped skin. Frankincense oil is also slightly astringent, which makes it suitable for oily skin as well. In addition, it aids in the healing of cosmetic problems such as blemishes, scars and skin ulcers. It can be used in addition to other natural acne scar treatment options to help reduce the appearance of mild acne scars. Frankincense essential oil is also used in many natural perfume formulations. In fact, it was one of the first botanical essences to be used in fragrances.
The many frankincense essential oil benefits also encompass emotional and psychological disorders. The oil is thought to help relieve a mind troubled by nervous tension, panic, stress and anxiety. It also revitalizes the body and mind in the case of mental or physical exhaustion. Frankincense is well-known for its ability to soothe the emotions and heal emotional wounds. It is a comfort during times of change and transition, and can help a person overcome ties to the past that cause depression and prevent personal growth.
When inhaled, frankincense essential oil slows respiration, which induces a feeling of calm and serenity. Some common problems often soothed by the use of frankincense essential oil include hyperactivity, restlessness, irritability and impatience. It helps the user focus their concentration on the task at hand, and reduces the response to distractions. This makes it an excellent essential oil to use when studying and learning.
Frankincense essential oil is generally considered safe for external use, and does not cause any irritation when used as directed. Just as with most other essential oils, however, it should not be applied directly to the skin without first diluting in a carrier oil. Do not use internally under any circumstances, as this can cause serious illness. Aside from this, no special precautions apply.
Frankincense essential oil is most commonly inhaled, but it may also be used in a variety of other ways, depending on your goal. Of course the easiest way to use the oil is to place a drop or two on a cotton ball, and then inhale deeply as needed. This will help relieve anxiety attacks in a pinch. Following are some other suggested uses for frankincense:
- For bronchitis and other lung complaints, bring a quart of water to a rolling boil, remove from the heat, and add 5 to 10 drops frankincense essential oil. Inhale the vapors deeply for 10 to 15 minutes to clear the lungs. This treatment also makes an excellent facial steam for dry, mature or oily skin.
- For respiratory problems and congestion, add 2 to 3 drops frankincense essential oil to a vaporizer, and run in your room while you sleep. This will soothe the lungs and help expel mucous.
- For mature skin, add 1 to 2 drops frankincense oil to 2 or 3 oz. almond oil, and use a moisturizer once or twice daily, just after washing your face and rinsing with tepid water. This facial oil will help treat and prevent wrinkles and fine lines, and keep the skin supple and soft.
- For anxiety and stress, add 15 to 20 drops frankincense oil to a bathtub full of hot water, and soak your entire body for at least 20 minutes. If desired, use frankincense in conjunction with juniper essential oil in a bath to relieve stress, but do not exceed 20 total drops.
- For scenting your home during the holidays, light an unscented candle and wait for the wax to melt. Once it does, add 1 to 2 drops frankincense essential oil to the wax just beside the wick. This will add a warm aroma to your holiday celebrations. You can also add a single drop to a firewood log, and allow it to soak in for a few minutes before adding to the fire.
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