Frankincense, also known as olibanum, is made from the resin of the Boswellia tree. It typically grows in the dry, mountainous regions of India, Africa and the Middle East.
Frankincense has a woody, spicy smell and can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, steeped into a tea or taken as a supplement.
Used in Ayurvedic medicine for hundreds of years, frankincense appears to offer certain health benefits, from improved arthritis and digestion to reduced asthma and better oral health. It may even help fight certain types of cancer.
Here are 5 science-backed benefits of frankincense — as well as 7 myths.
Frankincense has anti-inflammatory effects that may help reduce joint inflammation caused by osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Researchers believe that frankincense can prevent the release of leukotrienes, which are compounds that can cause inflammation (, ).
Terpenes and boswellic acids appear to be the strongest anti-inflammatory compounds in frankincense (, ).
Test-tube and animal studies note that boswellic acids may be as effective as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — with fewer negative side effects ().
In one recent review, frankincense was consistently more effective than a placebo at reducing pain and improving mobility (7).
In one study, participants given 1 gram per day of frankincense extract for eight weeks reported less joint swelling and pain than those given a placebo. They also had a better range of movement and were able to walk further than those in the placebo group ().
In another study, boswellia helped reduce morning stiffness and the amount of NSAID medication needed in people with rheumatoid arthritis ().
That said, not all studies agree and more research is needed (6, ).
Summary Frankincense’s anti-inflammatory effects may help reduce symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. However more high-quality studies are needed to confirm these effects.
Frankincense’s anti-inflammatory properties may also help your gut function properly.
This resin appears particularly effective at reducing symptoms of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, two inflammatory gut diseases.
In one small study in people with Crohn's disease, frankincense extract was as effective as the pharmaceutical drug mesalazine at reducing symptoms ().
Another study gave people with chronic diarrhea 1,200 mg of boswellia — the tree resin frankincense is made from — or a placebo each day. After six weeks, more participants in the boswellia group had cured their diarrhea compared to those given the placebo ().
What’s more, 900–1,050 mg of frankincense daily for six weeks proved as effective as a pharmaceutical in treating chronic ulcerative colitis — and with very few side effects (, ).
However, most studies were small or poorly designed. Therefore, more research is needed before strong conclusions can be made.
Summary Frankincense may help reduce symptoms of Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis by reducing inflammation in your gut. However, more research is needed.
Traditional medicine has used frankincense to treat bronchitis and asthma for centuries.
Research suggests that its compounds may prevent the production of leukotrienes, which cause your bronchial muscles to constrict in asthma ().
In one small study in people with asthma, 70% of participants reported improvements in symptoms, such as shortness of breath and wheezing, after receiving 300 mg of frankincense three times daily for six weeks ().
Similarly, a daily frankincense dose of 1.4 mg per pound of body weight (3 mg per kg) improved lung capacity and helped reduce asthma attacks in people with chronic asthma (16).
Lastly, when researchers gave people 200 mg of a supplement made from frankincense and the South Asian fruit bael (Aegle marmelos), they found that the supplement was more effective than a placebo at reducing asthma symptoms ().
Summary Frankincense may help reduce the likelihood of asthma attacks in susceptible people. It may also relieve asthma symptoms, such as shortness of breath and wheezing.
Frankincense may help prevent bad breath, toothaches, cavities and mouth sores.
The boswellic acids it provides appear to have strong antibacterial properties, which may help prevent and treat oral infections ().
In one test-tube study, frankincense extract was effective against Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans, a bacteria which causes aggressive gum disease ().
In another study, high school students with gingivitis chewed a gum containing either 100 mg of frankincense extract or 200 mg of frankincense powder for two weeks. Both gums were more effective than a placebo at reducing gingivitis ().
However, more human studies are needed to confirm these results.
Summary Frankincense extract or powder may help fight gum disease and maintain oral health. However, more studies are needed.
Frankincense may also help fight certain cancers.
The boswellic acids it contains might prevent cancer cells from spreading (21, ).
A review of test-tube studies notes that boswellic acids may also prevent the formation of DNA in cancerous cells, which could help limit cancer growth ().
Moreover, some test-tube research shows that frankincense oil may be able to distinguish cancer cells from normal ones, killing only the cancerous ones ().
So far, test-tube studies suggest that frankincense may fight breast, prostate, pancreatic, skin and colon cancer cells (, , , , ).
One small study indicates that it may also help reduce side effects of cancer.
When people getting treated for brain tumors took 4.2 grams of frankincense or a placebo each day, 60% of the frankincense group experienced reduced brain edema — an accumulation of fluid in the brain — compared to 26% of those given the placebo ().
However, more research in humans is needed.
Summary Compounds in frankincense may help kill cancer cells and prevent tumors from spreading. However, more human research is needed.
Although frankincense is praised for multiple health benefits, not all of them are backed by science.
The 7 following claims have very little evidence behind them:
- Helps prevent diabetes: Some small studies report that frankincense may help lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. However, recent high-quality studies found no effect (, ).
- Reduces stress, anxiety and depression: Frankincense may reduce depressive behavior in mice, but no studies in humans have been done. Studies on stress or anxiety are also lacking ().
- Prevents heart disease: Frankincense has anti-inflammatory effects which may help reduce the type of inflammation common in heart disease. However, no direct studies in humans exist ().
- Promotes smooth skin: Frankincense oil is touted as an effective natural anti-acne and anti-wrinkle remedy. However, no studies exist to support these claims.
- Improves memory: Studies show that large doses of frankincense may help boost memory in rats. However, no studies have been done in humans (, , ).
- Balances hormones and reduces symptoms of PMS: Frankincense is said to delay menopause and reduce menstrual cramping, nausea, headaches and mood swings. No research confirms this.
- Enhances fertility: Frankincense supplements increased fertility in rats, but no human research is available ().
While very little research exists to support these claims, very little exists to deny them, either.
However, until more studies are done, these claims can be considered myths.
Summary Frankincense is used as an alternative remedy for a wide array of conditions. However, many of its uses are not supported by research.
As frankincense can be consumed in a variety of ways, its optimal dosage is not understood. The current dosage recommendations are based on doses used in scientific studies.
Most studies use frankincense supplements in tablet form. The following dosages were reported as most effective ():
- Asthma: 300–400 mg, three times per day
- Crohn’s disease: 1,200 mg, three times per day
- Osteoarthritis: 200 mg, three times per day
- Rheumatoid arthritis: 200–400 mg, three times per day
- Ulcerative colitis: 350–400 mg, three times per day
- Gingivitis: 100–200 mg, three times per day
Aside from tablets, studies have also used frankincense in gum — for gingivitis — and creams — for arthritis. That said, no dosage information for creams is available (, ).
If you’re considering supplementing with frankincense, talk to your doctor about a recommended dosage.
Summary Frankincense dosage depends on the condition you’re trying to treat. The most effective dosages range from 300–400 mg taken three times per day.
Frankincense is considered safe for most people.
It has been used as a remedy for thousands of years without any severe side effects, and the resin has a low toxicity ().
Doses above 900 mg per pound of body weight (2 grams per kg) were found to be toxic in rats and mice. However, toxic doses haven’t been studied in humans (37).
The most common side effects reported in scientific studies were nausea and acid reflux ().
Some research reports that frankincense may increase the risk of miscarriage in pregnancy, so pregnant women may want to avoid it ().
Frankincense may also interact with some medications, particularly anti-inflammatory drugs, blood thinners and cholesterol-lowering pills ().
If you’re taking any of these medicines, make sure to discuss frankincense with your healthcare provider before using it.
Summary Frankincense is considered safe for most people. However, pregnant women and those taking certain types of medication may want to avoid it.
Frankincense is used in traditional medicine to treat a wide variety of medical conditions.
This resin may benefit asthma and arthritis, as well as gut and oral health. It may even have cancer-fighting properties.
While it has few side effects, pregnant women and people taking prescription medications may want to talk to their doctor before taking frankincense.
If you’re curious about this aromatic product, you’ll find that it’s widely available and easy to try.