Frankincense and Myrrh are two of the oldest and most famous aromatherapy essential oils known to man and even famed and prized today for their aromatherapy, traditional ayurvedic and Chinese medicine.
Though both frankincense and myrrh tend to bring up certain religious connotations to the western mind, they have been in active use as magical incenses, ritual tools and for their healing properties since at least 1500BC. Frankincense Tears are known for their use in consecration, meditation, protection and purifying. Myrrh is known for Protection, purification, healing and magical potency.
In March 2009, a study published in the BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2009, 9:6 showed that frankincense essential oil “suppressed cell viability in bladder transitional carcinoma J82 cells.”
Use In Ancient Times
Both frankincense and myrrh have been traded in the Middle East and North Africa for upwards of 5,000 years. It is believed that the Babylonians and Assyrians burned them during religious ceremonies. The ancient Egyptians bought entire boatloads of the resins from the Phoenicians, using them in incense, insect repellent, perfume and salves for wounds and sores; they were also key ingredients in the embalming process.
Myrrh oil served as a rejuvenating facial treatment, while frankincense was charred and ground into a power to make the heavy kohl eyeliner for Egyptian women. Sacks of frankincense and potted saplings of myrrh-producing trees appear in murals decorating the walls of a temple dedicated to Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt.
According to the Hebrew Bible, frankincense and myrrh were components of the holy incense ritually burned in Jerusalem’s sacred temples during ancient times. The ancient Greeks and Romans also imported massive amounts of the resins, which they burned as incense, used during cremations and took for a wide variety of ailments. By this time, medical practitioners had recognized and documented the substances’ antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, prescribing them for everything from indigestion and chronic coughs to hemorrhoids and halitosis.
The earliest recorded use of frankincense is found in an inscription on the tomb of a 15th century BC Egyptian queen named Hathsepsut. Ancient Egyptians burned frankincense as incense and ground the charred resin into a powder called kohl. Kohl was used to make the distinctive black eyeliner seen on so many figures in Egyptian art. Egyptians also used myrrh resin as incense and as an important ingredient in the embalming process, sometimes placing the crude resin in the eviscerated body cavities of mummies.
How Are They Extracted?
Both frankincense and myrrh are derived from the gummy sap that oozes out of the Boswellia and Commiphora trees, respectively, when their bark is cut. The leaking resin is allowed to harden and scraped off the trunk in tear-shaped droplets; it may then be used in its dried form or steamed to yield essential oils. Both substances are edible and often chewed like gum. They are also extremely fragrant, particularly when burned, with frankincense giving off a sweet, citrusy scent and myrrh producing a piney, bitter odor.
Because frankincense and myrrh can be collected from multiple Boswellia and Commiphora species, several different varieties are available. The shrubby trees that produce them are native to the Arabian Peninsula and regions of northeast Africa, though Boswellia has also been cultivated in southern China. (Frankincense has been a staple of traditional Chinese medicine since at least 500 B.C.)
Frankincense and Myrrh In Chinese Traditional Medicine
Yang Yifan, in her book Chinese Herbal Medicines Comparisons and Characteristics (3), says:
“Frankincense and myrrh are aromatic herbs. They are very bitter and pungent, and move quickly. They can strongly disperse congealed blood, and direct it to descend, open up the meridians and collaterals, and are very effective for relieving pain. The two herbs are often used together to enhance the therapeutic effect. In clinical practice, they are often applied to reduce pain and swelling in trauma, arthritis, and fractures.
Frankincense is warm and pungent, and enters the heart and lung meridians. Compared with myrrh, it promotes not only the blood circulation, but also the qi movement. It can also relax tendons. Frankincense is especially suitable for conditions where the joints and muscles are very stiff, swollen, and painful. It is also often used topically more than myrrh.
Myrrh is neutral and it enters the liver meridians. Compared with frankincense, it is more bitter and its dispersing action is also stronger. This herb is stronger than frankincense for breaking up congealed blood and is used not only in trauma and fracture, but also for hard masses, such as tumors.
Both of the herbs have a strong smell and may easily cause nausea and vomiting, and overdose may injure the stomach, so they are better used in pills and capsules.”
Oil of frankincense is slightly viscous, yellow to green with a deeply balsamic, fresh-resinous aroma. Sweet-lemony or green apple-like notes add complexity to the overall aroma profile of good quality frankincense oil. Thin, turpentine or solvent-like, weak, short-lived aromas are indicative of poor quality or adulterated frankincense oil.
Properties: Analgesic, anti-arthritic, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiseptic, astringent, carminative, digestive, diuretic, expectorant, sedative, tonic, vulnerary.
Blends Well With: Bergamot, black pepper, camphor, cinnamon, cypress, geranium, grapefruit, lavender, lemon, mandarin, neroli, orange, palmarosa, patchouli, pine, rose, sandalwood, vetiver, ylang ylang.
Ayurvedic Medicine: Indian frankincense (Boswellia serrata) has been used extensively in Ayurvedic medicine. Its function is similar to the myrrh-like resin obtained from Commiphora mukul. The Sushruta Samhita and Charak Samhita describe the anti-rheumatic activity of various types of gugguls (oleo gum resins), especially the Boswellia serrata; these texts indicate that these resins have been used medicinally for over a thousand years.
It is a powerful wound healer and very effective in the treatment of painful joint diseases with inflammation and reduced mobility. It improves blood supply to the affected areas, shrinks inflamed tissue, reduces pain, and enhances repair of local blood vessels damaged by proliferating inflammation. These effects are attributed to chemical compounds known as boswellic acids, which are now used in contemporary medicine as anti-arthritic and anti-inflammatory pharmacological agents.
1. Regenerates Skin
Frankincense has cytophylactic properties, meaning that it encourages healthy growth and regeneration of skin cells. Because it has rejuvenating and wound-healing effects on the skin, it is useful for treating cuts and other wounds, eczema, boils, acne, scars, stretch marks, skin ulcers, and inflamed skin.
2. Strengthens Teeth and Gums
Frankincense is chewed to strengthen teeth and gums and to refresh the mouth. It has antibiotic properties which make it useful for infections of the teeth and gums.
Chewing of resin has the secondary benefit of cleansing the digestive system by stimulating bile flow and enzyme secretion and reducing fermentation. A decoction of the resin with cinnamon and cardamom is a traditional formula to relieve stomachache.
Steam inhalation of the essential oil is an excellent treatment for colds and sinus congestion. Traditionally, the smoke of the smoldering gum was inhaled for treating head colds.
5. Anti-septic Properties
Powder of the dried gum is a common ingredient in herbal plasters and pastes used to treat wounds, especially in Chinese medicine. A traditional recipe for an antiseptic wound powder is to mix the powdered resins of frankincense, myrrh, and dried aloe.
6. Insect Repellant
Burning frankincense in churches had hygienic functions as well as spiritual importance. People of the Middle Ages lived in extremely unsanitary conditions, so the fumigation of churches helped reduce the stench of the unwashed congregants and reduce contagion through atmospheric purification.
7. Increases Memory
The use of frankincense by students for memory and the addition of the resin to coffee, as described above, are based on the resin’s memory-enhancing effects. The addition of the resin to coffee is used as a stimulant to treat amnesia.
While all types of frankincense have anti-rheumatic properties, the Indian frankincense in particular has been utilized by Ayurvedic medicine for this purpose.
9. Psychological Conditions
Fumigation with frankincense has been used in various cultures to treat a wide range of psychological and emotional disorders. In modern aromatherapy, it is used to promote calmness, deeper breathing, and a relaxed state of mind, and is therefore beneficial for depression, anxiety, and mental negativity.
Fumigation using the resin is a traditional treatment for headaches. Vaporizing of the essential oil can be used for the same purpose.
In frankincense-gathering regions, gum is burned beside the mother during labor, and the newborn baby is fumigated. Regular fumigation of the baby continues for forty days following the birth. The mother treats herself during this time by squatting over a bowl of the burning gum. This practice assists in the healing of scarring or lacerations, protects the woman from postpartum infections, restores muscle tone, and accelerates recovery.
Frankincense essential oil and fumigation by resin help reduce excessive secretion of mucus.
13. Respiratory Antiseptic
Frankincense essential oil and resin are used for treating a variety of respiratory problems such as bronchitis and laryngitis. Steam inhalation of the essential oil, combined with other respiratory oils such as eucalyptus, is highly effective. Traditionally, the resin was boiled in goat milk and taken as an antitussive.
The resin is a common ingredient in eye washes to treat infections and irritations, as well as a wide variety of ophthalmic diseases. Fumigation with the smoke is considered beneficial to sore or tired eyes.
Frankincense has countless uses in both modern and traditional cosmetic products. Mixed with beeswax, the resin was once a common treatment for removing darkness and bags under the eyes. Egyptian women use frankincense in various preparations for rejuvenating face masks; it helps improve dry, wrinkled, and aging skin.
Oil of myrrh is slightly viscous, yellowish to amber orange with a warm-spicy, balsamic fragrance. Overly viscous, dark brown oils may be extracted resinoids and not steam distilled essential oils, which are more useful in aromatherapy applications. Myrrh resinoids are more appropriate as perfume fixatives.
Traditional Use: In the fragrance industry the oil is used as a fixative. Medicinally it is used to treat wounds, and in many oral care products.
Properties: Anticatarrhal, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antiviral, astringent, carminative, cicatrisant, emmenagogue, expectorant, fungicidal, sedative, stomachic, tonic, uterine, vulnerary.
Blends Well With: Bergamot, chamomile, clove, cypress, eucalyptus lemon, frankincense, geranium, grapefruit, jasmine, juniper, lavender, lemon, neroli, palmarosa, patchouli, pine, rose, rosemary, sandalwood, tea tree, vetiver, ylang ylang
1. Mouth and Throat
Myrrh is a specific and highly effective antiseptic astringent for inflammations of the mouth, throat, and gums. It is a common ingredient of herbal tooth powders and mouthwashes, and is widely used through India and the Middle East for oral and dental problems. Myrrh is also very effective for infectious and inflammatory conditions of the throat, including strep throat, tonsillitis, and pharyngitis.
In the digestive tract myrrh acts as a stimulant, carminative, tonic, and chologogue. Its bitter principles stimulate the appetite and the flow of digestive juices, improving digestion and absorption. It both relaxes and invigorates the stomach, calming spasms, relieving gas, and combating fatigue associated with weak digestion. Its antibacterial and antifungal powers help reduce candida and other pathogenic factors in the gut.
Myrrh has pronounced anti-parasitic properties. By improving digestion myrrh clears toxins from the digestive tract and acts as a general detoxifying and anti-inflammatory remedy, thereby treating the root causes of arthritis, rheumatism, and gout. It can be combined with aloe vera for treatment of both the symptoms and causes of constipation.
3. Respiratory System
Myrrh is a stimulant, expectorant, and decongestant with antibacterial properties. It is helpful for relieving bronchitis, asthma, and colds. In Ayurvedic terms, it dries kapha (mucous secretions), reduces pitta (antibiotic), and stimulates prana (opens breathing). In Chinese terms, it is a stimulant of Wei Chi (respiratory immune enhancing). It can be a specific remedy for chronic sinusitis. It can be used in carrier oil as a chest rub.
Myrrh is an astringent antiseptic that is beneficial for acne, rashes, and inflammatory skin problems. The tincture, powder, or essential oil of myrrh can be applied directly to ulcerated sores, wounds, and abrasions. It can be made into salves for treating hemorrhoids and bed sores. For boils it can be taken as a blood cleanser while also being applied externally.
5. Wounds and Bruising
Myrrh is similar to frankincense in its wound-healing and blood-vitalizing properties, and the two are often combined in liniments.
6. Antimicrobial and Immune Stimulant
Myrrh is both an antimicrobial agent and a direct stimulant of white blood cell production. It increases resistance to infection, and is one of the most effective of all known disinfectants from the plant kingdom. It is a rejuvenating tonic, and is reputed to enhance of the intellect.
7. Stimulant for Uterus
Myrrh acts as an anti-spasmotic circulatory stimulant to the uterus. In this capacity, the resin or tincture is taken for amenorrhea and dysmenorrhea as a purgative of stagnant blood. It helps normalize irregular periods. Myrrh helps promote efficient contractions and relieves pain during childbirth. As an antimicrobial, dilute tincture can be used in vaginal douches. Its internal use should be avoided by pregnant women.
8. Circulatory System
Myrrh is classified in Chinese medicine as a blood vitalizer with anti-rheumatic and anti-arthritic powers. It is commonly used in liniments and medicated oils for these conditions, as well as general circulatory weakness and stagnation.
Uses In Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy draws on the deeply meditative quality of these oils. A gentle diffusion of a blend of equal proportions of both can evoke emotional balance in cases of anxiety or stress. Such a blend is also appropriate as an adjunct to prayer and meditation. In fact this usage is consistent with the long history of frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh can be useful in less relaxing blends as well. Outstanding and unusual aromas can be created by blending the two oils with citrus oils — lemon and bergamot work well with frankincense; orange and tangerine with myrrh. The citrus oils produce a lighter, cleaner, more uplifting aroma, more inspiring and less introspective than using frankincense and myrrh alone. These citrus frankincense and myrrh blends are useful when seeking emotional inspiration. Frankincense and myrrh alone are best used when seeking emotional insight.
Frankincense and myrrh may not be as popular as they once were, but they’re still used today in some ways that you might not expect. They’re common ingredients in modern perfumes and cosmetics, continuing a tradition that has lasted thousands of years. Scientists are finding new uses for the substances as well; recent studies suggest that frankincense may be beneficial to sufferers of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, osteoarthritis and collagenous colitis. Researchers have also discovered possible benefits of myrrh in the treatment of gastric ulcers, tumors and parasites.