Last week I provided my second tip on making the holidays less stressful by highlighting the emotional and physically soothing aspects of essential oils. Along with reviewing the research connecting spirituality to health, I also began my introduction to one of the most revered essential oils, frankincense. (Link)
One of the most common questions I receive about frankincense oil is, “Dr. Sarah, what is the difference between the various species of frankincense?”
I don’t want to give you a tool to ease your holiday upheaval that creates more bewilderment! For this reason, I need to review some of the caveats to help you navigate the best choice for you.
In this article, I will begin with a brief overview of the literature regarding variations of different frankincense species and chemotypes. If you need the science and love geeking out, dive in. There will be plenty more references coming up that highlight the four most popular species on the market.
If you have a turkey in the oven this week and company overstaying their welcome in the next few, you may want the bottom line pronto.
Here’s your early holiday present sneak peek then…
If you have any good quality frankincense species essential oil on hand, you’ve made a very wise decision indeed. If you don’t know what it means to have a good quality essential oil, you may just want to take some time away from that baster and pull up a chair after all.
Reviewing the Healing Power of the Frankincense Family
In previous posts I reviewed and highlighted this plant’s many therapeutic healing properties. (source, source, source) A quick search for “Boswellia” on PubMed comes up with 544 results of evidence. A lot of attention is devoted to the resin which contains very powerful immune-modulating constituents, boswellic acids. You can find a summary I did of all the research on frankincense and a link to all my articles on this topic in this blog.
Recently, I took a second glance and skimmed through to find any updates and interesting research on Boswellia from the many pages on Science.gov. No worries, there were only 299 results! I reviewed in depth several of the first 101 studies and looked over abstracts of the rest. Now, I will attempt to highlight the most important concepts on frankincense species I took away from this research in this series.
Finding Your Way Through Boswellia Bombardment
Even though frankincense may not be the most common essential oil used by aromatherapists, it is gaining market demand and the industry is taking notice. The attention to the species variations and benefits of Boswellia oil seems to have become more prominent recently due to the rise in essential oil popularity and different companies marketing their specific type as the “best.” (source, source)
Four of the species most well-known and available in the United States are: Boswellia sacra, Boswellia carterii, Boswellia frereana, and Boswellia serrata. All of these have therapeutic properties and have vast amounts of research to back this claim.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Burseraceae, or the frankincense family, has 18 genera and 550 species of trees and shrubs.” Another source states, “The family of Burseraceae is represented in the plant kingdom with 17 genera and 600 species wide-spread in all tropical regions. There are about 25 known species belonging to Genus Boswellia, most of them occur in Arabia, northeastern coast of Africa and India. Since ancient times, three of these species have been considered as ‘true Frankincense’ producing trees [9,10].”.
One article went into more details. This article was retracted due to improper citation of sources; however, the information was not deemed inaccurate. It explored the variations of constituents in frankincense and discussed the regional and chemotype variations. (see table) As if deciphering this information wasn’t enough, the misidentification, intentional or unintentional, by suppliers is also a problem. The authors state:
Since the entire history of Boswellia nomenclature is fraught with misidentification, Woolley et al.  showed that the history of inaccurate frankincense taxonomy also applies to the widespread error of identifying B. carterii as being synonymous with B. sacra. Woolley et al.  studied the essential oil of B. carterii and B. sacra and showed that B. carterii can always be identified by the key markers viridiflorol, cembrenol, dimethyl ethermorcinol, and most importantly incensole. B. sacra was distinguished by higher quantities of ?-pinene and delta-3-carene, while B. carterii possessed higher quantities of ?-thujene, myrcene, limonene, trans-?-caryophyllene, germacrene D, and incensole. Woolley et al.  hypothesize that the differences in enantiomeric pair ratios of monoterpenes in Arabian B. sacra and African B. carterii resins were due to the differences in the abundance of genetically expressed chiral-specific enzymes for monoterpene biosynthesis. The most likely cause of genetic shift and speciation of B. sacra trees in Arabia and B. carterii trees in East Africa was the geological isolation created by the Red Sea Rift Valley that has separated these two tectonic plate land masses. Genetic mapping of these species might provide conclusive data to support Woolley et al. observations. Woolley et al. concluded that B. sacra and B. carterii are different species based on enantiomeric pair ratios and optical rotation. (source)
Another study explored the constituent variations found in 20 different species of frankincense oil and reached the same conclusion:
The chemical composition of various frankincense oils (Al-Harrasi & Al-Saidi, 2008, Ba?er et al., 2003, Dekebo et al., 1999, Hamm et al., 2005, Kasali et al., 2002, Strappaghetti et al., 1982) and their constituents differ according to the climate, harvest conditions and geographical distribution (Mikhaeil et al., 2003). Frankincense oils on the international market are obtained from several sources and distributed by various companies. Oil obtained from several species are sold under the same name as “frankincense oil” therefore a study was undertaken to record the chemical variation for twenty commercial frankincense oils. Furthermore, as chemical composition inevitably may have an impact on the pharmacological activities, the antimicrobial activities for all twenty samples were comparatively assessed. (source)
Will the Best Boswellia Please Stand Up?
Now that you have learned that the most common Boswellia species all have value, how do you know what to choose? In the upcoming article(s?) during this sacred season, I will continue to examine the various species of frankincense and their properties.
Got a Big Appetite for More Information?
Check out this link to October 2018 Holistic and Integrative Medicine Top Reads.
This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.