Cosmeceutical Critique

Does the use of frankincense make sense in dermatology?


The Boswellia serrata exudate or gum (known in India as “guggulu”) that forms an aromatic resin traditionally used as incense – and known as frankincense (especially when retrieved from Boswellia species found in Eritrea and Somalia but also from the Indian variety) – has been considered for thousands of years to possess therapeutic properties. It is used in Ayurvedic medicine, as well as in traditional medicine in China and the Middle East, particularly for its anti-inflammatory effects to treat chronic conditions.1-8 In fact, such essential oils have been used since 2800 BC to treat various inflammatory conditions, including skin sores and wounds, as well as in perfumes and incense.2,9 In the West, use of frankincense dates back to thousands of years as well, more often found in the form of incense for religious and cultural ceremonies.7 Over the past 2 decades, evidence supporting the use of frankincense for therapeutic medical purposes has increased, particularly because of its purported anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties.3 This column focuses on some of the emerging data on this ancient botanical agent.

A bottle of frankincense essential oil with frankincense resin Madeleine_Steinbach / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Chemical constituents

Terpenoids and essential oils are the primary components of frankincense and are known to impart anti-inflammatory and anticancer activity. The same is true for myrrh, which has been combined with frankincense in traditional Chinese medicine as a single medication for millennia, with the two acting synergistically and considered still to be a potent combination in conferring various biological benefits.7

In 2010, in a systematic review of the anti-inflammatory and anticancer activities of Boswellia species and their chemical ingredients, Efferth and Oesch found that frankincense blocks the production of leukotrienes, cyclooxygenase (COX) 1 and 2, as well as 5-lipoxygenase; and oxidative stress. It also contributes to regulation of immune cells from the innate and acquired immune systems and exerts anticancer activity by influencing signaling transduction responsible for cell cycle arrest, as well as inhibition of proliferation, angiogenesis, invasion, and metastasis. The investigators also reported on clinical trial results that have found efficacy of frankincense and its constituents in ameliorating symptoms of psoriasis and erythematous eczema, among other disorders.3

Dr. Leslie S. Baumann, a dermatologist, researcher, author, and entrepreneur who practices in Miami.

Dr. Leslie S. Baumann

Anti-inflammatory activity

Li et al. completed a study in 2016 to identify the active ingredients responsible for the anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects of frankincense. They found that alpha-pinene, linalool, and 1-octanol were key contributors. These constituents were noted for suppressing COX-2 overexpression in mice, as well as nociceptive stimulus-induced inflammatory infiltrates.10

Noting the increasing popularity of frankincense essential oil in skin care, despite a paucity of data, in 2017, Han et al. evaluated the biological activities of the essential oil in pre-inflamed human dermal fibroblasts using 17 key protein biomarkers. Frankincense essential oil displayed significant antiproliferative activity and suppressed collagen III, interferon gamma-induced protein 10, and intracellular adhesion molecule 1. The investigators referred to the overall encouraging potential of frankincense essential oil to exert influence over inflammation and tissue remodeling in human skin and called for additional research into its mechanisms of action and active constituents.11


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