This Biblical-Era Essential Oil Is Suddenly Showing Up in Skincare

Credit the ingredient's upswing in beauty to our appetite for more "natural" options.

Photo: Getty Images/InStyle

It was one of the original "it" Christmas presents. And no, we're not talking about an iPhone, Cabbage Patch Kids, or even Jordans, but a gift famously recorded in the Bible: frankincense.

The aromatic and medicinal compound that likely signaled luxury way back then (the word "frankincense" itself springs from Anglo-French "franc" — as in expensive — and "encens" or incense), remains a costly commodity that's growing in popularity. Market price for a kilo of frankincense (boswellia) essential oil runs in the hundreds while market research shows revenue is expected to double in the next decade.

What may have been the original fragrance gift bestowed long before the creation of eau de parfums, frankincense has also developed an enduring legacy as a valuable botanical in Ayurvedic medicine (as seen in early medical texts Charaka Samhita, circa 700 B.C.; and Susruta Samhita, circa 600 B.C.). More recently, frankincense-derived acids, essential oils, and resins have started popped up in a range of skincare formulations that span eye creams, sheet masks, serums, body oils, and so much more.

Credit the ingredient's upswing in beauty to our insatiable appetite for "natural" skincare and references in research that point to its anti-inflammatory properties and ability to improve skin elasticity or decrease sebum excretion. In fact, Allison Audrey Weldon, founder of Sangre de Fruta, explains that in the old world, frankincense was valued like gold, so much so that it is often referred to as the king of essential oils — or liquid gold. But no matter how popular frankincense becomes, dermatologists say it's not enough to go all-in on the ingredient as a first-line treatment. That's because for a botanical that's been in the collective consciousness for ages, frankincense's skin benefits are surprisingly under researched.

"Ayurvedic medicine has existed for thousands of years and there are benefits to this approach to health, but there are no published studies examining the benefits of boswellia or frankincense on the skin. None," says Dr. Melanie Palm, a San Diego-area dermatologist. "This is not to say there couldn't be benefits of frankincense, but know that any of these skincare products assertions are not supported by large or well-designed clinical studies to prove a beneficial effect on the skin."

Still, the age-old botanical may prove something of an up-and-comer.

"There has been anecdotal evidence that frankincense and boswellia applied topically have helped with skin inflammation and can be beneficial for patients with skin disorders like eczema," says Dr. Orit Markowitz, a dermatologist in New York City and associate professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. "However, other than this anecdotal evidence that shows these ingredients being used as an anti-inflammatory, there is no other scientific data that supports other claims."

But Dr. Marisa K. Garshick, a Manhattan-based dermatologist, says that frankincense incorporates terpenes, which detoxifies and controls sebum levels in the skin. As such, it can benefit people with oily and acne-prone skin. She also notes that frankincense increases skin elasticity, improve signs of photoaging, and promotes skin firmness.

Dr. Raja Sivamani, an integrative dermatologist and Ayurvedic practitioner who serves as director of clinical research at University of California, Davis, sees additional potential in the ingredient used for skin care, noting, "It is true that boswellia will have antioxidant properties. But we need to put them to the clinical test on their antioxidant properties specifically."

While dermatologic research plays catch up, skincare brands continue to include the ingredient to calm and protect skin — and that's not likely to wane anytime soon.

Though cosmetic chemist Ni'Kita Wilson says she, herself, seldom uses frankincense ingredients when developing skincare products for her clients (which include Fortune 500 companies and indie brands), she thinks we will continue to see more of them in our beauty products.

"The most common form [of frankincense ingredient] available is boswellia serrata, which has supplier studies that show soothing and anti-inflammatory benefits," she says. "It's a natural ingredient that can denote health and comfort; I can definitely see the use increasing over time."

It may have taken millenia for frankincense to trend in skincare, but despite its natural derivation and spiritual significance, our pros say the ingredient should be introduced to a self-care routine with measure. "It is very important to understand your skin type and tendencies," Dr. Sivamani says. "Check with a dermatologist to make sure your skin can safely tolerate this ingredient before working with an Ayurvedic practitioner or a naturopathic doctor to explore botanicals more deeply."

For those looking to reap its aromatherapeutic benefits, a 2016 study supports the claim that frankincense has a soothing effect and provides people with a sense of calm. "[It's] bright and woody, musty, and metallic — a true old-world aroma that has the ability to comfort the mood," says Weldon. Those interested should consider using an essential oil diffuser with a few drops of frankincense in locations such as the bedroom.

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If your skin responds well to one of the most renowned Christmas gifts on record, find 10 ways to incorporate it to your routine, below.

Neal's Yard Remedies Intense Lift Serum

frankincense skincare

Get your daily dose of free radical fighters via the proprietary frankincense complex in this serum, which contains boswellic acid and polyphenols, which has been found to guard collagen, according to the brand's own study.

To shop: $115;

Vintner's Daughter Active Botanical Serum

frankincense skincare

Frankincense is just one of 22 botanical actives in this oil-based serum, which boasts some 60-plus vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, phytoceramides, aminos, and omega fatty acids. Intoxicating scent aside, we like that the brew targets reducing inflammation and boosting blood circulation, among other benefits.

To shop: $195;

Dehiya Beauty Safi Mist

frankincense skincare

This mist, which counts white willow bark, aloe vera, witch hazel, colloidal silver, and frankincense distillate among its ingredients, marries the clarifying agents of a treatment toner with the refreshing and hydrating properties of a hydrosol in a convenient spray. It serves as a perfect post-workout skin refresher.

To shop: $42,

Colleen Rothschild Retinol Supreme Night Oil

frankincense skincare

One workaround to retinol creams that notoriously irritate skin? Oils made with the vitamin A and a bevy of botanical oils included to soothe and hydrate. Case in point: This ultra lightweight facial oil, which delivers workhorse ingredients — vitamins A (retinol), C, and E — alongside cotton seed, baobab, tamanu, and frankincense oils to cut the dry, scratchy side effects that can come with vitamins A and C.

To shop: $85;

Grown Alchemist Blemish Treatment Gel

frankincense skincare

"Finding a product that also has retinol or alpha hydroxy acid would be a way to make [frankincense] ingredients more bioavailable." says Dr. Markowitz. "Alpha hydroxy acids work by removing the top layers of dead skin cells and allow the ingredients to penetrate the skin. But this can be very irritating for dry skin types so would not always benefit everyone."

This acne gel includes tried-and-true salicylic acid (a beta hydroxy acid that dissolves dead skin cells) and willow bark (a natural ingredient that works similarly to retinol) to address acne, along with frankincense acid, which is thought to contribute antiseptic and cell regenerative properties. Sure, the stuff smells medicinal, but we hardly cared once we learned the treatment didn't dry out our skin.

To shop:$40;

Myth/Magick Moon Water Healing Cleanser

frankincense skincare

Mild surfactants in this cleanser (commonly used in baby products) join others derived from coconut to help loosen dirt and makeup from the skin. But washing with this liquid gel didn't just remove makeup — it also left our skin feeling exceptionally soft, but not dry (likely thanks in part to hyaluronic acid extract, frankincense oil and rosehip oil).

To shop: $26;

Li Organics Liquid Amber Concentrated Serum

frankincense skincare

Plant-derived oils (jojoba, avocado, and sweet almond) join a cocktail of botanicals used for their anti-inflammatory and reparative properties (see: frankincense, tamandu, guava seed, seabuckthorn berry) for a formula that is lightweight, but leaves skin with a dewy (not greasy) finish. What's more, the oil-based formula may be best suited to capitalize on frankincense's efficacy. Dr. Markowitz notes "an ingredient like frankincense would be most effective in its purest form," and therefore favors formulas like face and body oils as "best suited in terms of efficacy."

To shop: $75;

Payot Crème N°2 Nuage

frankincense skincare

"There is a common misconception that greasy equals moisturizing but this is not the case," Dr. Markowitz says. "While I don't think there is any harm in incorporating oils into your skincare routine, I always recommend that you mix the oils into your moisturizer or that you layer your moisture on top of the oil, especially for my patients with dry skin." Enter this remarkably lightweight cloud cream that sinks into our skin like a gel moisturizer, but delivers a beautifully silky finish to the skin.

To shop: $52;

Sundari Gotu Kola and Boswellia Eye Serum

frankincense skincare

This ayurvedic brand credits its frankincense ingredient (bostwellia serrata extract) as helping to prevent degradation of elastin in skin tissue. The cooling gel is also loaded with peptides, known to constrict blood vessels and therefore, reduce volume under the eyes.

To shop: $52;

Sangre de Fruta Botanical Body Serum

frankincense skincare

"I think essential oils are best delivered in an oil base, as they reduce the chance of irritation," says Dr. Sivamani." Like a facial oil, but geared for the body, this serum is loaded with fragrant flower and fruit oils and feels particularly indulgent when applied after a long bath.

To shop: $154;

From non-toxic makeup and skincare to sustainability practices, Clean Slate is an exploration of all things in the green beauty space. Find out what's really in your products — and what's being left out.

Updated by
Sydney Wingfield
Sydney Wingfield headshot

Sydney is a freelance writer with expertise in wellness and skincare. She has written for HelloGiggles, InStyle, Betches and has done copywriting for a variety of beauty and wellness brands such as Angela Caglia Skincare, Cleo+Coco and Odièle Beauty.

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