The tropical uplands of Somalia and the Yemen are a hard and unforgiving environment. To survive there the Frankincense tree has had to develop some nifty abilities. One of these is a thick resin that exudes from damaged parts of its trunk and branches. The sticky substance rapidly provides a defence against the teeth of hungry goats, and it later hardens into a solid protective plug to protect against germs and insects, and to stop the plant drying out in the arid conditions.
Nature is remarkable isn’t it.
The solidified lumps of resin are known as tears, and for centuries have been gathered by tribesmen to trade with. In fact the frankincense trade is one of the oldest known with the trade route from the Horn of Africa to the Mediterranean having existed from prehistoric times to the present day.
In ancient times frankincense was prized by the early civilisations of the fertile crescent and by all the peoples that came after them. In fact they valued it so highly it became an object of religious devotion burnt in temples as an offering to the gods. The very word perfume comes from the latin Par Fuma – literally by smoke – reminding us of the votive offerings carried heavenwards to delight the divine inhabitants of the sky. Modern Christianity continues this tradition with one of the biggest customers for Omani frankincense being the Catholic Church.
The fascination with frankincense has continued into the twenty first century. Its chemistry has been studied and its medical properties have been investigated. It turns out that the main component is boswellic acid, which has some useful anti-inflammatory properties. Of interest to the cosmetic chemist is recent work suggesting an anti-wrinkle and anti-ageing effect. There isn’t a huge amount of work done in this area, but there are a couple of interesting papers. To look at one, a 2010 study compared a cream containing 0.5% boswellic acid with the same cream without. 15 women used the creams on either sides of their faces for 30 days. The trial showed a measurable improvement in skin roughness and fine lines in the skin treated with the boswellic acid. This study was done after L’Oreal made a big story out of Boswellox as an ingredient in their Wrinkle Decrease cream. Boswellox is a special derivative of frankincense that L’Oreal has pioneered the use of. They don’t make much of the frankincense story. In fact they don’t talk much about Boswellox at all any more, possibly because it got mocked by some comedians. (Something about dropping the swe from it.) Possibly they missed a trick there.
But interesting as it is, I don’t think you need the justification of an anti-wrinkle effect to use frankincense. The tears themselves have been used, but it is much easier to use the essential oil which is obtained by distilling the tears and enables you to easily add it to creams or lotions. The smell is gorgeous. It has an ethereal quality to it that must explain why it has been used so often for religious purposes. .If you want a smell of heaven this is the way to get it.
Thanks to Mamamusings on Flickr for the splendid picture of a sack of frankincense.