Frankincense in green beauty formulation – ethics and exploitation

Frankincense in beauty formulation

Frankincense has been in use since the dawn of time. Nicknamed the “king of oils”, this precious resin from the Boswellia tree has been used for millennia in religious ceremonies, Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, aromatherapy, perfumery, and cosmetics. Both its characteristic warm, woodsy scent and powerful anti-inflammatory properties make it the perfect addition to your homemade skincare formulations, especially those targeted at mature skin.

However, this ingredient isn’t without its challenges and controversy in the beauty world.

Over the last few years, frankincense has been over-harvested due to increased market demand, which has endangered the life of Frankincense-producing trees. There is growing awareness of the need for ethical and sustainable practices surrounding frankincense, and solutions are being introduced to ensure its sustainable and ethical harvesting.

In this blog post, you’ll learn about the history and origins of Frankincense, its benefits in skincare, as well as ethical frankincense sourcing, so you can implement the most responsible beauty practices from the start.

Frankincense through time: spirituality and cosmetics

historic uses of frankincense
Few ingredients have such historical significance as frankincense. This aromatic resin has a long history of use, dating back as far as the earliest recorded history of man.

Frankincense has been used since ancient times and has a long historical correlation with spirituality and religion. It has been traded for over 5,000 years in regions of the Middle East and North Africa and was considered to be worth more than gold. Allegedly, Babylonians and Assyrians burned the resin during religious ceremonies, and the ancient Egyptians used it as incense in sacred rituals, notably in the sacred incense preparation kyphi (i). Frankincense was also a key component in the embalming process and was further used as an insect repellent, perfume, and in salves.

Nowadays, frankincense is a very popular ingredient in perfumery, aromatherapy and skincare and has proven anti-inflammatory qualities.

Frankincense – sustainability and ethical issues

 Frankincense in beauty sustainability and ethical use
We’ll touch in brief on the sustainability issues now and we urge you to hold them in your mind while you read the list of some of the cosmetic extracts and uses of frankincense. Later in this post, we explain in more depth the ethical issues behind the production of frankincense.

Frankincense, also known as olibanum, is a milky white resin derived from the Boswellia sacra tree, of the Burseraceae family. There are over 550 species of Burseraceae, also known as the “incense tree family”, found all over Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

The resin of these trees is harvested by tapping. However, this can weaken the tree, reduce its ability to reproduce and leave it exposed to insect damage and disease. Not only extensive tapping of the resin endanger the future of Boswellia trees, but it also strongly affects local communities whose livelihoods depend on this ancient way of harvesting. Whereas limited, artisanal levels of harvesting frankincense allows trees to rest and recover between tapping periods, rising demand for the resin has seen the over-exploitation of the trees leading to their degradation and damage.

Frankincense – valued benefits for our skin

Frankincense has a unique, calming scent and has many anti-inflammatory compounds, called boswellic acids (molecules produced by the Boswellia trees) that are of great benefit in cosmetics aimed at mature skin. Their anti-inflammatory properties, may be beneficial for photoaged skin, as well as oily and atopic skin (ii, iii, iv), and for reducing the visible signs of scar tissue (v).

Other interesting anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds include alpha-pinene, alpha-thujene, and limonene. These are all monoterpenes, a family of molecules found in the top notes of essential oils. Bear in mind that these chemical compounds and their concentration vary depending upon the variety of the frankincense. You should be able to obtain all this information from your ingredient’s SDS sheet. See our post:

How to read safety data sheets

Frankincense cosmetic ingredients

Frankincense in beauty sustainability and ethical use
Let’s talk now about the different cosmetic ingredients derived from frankincense for use in cosmetic formulation.

Frankincense hydrosol

INCI: Boswellia carterii gum water

Frankincense hydrosol is a great foundation ingredient to use in your formulations instead of water. This will boost the effects of your final product, as frankincense hydrosol contains powerful anti-inflammatory benefits suited for sensitive, problematic and mature skin. It is also a great alternative to frankincense essential oil – it has a more favourable price point – and has a sweeter aroma.

We recommend you use frankincense hydrosol in the water phase of your emulsions or water-based cleansers, or apply it directly as a spray mist, avoiding the eyes, to tone or refresh the skin.

You can find out more about hydrosols as well as the issues surrounding their preservation in our extensive posts below:

The formulator’s guide to hydrosols
Are you buying contaminated hydrosols?
5 reasons why your natural formulations need preserving
Everything you wanted to know about natural preservatives

Frankincense essential oils

There is little clarity about the various types of frankincense and their essential oils. Not only is there confusion over the nomenclature, but some oils have been assigned incorrect origins (vi). In this section, we’ll mention the main commercial frankincense essential oils, but there are many others. To distinguish them, you need to check their INCI name. It is vitally important to know the variety you are buying as some are exploited almost to the point of endangering the species. We take a look at this and other sustainability issues later.

Keep in mind that old or oxidised oils can cause skin sensitisation, as well as undiluted essential oils. Furthermore, essential oils are not recommended for use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Find out more about essential oil safety and the sustainability of essential oils below:

Podcast 6: Essential oil safety with Robert Tisserand
Podcast 75: How sustainable are essential oils?

Boswellia sacra resin oil: This fragrant essential oil is native to Somalia and is obtained from the steam distillation of the gum resin of the Boswellia Sacra tree, the primary tree in the Boswellia genus. This tree produces resin when it’s about 8-10 years old, which is then harvested to produce frankincense essential oil. This emollient and perfuming essential oil has a fresh, fruity, and spicy aroma, which blends well with spicy and citrus oils.

Use it between 0.25-3% of your total formula in water-based or anhydrous products for a lovely fragrance. Always double-check the recommended amount with your supplier and its dermal limits, as different formulations require different amounts.

Boswellia carterii oil: Also known as olibanum, this variety also has a woodsy, balsamic, and fruity fragrance, but is extracted from the ground gum of the Boswellia carterii tree. Often used in herbalism as a treatment for various wounds, it is used as an anti-inflammatory ingredient in cosmetics. Incorporate it in emulsions or anhydrous products in the cool-down phase to produce a soothing effect.

Boswellia serrata oil: Also known as Indian frankincense, Boswellia serrata essential oil can be used as a replacement for the Carterri variety, as it has similar properties. With a sweeter aroma, Boswellia serrata presents soothing, calming, balancing, astringent, and anti-inflammatory properties. It is often used as a base perfumery note or in anti-inflammatory products. Try combining it with other anti-inflammatory ingredients such as calendula or chamomile in the cool-down phase of your emulsions or anhydrous products for a soothing effect and a pleasant fragrance.

Frankincense resin powder

INCI: Boswellia carterii resin extract

Last but not least, we have frankincense resin powder, which is an off-white powder derived from Boswellia trees. This powder presents interesting anti-inflammatory properties. It is also often used to perfume cosmetics because of its characteristic warm and spicy fragrance.

Add frankincense powder to your creams and serums in the heated water phase, dissolving it first, or to your solid formulations such as cleansing bars or massage bars. Frankincense powder can also present exfoliating properties. It is interesting to add to water-based formulations or emulsions, or to mix with other dry powders to create a lovely face cleanser that you activate with water. We suggest you try incorporating frankincense powder into the water phase of an exfoliating gel or a cream. Be careful to use a protective mask when working with powders to avoid absorbing any particles.

Here are some suggestions of formulas you can incorporate frankincense powder to:

Solid formulations: how to make a solid cleansing bar
6 solid beauty bars perfect for beginners to make at home
How to formulate a face cleansing powder

Can frankincense ever be sustainable?

Frankincense sustainability in beauty
While frankincense is an amazing ingredient, its continued use can lead to many sustainability issues, which is why it is extremely important to research your ingredients and be aware of the environmental and social challenges they may cause. In this section, we discuss the sustainability of frankincense and what you can do as a formulator to source sustainable frankincense.

Over the last few years, there has been significant over-harvesting of frankincense trees, especially of Indian and African frankincense. The harvesting process can be very damaging to the tree, as the sap is extracted from the trees by tapping. And while this process should only happen twice a year, it happens more frequently to keep up with global demands, endangering the trees and biodiversity.

This is mostly caused by market demand and managing practices, which contribute to the decline in frankincense tree populations and a complication of the supply chain (vii). This can also lead to short-term unsustainable practices, such as a lack of traceability and transparency, as well as counterfeit frankincense products (vii). Buyers are looking for cheaper substitutions, which are then in turn altered, whereas real frankincense can be really expensive.

Progress on sustainable frankincense

The good news is that new technologies and approaches are constantly emerging to incentivise sustainable practices and source frankincense ethically, as well as support local communities. One of the most recent technologies can screen and identify the authenticity of commercial frankincense products through a rapid mass spectrometry method, screening frankincense samples and comparing them to a reference sample (viii). Planting new frankincense trees is another approach to counter the over-harvesting of frankincense.

Certain regions and countries are rising to the challenge by creating national initiatives, often supported by international public bodies and private companies, to promote sustainable, low-level artisanal harvesting, the protection of historical frankincense sites, and the replanting of Boswellia trees. Just one example of such intervention and awareness raising is the work of the Environment Society of Oman (ESO) which is aimed at protecting and preserving Boswellia serrata trees in the Sultanate of Oman. Sponsors of the ESO’s work have included UK-based Neal’s Yard Remedies, which sells cosmetics infused with frankincense as well as the neat essential oil.

However, as long as the demand keeps rising, there can’t be a real sustainable way to harvest frankincense, as producing and consuming more is the opposite of sustainability. In fact, the ESO says that the Boswellia sacra variety is listed as “Near Threatened” on the The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

Where does that leave you as a formulator?

Armed with the information above – and your own further research – you will need to make ethical decisions about whether to include frankincense in your formulations. If you choose to harness its benefits in your formulations, you will need to ensure you know the provenance of your frankincense oils or extracts and purchase only after researching your ingredient, its supply chain and supplier thoroughly in order to understand where it comes from and how it was harvested. Ask about its origins, harvesting, and extraction, as well as its impact on local communities before making a purchase.

Prioritise independent and local producers of frankincense ingredients that are certified organic, or are at the very least wildlife-friendly, and have data to back it up which they can show you. You can find further information on the sustainability of your frankincense species on technical data sheets and threatened plant species lists such as CITES.

How to research cosmetic ingredients for organic skincare
7 tips on sourcing sustainable botanical ingredients
Episode 79: The challenge of sourcing natural ingredients

If you’re interested in launching your own sustainable beauty brand, these resources might help you:

15 certification schemes for sustainable beauty
5 sustainable practices for your beauty business
Podcast 23: Starting an ethical skincare business
Podcast 163: Sustainable beauty made simpler and smarter
Episode 85: The truth about wild harvested beauty

Your path into sustainable cosmetic formulation

In conclusion then, frankincense is a wonderful anti-inflammatory ingredient, but one with considerable ethical considerations to take on board if you opt to use it in your formulations.

We encourage you to embrace sustainability from the start of your journey into natural, organic formulation, through our free training and certified diploma courses, as well as within our exclusive membership-only site, the Lab at Formula Botanica.

Do share your thoughts about frankincense in the comments below or on our social media.

Further reading and references

(i) Anthony Dweck, 2017. Handbook of natural ingredients (Fourth edition)
(ii) Stefano Togni, et al, 2014: Clin Cosmet Investig Dematol, 2014. A cosmeceutical formulation based on boswellic acids for the treatment of erythematous eczema and psoriasis.
(iii) Han et al, 2017. Biological activities of frankincense essential oil in human dermal fibroblasts.
(iv) Alessandra Pedretti, et al; 2010: Planta Med, 2010. Effects of Topical Boswellic Acid on Photo and Age-Damaged Skin: Clinical, Biophysical, and Echographic Evaluations in a Double-Blind, Randomized, Split-Face Study.
(v) Piergiacamo Calzavara-Pinton, et al; Dermatol Ther. 2010. Topical Boswellic acids for treatment of photoaged skin.
(vi) Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young, 2013. Essential oil safety (Second edition).
(vii) Anjanette De Carlo et al, 2020. Ecological and Economic Sustainability of Non-Timber Forest Products in Post-Conflict Recovery: A Case Study of the Frankincense (Boswellia spp.) Resin Harvesting in Somaliland (Somalia).
(vii) Brendler et al, 2018. Sustainable supply, a foundation for natural product development: the case of Indian frankincense.
(viii) Lai et al, 2022. Identification of Commercial Frankincense Products by MALDITOF Mass Spectrometry.



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Frankincense in green beauty formulation – ethics and exploitation

Ariane is a published journalist, blog writer, and content creator for Formula Botanica. Her areas of focus include beauty, human interest, and arts and culture. Ariane has been a member of the Formula Botanica community since 2021.


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