If you wanted something to keep you awake, and I offered you a choice of caffeinated coffee or decaffeinated coffee, which would you choose? It’s not a trick question. And if you wanted something to treat cancer, and I offered you a choice of frankincense A that contains 50% of an antitumoral substance, and frankincense B that contains 0% of that same antitumoral substance, which would you choose? If it was me, I would go for A. But here’s the interesting thing: most people choose B. Most people go for the essential oil, instead of the extract.
Why do they do this? One reason at least is because they are being told, in videos and blog posts, that frankincense oil contains boswellic acid – the antitumoral active ingredient in frankincense gum resin. But it doesn’t, and the simple reason is that boswellic acid is much too heavy a molecule to be volatile. There are several boswellic acids found in frankincense gum resin, and they have molecular weights in the 450 – 500 range. However, volatile molecules – those capable of evaporation – all have molecular weights below 300.
This is a myth of truly biblical proportions. So many people believe that frankincense oil is a proven treatment for cancer, that I receive messages every day asking me how it should be used for all kinds of malignancies. The fact is, there is no clinical research. There is not one single study published in a peer-reviewed journal, in which frankincense essential oil was successfully used to treat any kind of cancer. There is just one published anecdotal case report of a successful treatment for skin cancer. This does not mean that frankincense oil could not possibly be useful in treating cancer, but as we will see, the evidence to support this idea is vanishingly small.
The purpose of this particular blog post is not to explain what the reasons might be for the active perpetuation of this myth. My purpose here is to give you a perspective on the research for frankincense by comparing it to other aromatic plants or their extracts. This is also not intended to be a resource on how to treat cancer, though I may address this in later posts.
There are 7 research studies published on frankincense oil and cancer, shown in the Table below. As you can see, almost all of this evidence is in vitro research, meaning that the essential oil was found to kill cancer cells in a petri dish. For many reasons, this does not equate to a cancer cure. It’s interesting for sure, but a handful of in vitro studies is a very long way from an all-round “cancer cure”, if such a thing even exists.
It bears repeating that cancer is not a single disease. There are many types of cancer – brain, breast, prostate, lung, liver, colorectal etc. For each type of cancer there are several subtypes, and for each subtype there are stages of disease that may require different treatment. In fact, each individual cancer is unique. In addition, cancer cells have an unfortunate tendency to mutate, and to develop resistance to whatever you try to use against them.
Even if we put all breast cancers, for example, into one category, to find an effective treatment you would expect to see a couple of hundred research papers including in vitro, in vivo and clinical.And so, to put frankincense oil as a cancer treatment into perspective, I have compared simply the total number of research studies with some other natural substances. To kick off, there is twice as much research on garlic oil – 14 studies compared to 7 for frankincense oil. (And, unlike frankincense, there is just one type of garlic oil.) If we also throw into the mix the major constituent of many frankincense oils, alpha-pinene, this gives us 5 more antitumoral studies, giving a grand total of 12. I should also add that the anticancer properties of alpha-pinene are actually very weak. If we then toss into the mix the two major constituents of garlic oil, diallyl sulfide and diallyl disulfide, this gives a whopping 200 research papers for garlic, and I’m not even talking about garlic extracts – just the essential oil and its constituents. Why so much research on these two sulfur compounds? Because, unlike with alpha-pinene, their effects against many cancers are seriously impressive. Even so, there is almost no clinical research.
All original research on frankincense oils as cancer treatments as of the end of 2015
|Type of cancer||Type of study||Comments||Citation|
|Bladder||In vitro||No analysis given. a-Pinene chemotype implied.||Dozmorov et al 2014|
|Bladder||In vitro||No analysis given||Frank et al 2009|
|Breast||In vitro||a-Pinene chemotype||Suhail et al 2011|
|Colorectal||In vitro||Essential oil used was unlike any oil actually produced||Ahmed et al 2015|
|Various||In vitro||Octyl acetate chemotype||Chen et al 2013|
|In vitro & in vivo||a-Pinene chemotype||Ni et al 2012|
|Case report||No analysis given||Fung et al 2013|
If we really want to look at big numbers, there is one natural compound that meets expectations – curcumin, an active constituent of turmeric (Curcuma longa). It’s not found in turmeric oil though. Other natural compounds that look promising as general cancer treatments include cannabinoids and cannabis, perillyl alcohol and Perilla frutescens oil (notably for brain cancer), and thymoquinone and Nigella sativa oil. Unfortunately, these last two are not easy to find. Finally, there’s boswellic acid and frankincense extract, and this grouping does look promising, certainly more so than the essential oil.
To return to my earlier statement, frankincense oils (and there are several species, as well as several chemotypes within species) do not contain boswellic acid, in spite of assertions to the contrary. In fact two of the cited research papers claim to have distilled frankincense oil containing, 0.1% – 3% boswellic acids (Ni et al 2012, Suhail et al 2011). Even if this was true, it only happened in the lab – there is no commercially produced frankincense oil that contains any boswellic acid. And it is not listed in a comprehensive review of the many possible constituents of all frankincense oils (Hussain et al 2013). Even if you could produce a frankincense oil with about 1% boswellic acid, this would not compare well with frankincense extracts, which contain 40-60% boswellic acid.
So, if you are looking for a natural substance to help prevent or treat cancer, frankincense oil should not be your first choice. Look instead to turmeric/curcumin, to cannabis/cannabinoids, to garlic/garlic oil, and to frankincense extract, which is sold in capsule form. Following that, I would consider essential oils of cinnamon bark, lemongrass, citronella, turmeric, orange, lemon and bergamot. I have not discussed them all here but these have, in my opinion, a better shot than frankincense oil. Then again, different oils apply to different cancers, and I’m not addressing that here.
If you have had success treating cancer with any essential oils I would be delighted to hear from you. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to know how to treat you own cancer, or that of a close relative, using plant medicines, I urge you to find a practitioner who will help you.
Ahmed, H. H., Abd-rabou, A. A., Hassan, A. Z., & Kotob, S. E. (2015). Phytochemical analysis and anti-cancer Investigation of Boswellia serrata bioactive constituents in vitro. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, 16, 7179–7188.
Chen, Y., Zhou, C., Ge, Z. et al (2013). Composition and potential anticancer activities of essential oils obtained from myrrh and frankincense. Oncology Letters, 6(4), 1140–1146. doi:10.3892/ol.2013.1520
Dozmorov, M. G., Yang, Q., Wu, W., Wren, J., Suhail, M. M., Woolley, C. L., Young, D.G., Fung, K.M., Lin, H.K. (2014). Differential effects of selective frankincense (Ru Xiang) essential oil versus non-selective sandalwood (Tan Xiang) essential oil on cultured bladder cancer cells: a microarray and bioinformatics study. Chinese Medicine, 9(1), 18.
Frank, M. B., Yang, Q., Osban, J., Azzarello, J.T., Saban, M.R., Saban, R., Ashley, R.A., Welter, J.C., Fung, K.M., Lin, H.K. (2009). Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicity. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 9, 6.
Fung, K., Suhail, M., & McClendon, B., Woolley, C., Young, D.G., Lin H.K. (2013). Management of basal cell carcinoma of the skin using frankincense (Boswellia sacra) essential oil: a case report. Researchgate.net, 1(2), 1–5.
Hussain, H., Al-Harrasi, A., Al-Rawahi, A., & Hussain, J. (2013). Chemistry and biology of essential oils of genus boswellia. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: eCAM, 2013, 140509.
Ni, X., Suhail, M., Yang, Q., Cao, A., Fung, K.M., Postier, R.G., Woolley, C., Young, G., Zhang, J., Lin H.K. (2012). Frankincense essential oil prepared from hydrodistillation of Boswellia sacra gum resins induces human pancreatic cancer cell death in cultures and in a. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 12, 253.
Robert Tisserand is a speaker, educator and consultant on the science and benefits of essential oils and their safe and effective application, and in 1977 he wrote the first English language book on aromatherapy. In addition to teaching online courses, in recent years he has inspired live audiences in Europe, Asia, North America and South America. He was privileged to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the AIA in Denver in 2007, and in 2014 he co-authored the second edition of Essential Oil Safety, which has helped set industry safety standards. Robert is the principal of The Tisserand Institute.