This Ancient Christmas Gift Is Suddenly Showing Up in Skincare
Credit the ingredient’s upswing in beauty to our appetite for more “natural” options.
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. 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.
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“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.”
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.”