Incense (or olibanum)

Incense (or olibanum)

Boswellia sacra


Applied to the skin or through massage

Orale Route

Inhalation or Diffusion

Bath: inappropriate and prohibited

Incense is a resin that exudes from a tree of the Burseraceae family (genus Boswellia), which can reach three metres. It is native of the southern Arabic peninsula (sultanate of Oman and Yemen) and from the horn of Africa (Somalia). 


Only the male tree is productive, and it takes ten years before it provides the best quality resin. "From the land of Arabia a marvellously suave scent arises. It is the only country in the world that produces incense" wrote Herodotus, who was wrong because the Pharaohs got it from African, in the land of Punt (now Sudan). Ever since camels were domesticated in the 13th century B.C., caravans have been travelling the "incense route". In the ancient world, it was the first aromatic resin offered to the gods. Thus, in 287 B.C., the king of Syria Seleucos donated three hundred sixty kilograms of incense, among other presents, to the temple of Apollo at Miletus. It is also used as a remedy in fumigation against respiratory diseases and to purify ambient air.

Cultivation and production 

The most sought after oliban grows in the valley of Hadramaut, in southern Yemen. The aromatic substances qualified as "incense", which are imported in great quantities in France, are rarely obtained from the Yemen oliban. India, which has an enormous incense consumption, harvests the resin of Boswellia serrata.


The exceptionally powerful scent of incense is beneficial and comforting. However, one should beware that incense is often used as sticks or cones to burned, which during combustion emit benzene and formaldehyde that should not be breathed in! Traditionally, incense sticks are burnt during religious ceremonies in big temples open to all winds, which is not the case of our closed apartments!

Extraction and yield 

The bark is tapped, using a millennia-old process, by removing a thin strip about ten centimetres long. The resin secretions, harden in contact with the air and are harvested two to three weeks later. The best resin is harvested in the autumn, from incisions made at the end of the summer ("white incense"). "Red incense" is harvested in the spring after winter incisions. The essential oil is obtained by total distillation, with a high yield of the order of 8% to 10%, i.e. eight to ten kilograms of essential oil per hundred kilograms of plants, using steam distillation.

Chemical formula 

The active ingredients are mainly monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, alcohols as well as oxides and esters.

Main indications 

Incense is antiseptic, expectorant, astringent and healing. Its essential oil fights respiratory apparatus infections. It reinforces immune defences and calms anxiety. It is also used in rheumatology and against migraines.

Related species

Incense (Boswellia frereana), Indian incense (Boswellia serrata).


Excerpts from the book « Aromatherapia – Tout sur les huiles essentielles », by Isabelle Pacchioni. Aroma Thera Editions.