Why Frankincense Is On The Verge of Disappearing

Incense is one of my favorite notes, whether it’s the classical frankincense (olibanum) or the blends meant to evoke the aroma of Japanese or Indian powders and joss sticks. I will eventually cover the different notes that convey an incense-like effect, but today I will start with frankincense. It’s an iconic ingredient, and in perfumery if you see incense mentioned in a fragrance pyramid, it’s often frankincense. Another reason I would like to start my incense series with frankincense is that it’s an ingredient under threat.

Frankincense is obtained from about five species of Boswellia trees found in North Africa, Western Africa, India, Oman, and Yemen. Centuries before oil became the source of Oman’s wealth, frankincense was its true gold. In order to collect frankincense, harvesters make incisions in the trunks of the trees. The oozing sap eventually hardens and is gathered in pellets. Men typically gather the resin, while women clean it and sort the so-called frankincense tears by size. In my film, I described the danger of frankincense harvesting, since the trees grow on hard-t0-access cliffs.

In Somalia, trees have always been highly valued and the groves were local property, passed down within clans. Trees were tapped only after they were at least 12 years old and the harvest would be rotated to give the plants time to heal. However, armed conflicts and rising demand for the resin collided to create conditions for overharvesting.

While local laws exists to protect the habitat, most frankincense comes from remote–and often war-torn–areas, where any policing of harvesting is impossible. With few other economic opportunities, villagers rely exclusively on frankincense to support themselves. According to conservationists, 50% of the wild Boswellia forests, the forests of biblical lore, can disappear within the next years, if no action is taken.

Despite the catastrophic state of affairs, I have found few perfume houses advertising ethically-sourced frankincense. Researching this article, I surveyed a few niche brands before publishing this article, and the results weren’t promising. Some didn’t realize that frankincense is threatened. Others couldn’t even identify where their ingredients came from, since they “bought perfume from suppliers” and trusted the suppliers “to trace the origin of their materials.” Yet another brand had no idea that there was a war in Somalia.

While fragrance suppliers may trace the origins of their materials, it’s up to the perfume companies to press them for sourcing information. One of the thorny issues is that the local middlemen exploit harvesters, especially in countries like Sudan, Yemen and Somalia. They buy frankincense for a pittance to sell to large companies, and they often fail to deliver that payment. Lush and Neal’s Yard are among the brands that invest in sustainable frankincense by working differently. According to their PR, Lush interacts directly with local producers in Africa and invests money into new plantations, while Neal’s Yard obtains its essence from Oman, generally a more sustainable source of frankincense. Amouage likewise sources locally in Oman.

In my video, I mention the following fragrances to explain how frankincense is used, although I can’t guarantee that they all rely on sustainable frankincense:

Serge Lutens L’Eau Froide
Donna Karan Black Cashmere
Diptyque Volutes
Chanel No 22
Etro Messe de Minuit
Etro Shaal Nur
L’Artisan Passage d’Enfer

I will update the list of sustainable frankincense perfumes as I confirm the sources, but as a rule of thumb, Omani frankincense tends to be a safer choice, because Oman has better policies to protect the Boswellia forests.

Extra reading: National Geographic :: New York Times

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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28 Comments

  • Fazal: I had no idea frankincense is threatened until this article. I have been reading so many things related to climate change and its impact these days that it is depressing me a little bit.

    For instance, anyone who follows the news knows about recent heat waves that have not only killed people but at least 1 billion marine animals, too. There was another article that talked about how the City of Chicago faces existential threats for the first time since its founding. And this is only in addition to the developing countries facing unimaginable crises in the coming years and decades. And now I learn today that even frankincense is threatened, too. July 12, 2021 at 7:53am Reply

    • Victoria: According to the National Geographic article, there were already reports in the late 1990s that the groves in western Africa were declining. Over the years, some of those regions have become so conflict-prone that tracking the Boswellia population is impossible. The trees are still being tapped, though, since frankincense trade provides good income. Yet, where this money goes is a big question–and it should be a major ethical concern. Climate change is another issue, as not only does it affect the trees, but also the other sources of income for the largely agricultural communities in that part of the world.

      Another issue I find dispiriting is how few perfume brands are aware of the situation. Basically, until consumers demand this information and some action from the brands, nothing will happen. July 12, 2021 at 8:29am Reply

      • Juan Manuel García: Dear Victoria, congratulations for your article about frankincense.
        I am a grower of aromatic plants in southern Mexico. May I have your e-mail please?
        I would like to comment you about other options there are in Mexico instead of frankincense and have your opinion. July 15, 2021 at 7:30am Reply

  • Sarah Vincent-Hoag: Hi Victoria, Thank you so much for this piece on frankincense. It’s in the best interest of companies to use ethically and sustainably sourced materials and I’m so grateful to find out about this aspect of perfume on your blog. As a consumer, Neal’s Yard, Lush and Amouage are on my radar because of this information. July 12, 2021 at 10:42am Reply

    • Victoria: I will update the list, if I find out more. Frankincense is such a beautiful note. July 12, 2021 at 2:00pm Reply

  • Amalia: Hi! How many more bad news we will hear? Of course I appreciate the information you provide! Do you have information about Bois d’ Encens from Armani? July 12, 2021 at 2:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: I only know that it uses Somalian frankincense. July 12, 2021 at 3:26pm Reply

  • Rachel: Thank you so much for this post Victoria. I will check back to see your updating list. So, I guess the only way to most effectively communicate our wish that brands use only sustainably and ethically sourced materials is to send an email asking them for the information? July 12, 2021 at 5:30pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, that would be a good idea. Brands typically don’t source the materials themselves, although many niche brands are perfumer-led, so they are more in control of their supplies. July 13, 2021 at 1:48am Reply

  • Lora Wooten: Hello Victoria,
    Thank you for your willingness to share your expertise and also in teaching us all so many wonderful olfactory pleasures!
    I am wondering if you or anyone here knows of a fragrance that is like the Morning Star Jasmine Incense. I enjoy burning it in my home but would like to find a fragrance that is similar to it but in an unburned state. I don’t particularly like the smoky element of it for my skin.
    Thank you so much!
    Happy days! July 12, 2021 at 5:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m not familiar with that perfume, but I wonder Serge Lutens Sarrasins would be an option. July 13, 2021 at 1:48am Reply

  • Kelly O’Neill: I only recently subscribed to your newsletter. Thank you for educating on frankincense. I have a few actual chunks of the “sap” and will treat it more carefully now, knowing of its fragile existence. July 12, 2021 at 6:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a beautiful material. You can put a small chunk in a glass of water to perfume it. It’s refreshing on a hot day. July 13, 2021 at 1:49am Reply

  • Kelly O’Neill: And your article is very timely, too. Just today I was thinking about Bulgarian roses and the fields of roses in France and wondering about how climate change is going to impact the crops. It’s all connected. Unfortunately, I think the business/industry is going to ignore climate change until it hits them in the wallet. Which won’t be long. July 12, 2021 at 6:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: There are many problems with French lavender, most of which are related to climate change. You’re right, it’s hard to ignore the situation. July 13, 2021 at 4:41am Reply

  • Debby: Very interesting, and shocking to hear the trials the African harvesters go through. I am a great incense perfume fan, but this knowledge will inform my choices in future.

    Are you talking about the original iteration of Messe de Minuit? I have the second version, and it is orangey, spicy and warm. They sound very different, I would love to smell the first version.
    I much prefer the original Passage d’Enfer to the extreme, I felt the woods were overdone in it, but that’s just my nose and opinion. July 12, 2021 at 6:15pm Reply

    • Victoria: I realized that I did mean the older version, since my new bottle is warmer and sweeter. Still, both contain incense, so they are still good options. July 13, 2021 at 4:42am Reply

  • shiva-woman: Thank you for this article. I was aware that Frankincense was going up, as Boswellia trees were becoming over-tapped, or lost entirely. I’ve been teaching writing for almost 30 years, and most of the rhet-comp topics have been about Climate Change in my class. One of the early writers I used on climate change was Al Gore BEFORE he became a VP. The rest of the world, or at least Europe seemed like it knew what was coming before the US (when I lived overseas in the early 2000’s). When I moved back to the US I was just really surprised that people couldn’t “see it” and that they weren’t reading about it, or “didn’t believe it.” Now I’m super depressed about the whole thing. I’ve had students writing on climate change/environmental issues for decades. No one listened. I hope we all engage in regeneration, and that includes for Boswellia; it’s too late for “sustainability.” Incense is probably my #1 beloved note, alone or in combination with other scents/oils like rose. Thank you again for such a thorough examination of sourcing frankincense. July 12, 2021 at 7:36pm Reply

    • Victoria: To be honest, I dislike the word “sustainability,” because it’s such a vague term that means everything and nothing at once. Replanting frankincense groves, working directly with harvesters, checking the sources, investing locally are some of the actions that can be taken. While nothing is easy or straightforward when it comes to the naturals trade, in this case, but it doesn’t mean that the situation is completely hopeless. July 13, 2021 at 4:47am Reply

  • Janet: Interesting. This might explain why the Chanel skin care product La Nuit de Chanel (not part of the Lift line) is no longer available. Frankincense was a featured ingredient. I only have a little left; could not find it when I went to reorder. July 13, 2021 at 1:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: I should mention that Chanel is one of the companies that do a fairly good job tracing their sources. Privately owned companies in general tend to be much more sensitive about these topics. July 13, 2021 at 1:49pm Reply

  • Genevieve Lalonde-Martini: Thank you for this article! I’m glad you mentioned LUSH, they are excellent with their ethical and direct sourcing, from coconut oil to roses to sandalwood, to frankincense, they have so many great stories about how they obtain their raw ingredients. Simon Constantine (of Lush) has started another brand, ÅND Perfumes, I’ve ordered a sample their Frånk perfume. I’m also growing my own Boswellia sacra from seed. I’m obsessed but very careful with my sourcing. Apothecary’s Garden in Canada is a great ethical source for resins. https://apothecarysgarden.com/

    https://andfragrance.com/products/frank July 13, 2021 at 1:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for mentioning this brand. I will test it and add it to the list.

      I’m so impressed that you’re growing your own Boswellia sacra tree! How old is it at this point? July 13, 2021 at 1:51pm Reply

      • Genevieve Lalonde-Martini: Well, it should have been 1 year old by now. I planted 50, 3 sprouted, it was amazing to see, then they got too damp and died, I’ve planted more seed, wish me luck. It has a very low germination rate about 3-6%. I got my seeds from Miniatree Garden, they also have a great book on growing Boswellia. I’m hoping for a legacy tree to leave behind. I think they may do well here, on the Pacific Northwest of Canada, we have a decent micro climate for them and climate change is only making it hotter and drier here, like their ecological habitat.

        https://www.facebook.com/Miniatree-Garden-549713485095197/ July 13, 2021 at 2:40pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you so much for sharing! I’m now tempted to try growing it myself. July 20, 2021 at 3:53am Reply

  • Susan: Hello, thank you for mentioning this issue. My father worked in Oman for many years in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and so I am lucky enough to have some frankincense resin from those times. I am horrified to hear how this precious resource is so under threat. I hope that Oman, which is indeed a relatively stable country, will continue to preserve its trees. I know that Omanis are very proud of them.
    I must admit that, personally, I prefer frankincense as incense rather than in perfumes, but either way, it must be protected!
    And I am very intrigued by your reader who is growing one! I might try too…
    Fascinating as always, will share on FB. Thank you! July 14, 2021 at 6:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Susan! I also traveled in Oman and saw the incense markets, so I feel more confident about using the Omani product. Since there are programs to support the Somalian growers/harvesters, who badly need help, I look for the sustainable ingredients from that part of the world as well. July 20, 2021 at 3:56am Reply

  • Juan Manuel García: Dear Victoria, congratulations for your article about frankincense.
    I am a grower of aromatic plants in southern Mexico. May I have your e-mail please?
    I would like to comment you about other options there are in Mexico instead of frankincense and have your opinion. July 15, 2021 at 2:42pm Reply

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