Frankincense and myrrh essential oils and burn incense fume against micro-inhabitants of sacral ambients. Wisdom of the ancients?

J Ethnopharmacol. 2018 Jun 12:219:1-14. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2018.03.003. Epub 2018 Mar 9.


Ethnopharmacological relevance: Essential oils obtained from resins of Boswellia carteri Birdw. and Commiphora myrrha (Nees) Engl., commonly known as frankincense and true myrrh respectively, have been used extensively since 2800 BCE for the treatment of skin sores, wounds, teeth, inflammation, and urinary tract diseases in traditional medicine; for preparation of mummification balms and unguents; and also as incense and perfumes. Since ancient times, burning of frankincense and myrrh in places of worship for spiritual purposes and contemplation (a ubiquitous practice across various religions) had hygienic functions, to refine the smell and reduce contagion by purifying the indoor air.

Aim of the study: The general purpose of the study was to assess the in vitro antimicrobial potential of the liquid and vapour phases of B. carteri and C. myrrha essential oils and burn incense, as well as to test the effectiveness of their in situ application to cleanse microbially-contaminated air within the ambient of an investigated 17th-century church.

Materials and methods: The chemical composition of B. carteri and C. myrrha essential oils, obtained by hydrodistillation of frankincense and true myrrh oleo gum resins was determined using GC/MS, and antimicrobial properties of their liquid and vapour phases were assessed by the broth microdilution and microatmosphere diffusion methods. Chemical analysis of burn incense fume obtained using bottle gas washing with dichloromethane as a solvent was performed by GC/MS, while its antimicrobial activity was evaluated using a modified microatmosphere diffusion method to evaluate germination inhibition for fungi and CFU count reduction for bacteria. The in situ antimicrobial activity of B. carteri burn incense and essential oil vapour phase was assessed in the sealed nave and diaconicon of the church, respectively.

Results: The dominant compounds of B. carteri EO were α-pinene (38.41%) and myrcene (15.21%), while C. myrrha EO was characterized by high content of furanoeudesma-1,3-diene (17.65%), followed by curzerene (12.97%), β-elemene (12.70%), and germacrene B (12.15%). Burn incense fume and soot had α-pinene (68.6%) and incensole (28.6%) as the most dominant compounds, respectively. In vitro antimicrobial assays demonstrated high bacterial and fungal sensitivity to the liquid and vapour phases of EOs, and burn incense fume. In situ application of B. carteri EO vapour and incense fume resulted in reduction of air-borne viable microbial counts by up to 45.39 ± 2.83% for fungi and 67.56 ± 3.12% for bacteria (EO); and by up to 80.43 ± 2.07% for fungi and 91.43 ± 1.26% for bacteria (incense fume).

Conclusions: The antimicrobial properties of essential oil derived from frankincense, a compound with well-known traditional use, showed that it possesses a clear potential as a natural antimicrobial agent. Moreover, the results suggest possible application of B. carteri EO vapour and incense fume as occasional air purifiers in sacral ambients, apart from daily church rituals.

Keywords: Bacteria; Boswellia carteri; Churches; Commiphora myrrha; Fungi; Resins.

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Infective Agents / isolation & purification
  • Anti-Infective Agents / pharmacology*
  • Ceremonial Behavior*
  • Commiphora*
  • Frankincense*
  • Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry / methods
  • Humans
  • Microbial Sensitivity Tests / methods
  • Oils, Volatile / isolation & purification
  • Oils, Volatile / pharmacology*
  • Plant Oils / isolation & purification
  • Plant Oils / pharmacology*
  • Smoke / analysis
  • Volatilization


  • Anti-Infective Agents
  • Oils, Volatile
  • Plant Oils
  • Smoke
  • Frankincense