Frankincense and Myrrh essential oils have both been positively studied for their anti-cancer activity in laboratory research. In the study reviewed here, Frankincense and Myrrh oils were tested both together (to find any potential synergistic effect) and separately (to gauge their ‘strength’ against one another) on several human cancer cell lines using two different assays.
In the study “Composition and potential anticancer activities of essential oils obtained from myrrh and frankincense”(1), breast, blood cell, cervical, skin and small-lung cancer cell lines received a wide range of concentrations in their medium of Frankincense and Myrrh, either together or individually. These cells were incubated and analysis performed on the oils’ ability to cause their death.
|Results of Assay #1: Cell line IC50, μg/ml|
The Results: The table above summarizes the results of the first assay, which shows the concentration of each essential oil – and the 1:1 blend of the two – at which half of the cancer cells were killed.
The breast (MCF-7) and skin cancer (HS-1) cell lines were found most susceptible to the anti-cancer activity of both Frankincense and Myrrh essential oils, whether the oils were used together or separately. Using the above data, the researchers selected the breast cancer cell line for the apoptosis assay. This evaluated each oil’s potential to cause apoptosis (natural cell death), as opposed to simply cause the death of the cancer cells – as was done with all five cell lines.
The graph above summarizes the results of this second assay: It was found that Myrrh essential oil was strongest in its ability to invoke apoptosis, a crucial feature in an anti-cancer agent. (Normally, cancerous cells are considered ‘immortal’, and it is this ‘immortality’ which allows them to grown and spread in the body.)
Thus, in each assay performed, Myrrh essential oil was found to have the stronger anti-cancer activity over both Frankincense alone, and a blend of Frankincense and Myrrh essential oils. This does not, of course, discount the large body of research noting Frankincense’s anti-cancer properties.
A note about the oils used: these were hydro-distilled essential oils. We carry a hydro-distilled Boswellia sacra (Sacred Frankincense), though most of our wildcrafted Frankincense and Myrrh oils are Supercritical CO2 extracts. This organically-certified distillation process happens at cooler temperatures than steam or hydro-distillation, and more importantly, it draws a greater range of heavier molecules into the oil. This is why CO2 extracted Frankincense & Myrrh oils are thicker than their steam and hydro-distilled counterparts. All the molecular constituents found in the steam and hydro-distillates are also found in the CO2 extracts, and then some. These heavier molecules are unique to these plants, and while it has not been ‘proven’ in research, much of the aromatherapy community considers them to have important therapeutic considerations. PLUS, we find these particular CO2 extracts smell nicer – smoother, deeper and richer.
This Research Prompts Us to Take A Different Look on Frankincense, Myrrh & Sandalwood Oils & Cancer…
Interestingly, we’d just published a post regarding the complementary ways in which Frankincense and Sandalwood essential oils destroy cancer cells. This research did not compare their relative strength, but did note that they each killed cancer cells via different, and therefore complementary, mechanisims – each affected a different set of the cancer cell’s DNA, leading to its death. It would be of course very interesting to see a similar study including Myrrh, and examine how these three oils may act together.
This is the full research abstract of the article reviewed here as published in Oncology Letters
1. Title: Composition and potential anticancer activities of essential oils obtained from myrrh and frankincense. Published in: Oncology Letters. 2013 Oct;6(4):1140-1146. Authors: Chen Y1, Zhou C, Ge Z, Liu Y, Liu Y, Feng W, Li S, Chen G, Wei T.
The present study aimed to investigate the composition and potential anticancer activities of essential oils obtained from two species, myrrh and frankincense, by hydrodistillation. Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), 76 and 99 components were identified in the myrrh and frankincense essential oils, respectively, with the most abundant components, 2-Cyclohexen-1-one, 4-ethynyl-4-hydroxy-3,5,5-trimethyl- and n-Octylacetate, accounting for 12.01 and 34.66%, respectively. The effects of the two essential oils, independently and as a mixture, on five tumor cell lines, MCF-7, HS-1, HepG2, HeLa and A549, were investigated using the MTT assay. The results indicated that the MCF-7 and HS-1 cell lines showed increased sensitivity to the myrrh and frankincense essential oils compared with the remaining cell lines. In addition, the anticancer effects of myrrh were markedly increased compared with those of frankincense, however, no significant synergistic effects were identified. The flow cytometry results indicated that apoptosis may be a major contributor to the biological efficacy of MCF-7 cells.
You can find a wealth of research at PubMed.Gov. Enter search terms such as ‘frankincense and cancer’, or ‘lavender and sleep’ and you’ll see much of the published research in the medical field over the last ten years.
For over four thousand years, Frankincense and Myrrh have held a place in health and healing. According to aroma-therapists and herbalists, their applications are numerous. Both, too, have been used as spiritual aids by various cultures throughout the ages.
We enjoy them for their vast array of healing benefits, and most often for their lovely, complex aromas in any style of diffuser. To learn more about each oil, see our in-depth Frankincense and Myrrh pages.