What Does Frankincense Smell Like? (Solved)

Frankincense smells aromatic, slightly resinous, citrusy, and peppery. It features rosemary and pine undertones mixed with a slightly smoky odor. It smells sweeter when turned into essential oil and similar to incense when burned.

Frankincense or Olibanum has one of the most specific scents in the world. It has been used for aromatherapy and in religious rituals for thousands of years. Originating in the Arabian Peninsula, frankincense is a type of resin or tree sap that’s collected once the tree matures (typically after 10 years of growth).

You might have smelt frankincense in cathedrals and churches. It has wide use in Christianity but it is also in Islam and Judaism. Frankincense smell is tied to praying. But it is also used to make perfumes and mixed (as an essential oil) with other ingredients to create a unique aromatic fragrance.

What is frankincense?

Frankincense is a resin collected from the Boswelia tree. The tree grows in the Middle East in arid soil conditions and very low humidity. This is why it takes up to 10 years to mature and to produce the gum-resin we now call frankincense.

The resin is rarely released on its own by the Boswelia tree. Its bark needs tapping or cuts to release the resin which has a protective role. The resin then appears as droplets that are collected and hardened naturally when in contact with air. Darker resins have more intense smells while brighter collected resins have a more diluted smell.

What Does Frankincense Smell Like?

Frankincense has an aromatic resin smell. It also smells of citruses, pepper, rosemary, and pine needles. It turns sweeter and brighter when turned into frankincense (olibanum) essential oil.

Frankincense has one of the most instantly-recognizable smells. It’s very bright and religious-smelling and a memorable scent due to its oriental profile.

Frankincense also maintains a slightly peppery nature which can be described as a combination of peppery fruits such as bergamot (citrus) and black pepper. The undertones of frankincense are complex and subject to change depending on the environment the Boswelia tree that it originates from is grown.

Frankincense smells resinous and aromatic

Boswellia trees release a gum-like resin when their bark is pierced (a process referred to as tapping). This resin is a thick liquid at first then drying to a solid-state known as frankincense. The liquid is collected by hand and the solid final frankincense is sorted or left unsorted. The final result includes small frankincense pieces which vary in color. These can be bright yellow, tan, yellow, light brown, or brown. Darker frankincense pieces tend to be a bit more aromatic.

Frankincense smells peppery

The astringent smell in frankincense is attributed to its peppery smell. The pepper in this smell can be mild, at best. It doesn’t resemble smelling pure pepper but rather something that smells peppery.

Frankincense smells citrusy

The citrusy nature of frankincense is what makes it smell uplifting and mass-appealing. Its citrus aroma has a cooling effect which means frankincense smells great in high heat. This is also the reason why many people living in the Middle East use frankincense to make their clothes smell better and to have a cooling effect when walking out in high summer heat.

Frankincense smells like rosemary

Rosemary smells similar to pine, citruses, and pepper. All of these odor undertones are present in the sharp-rosemary scent of frankincense. Rosemary is a green scent that also makes frankincense an ideal smell for spring and fall, especially when used in perfumes.

Frankincense smells smoky

There’s a smoky incense nature to frankincense, mostly tied to its use in religious practices. Pure frankincense smells just a bit smoky and not at all woody. But burnt frankincense smell is often recreated with chemicals for perfumes, candles, and aromatherapy.

Frankincense scent has pine smell undertones

The smell of pine needles is present within the frankincense’ aroma. The Boswellia tree doesn’t have large leaves. Its small leaves even look similar to pine needles. However, this mint-like pine note is present in frankincense making the final scent aromatic.

These pine frankincense undertones have also been described as green in some cases. Green undertones make frankincense balsamic or aromatic.

Frankincense smells a bit smoky and a bit dry

The dry nature of the frankincense smell is very powdery. This smell is a bit smoky but even when smelt raw, the hardened frankincense pieces are a bit smoky and a bit dry.

Frankincense smell deconstructed

Frankincense smell can differ from one tree to another. Both frankincense and myrrh come from the same tree bark but they have a different aroma depending on the region of growth, the weather, and even the type of frankincense.

Some research even suggests frankincense has a woody, spicy, haunting smell as it’s almost like no other.

The scientific name of frankincense is Boswellia Sacra. The time of harvesting is also influencing the smell and the perception frankincense has. Other Boswellia species include.

  • Boswellia Frereana
  • Boswellia Rivae
  • Boswellia Neglecta
  • Boswellia Serrata

Many Boswellia species grow in the Middle East in arid areas known for their high heat as well as in India. Historically, frankincense has been used in spirituality, and it’s even mentioned in the Bible.

Frankincense smell is often associated with
Red pepper
Aromatic pine


Frankincense chemical formula

The specific smell of frankincense is a combination of factors and compounds and it’s been yet isolated. Since there are so many types of frankincense types, the dominant compounds can be one of the following.

  • E-β-Ocimene
  • Limonene
  • Myrcene
  • Octanol acetate
  • Octyl acetate
  • Terpinen-4-ol
  • α-Pinene
  • α-Thujene
  • Duva-3,9,13-triene-1a-ol-5,8-oxide-1-acetate

Frankincense benefits

Frankincense benefits include relieving anxiety, boosting the immune system, and making you smell good. It has various uses tied to either praying or perfumery.

  • Frankincense makes perfumes aromatic

The aromatic nature of frankincense makes it a complex smell. This is why it adds complexity to a wide variety of perfumes. We’ve seen old-style frankincense perfumes make room for new frankincense perfumes (such as those from Amouage) where the scent is reinvented. While not believed possible, frankincense can smell modern and add uniqueness to a perfume.

  • Frankincense has a cooling effect when smelt in the summer

Frankincense (with its citrus-rosemary-pepper undertones) has a cooling effect when burnt or worn mixed as an essential oil in perfume. It helps cool down body temperature in the summer. It also offers the perception of cool air when smelt outdoors in high heat. This is why it’s not a cloying smell but a cooling smell as used in arid areas of the Middle East for about 6 millennia.

  • Frankincense reduces stress

Frankincense is a scent used to reduce stress, anxiety, and to help stay away from negative thoughts in general. Science has proven that citruses and things that smell citrusy are very good at fighting depression as well. Frankincense is a complex smell that has been shown to have a calming effect on the mind, much like the smell of sandalwood.

  • Frankincense may boost the immune system

Frankincense has an immunostimulant effect. It may help the body prevent infections and generally kill bacteria efficiently. Its role in this segment is normally studied in alternative medicine.

This is how your frankincense smell in fragrance is made

Resin from the frankincense tree is collected even today. Harvesters cut down tree bark which then releases a protective resin. After 2-3 weeks, the frankincense resin is ready to be collected.

To harvest the smell and oils, frankincense is boiled. It is then used to add aroma to many perfumes or it is used in aromatherapy.

Why is the frankincense smell important?

In ancient times, frankincense was used to make basic perfumes. It has been mixed with carrier oils such as almond oil and flower extracts such as lavender to create the first perfumes.

Today, the clean smoky smell of frankincense is used to spice up various perfumes. You can identify it as the smell of frankincense in church.

Frankincense is largely used in the cosmetics industry. It has also been associated with multiple health benefits. Some people burn frankincense while praying while others use it to relax.

If you don’t want to invest in an expensive incense perfume, you can test out the smell yourself by burning a small piece of frankincense on coal.

Good notes to combine with frankincense

You can easily mix frankincense oil with other essential oils to create unique aromas and fragrances. Since it’s spicy, it can be mixed with the following notes.

Red pepper – with added spiciness, red pepper can enhance the smell of frankincense further.

Patchouli – the strong spicy-sweet patchouli aroma is a superb combination with frankincense.

Rosemary – the lavender-like aromatic rosemary smell is another great addition to any frankincense perfume.

Geranium – the green peppery smell of geranium is often mixed with myrrh.

Bergamot – Bergamot is citrusy and spicy and it adds more of the same profile to frankincense.

Sage – minty cool sage smell is another solid combination with frankincense, but only in small doses.

Salt – adding salt to frankincense can heighten its smell.

Oceanic notes – oceanic summer notes are an excellent addition to frankincense when creating a fresh lightweight perfume.

Frankincense vs Incense – What’s the Difference?

Incense is a perfume used in religious rites. Frankincense is a type of incense made from the Boswelia tree.

Frankincense vs Agarwood – What’s the Difference?

Frankincense and agarwood are types of tree sap obtained from different trees. Frankincense is formed when the Boswelia tree is tapped as a protective measure. Agarwood is formed when the Aquilaria tree is infected with a special type of fungus.

Final words

Frankincense is a complex smell that is reminiscent of citruses, greens, spices, and resins. It has many faces which means it can be extra citrusy or extra smoky depending on its harvesting time. It takes a long time for the Boswelia tree to be ready to create frankincense. These long periods make an impact on the final scent of this Middle Eastern scent.

Most importantly, frankincense is an oriental scent. This means it’s piercing compared to Western scents and that it lasts a long time. Oriental fragrances can sometimes also appear spicy, which is the case here with frankincense.

From a historic perspective, frankincense production has been tied to spirituality being used by the world’s largest religions for centuries. Over the years, frankincense became known in the perfumer world where perfume masters relied on it to add complexity and longevity to perfumes.

Most perfumes that smell like frankincense are normally categorized as oriental. The final composition follows the strong nature of frankincense itself.

Fragrances that smell like frankincense

If you love the smell of frankincense, you’ll surely love the following fragrances.

Amouage Jubilation

This fragrance comes with a unique blend of frankincense and myrrh. Added spices only improve its royal appeal. With a smoked incense vibe, the fragrance is perfect for the cold months such as those from late October to mid-spring.

Christian Dior Mitzah

This women’s perfume features incense, honey, patchouli, rose, coriander, and Ceylon cinnamon. Frankincense is its most intense note and its superbly combined with soft sweet honey and spicy cinnamon.

Final considerations

The frankincense smell is unique and it takes a lot of effort to produce. The Boswelia tree takes years to mature and harvesting isn’t easier either as it can take 7-10 tree bark cuts to get the right type of frankincense. Normally sourced from Oman, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen, it’s a wonder how the smell of frankincense has persisted in perfumery and religious traditions for thousands of years without going out of style.