Are You Using Endangered Incense and Eseential Oils?

A man rises in the early dawn hours of the morning in the rugged Cal Meadow Mountains of Somaliland, a self-proclaimed territory in Northern Somalia.

Like his father before him, and his father’s father before him, and so on for countless generations, he sets out to harvest the precious resin found in a particular species of trees native to this region - the Boswellia Carterii and frereana. More commonly known as Frankincense trees, both the certerii and frereana are two of several types of Frankincense trees that produce the sweet-smelling resin.

With his feet wrapped in cloth, he fastidiously negotiates perilous cliffs and rocky outcrops blanketed with loose stone and gravel. Upon reaching a tree that is mature enough to produce resin, he scales its trunk and creates a small wound in the bark.

Out from the wound leaks a milky white sap that drips slowly forming tear shaped droplets. The tears, which Ancient Egyptians thought to be sweat from the Gods, is scraped from the tree as it hardens.

The hardened resin produces a pleasant aromatic smoke when burned and is the reason it has such a storied history.

Frankincense has been used for over 5,000 years across cultures and rituals in various rites, rituals, and ceremonies. A most sough-after commodity traded along the Incense Road, in its day quality frankincense was worth more than gold.

Ancient Egyptians thought Frankincense to be so divine that the resin was was often utilized in embalming and funerary rituals and as a temple incense - the rising smoke establishing a direct connection to the Gods above. In many regions and cultures, it’s high value and symbol of luxury made it suitable to give as a precious gift - perhaps the most notable example is when the biblical Magi presented a newborn baby Jesus with gifts of frankincense and myrrh.

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Frankincense trees have thrived in seemingly inhospitable desert environments for thousands of years, their shallow roots twisting over cliffs and down steep ravines in infertile soil. Their proclivity for growing in perilous places makes the job of harvesting the resin a dangerous one.

But despite the dangers of this task, men in this region have been harvesting frankincense for generations upon generations. This ancestral work is in their blood - tightly woven into the fabric of their culture and their communities. But many fear that their indigenous work and heritage is about to dry up - literally.

The increase in popularity of frankincense these days, as an incense and an essential oil, has lead to the over-harvesting of frankincense trees for their resin.

While Somaliland is home to the largest remaining frankincense forests on the planet, other species of the resin producing Boswellia tree, like the Boswellia Sacra, can be found in Yemen, Oman , areas of India, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya . The plight of the frankincense trees in these regions is just as dire.

Unsustainable Harvesting Is a Threat To These Species

In addition to it’s use in aromatherapy, Frankincense oil is believed to have many medicinal benefits if taken internally, including reducing inflammation, improving immune function, and relieving stress. Some even believe that it contains cancer fighting compounds.

A rise in global demand for frankincense far outstrips the available supply, and most regions lack proper harvesting and management regulations.

To try and meet this demand, people are resorting to unsustainable harvesting practices that are contributing to this species decline.

Traditionally, trees are tapped with a tool called a Mingaaf with 6-8 cuts per summer for two years, then rested for one year. In communities who have been doing this work for generations, the knowledge and skill has been passed down from father to son.

But, it has been found that many trees are being cut continuously with machetes all year, every year. The high price frankincense can currently get on the market has proven an attractive commodity to poachers who steal resin from trees indiscriminantly and without the proper knowledge of harvesting methods.

Further compounding this problem is that trees tapped for resin appear to germinate at a much lower rate, so fewer trees are growing.

Meanwhile, there are other factors also at play including intensive cattle grazing, an increase in fires where frankincense trees grow, and attacks from longhorn beetles. If appropriate measures aren’t implemented, experts expect that the production of frankincense could be halved in the next fifteen years if things don’t change soon.

As a consumer, one way to help is to abstain from purchasing frankincense coming from unsustainable or unknown supply chains. Instead,find a company utilizing managed wild harvest systems or co-ops.

Kotanical Essential Oils, based in Ireland, sources their frankincense ethically from a coop in Somaliland.

Kotanical founder Karly Murray notes

It took months of chatting and building up rapport to source the most ethical resin , people from Somalia land seem to have had a negative experience to outsiders especially from a big American company when it comes to frankincense.

They just received their Leaping Bunny certification as well.

Or, you might choose to replace your frankincense essential oil or incense with something comparable in scent or medicinal effect.

But, be aware that frankincense isn’t the only problematic incense these days.

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Many Other Essential Oils and Aromatics Have Become Problematic

In addition to resins, incense is made from other plant materials like heartwood, bark, seeds, and fruits.

Distilled into oils and tinctures, many of the same plants and trees used as incense have, like frankincense, been held sacred for their various medicinal uses, aromatherapy benefits, and use in perfumes and fragrances.

No longer relegated to holy spaces or apothecaries, the modern-day use of incense and essential oils has exploded in popularity, particularly in the West where the “wellness” movement has taken off.

This surge in popularity has increased the demand for numerous resins and plant products which has resulted in many problems including over-harvesting, illegal trade, poaching of protected species, and the downward trend in many populations of these species - some of which have become endangered.

Unless you are well aware of the sources of your incense, essential oils, or perfumes, there is a chance that some of the ingredients are from endangered species or have been harvested unsustainably or unethically.

It’s critical to really do your due-diligence and make sure the incense, essential oils, and resins you are purchasing are coming from good sources. Or, if there aren’t any sources you can find, consider choosing a different oil or incense.

To help you make more informed purchasing decisions, in addition to Frankincense discussed earlier, please consider this list of some of the more popular but problematic incense and essential oils, and what you can do about it.*


White Sandalwood

Santalum Album

Common Name: Indian Sandalwood

Native to: Indonesia, Timore Leste, and South India.

Conservation Status: Vulnerable (IUCN)

Brief Background:

A long-time staple in both Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicines, sandalwood is believed to treat a number of ailments, including digestive issues, depression, anxiety, and urinary tract infections.

It is widely used in the perfume industry and favored as a base note that helps to hold the scent of lighter oils. In fact, it’s one of the ingredients used in the now-infamous scent, Santal 33, by Le Labo (which I am guilty of wearing myself. It smells ridiculously good. I can’t help it. I don’t care if I smell like all the soccer moms).

Unlike Frankincense resin, Sandalwood requires harvesting the entire tree - the prized aromatic properties found in its heartwood. Sandalwood trees growing naturally in the forest require 30-35 years before they’re ready to harvest. Poachers harvesting indiscriminately will harvest trees far too young to yield viable heartwood.

The Indian government has placed very strict restrictions on the use of Sandalwood trees and it is illegal to export; however, there is a thriving black market trade for this species, which has led to poaching and conflict with law enforcement.

Illegally sourced sandalwood oil is often adulterated, contaminated, or blended with other oils, so unless you’re purchasing from an ethical supplier you don’t really know what you’re getting.

What you can do

Buy sandalwood essential oils and products from companies with transparent supply chains who harvest from responsibly managed trees and plantations. Because all environmental factors can be carefully controlled, plantation grown sandalwood performs exceedingly well and will take only 3-5 years to develop a good heartwood; this makes them more commercially viable and economical.

Look for companies sourcing the oil from countries like Australia, where there has been a boom in recent years of sustainable sandalwood plantations in the northern part of Western Australia. {Le Labo, for example, is careful to note that their Sandalwood is of Australian origin. }

The company, Santanol, is among the most prominent ethical and sustainable suppliers of Sandalwood; all of their wood and oil products are traceable right down to the seeds. Ask if the brands you buy your perfume or oils from are sourcing their sandalwood from companies like Santanol.

Rosewood Oil

Aniba Roseaodora

Common Names: Brazilian Rosewood, Bois de Rose , Pau Rosa

(Not to be confused with another endangered species - Madagascar Rosewood )

Conservation Status: Endangered (IUCN)

Native to: Amazon of Peru and Brazil

Commonly used in aromatherapy to help treat depression, it’s also a very popular ingredient in perfumes.

The oil is derived through steam distillation from the wood chips or shavings of the rosewood tree.

The population decline of this tree is largely due to unsustainable harvesting practices for its sap and heartwood - entire trees are indiscriminately cut down, destroying the roots. But this tree is also victim to deforestation.

What you can do:

Look for rosewood oil sourced from sustainably managed tree plantations and groves. Aromatics International sources their rosewood oil from a distiller that distills the oil from small pieces taken from living rosewood trees that are harvested every 2-3 years on rotation.

spikenard flower

spikenard flower

Spikenard

Nardostachys Jatamansi

Common Names: Nard , Nard Oil

Native to: Alpine Himalayas

Conservation Status: Critically Endangered (IUCN)

Brief Background:

Easily identified by its pink bell shaped flowers, spikenard is an herb commonly used as an essential oil or as an aromatic ingredient in perfumes. In Ayurvedic medicine, it has long been lauded for its cognitive and neurological benefits.

With a very specific range high up in the Himalaya mountains, there have been gaps in assessment research over the years - particularly in Bhutan. Nonetheless, it’s overall downward trend can be directly linked to over exploitation for medicinal and aromatic uses.

If you’re at all apprised of the goings-on in the world of essential oils, then you were likely aware of the Young Living scandal from 2017.

One of the more popular and well-known essential oil companies, Young Living, based in Utah, was convicted of illegally harvesting and importing endangered plants from Peru and Nepal without the proper CITES permits. This included spikenard. So, it’s important to check the sources of even the largest and supposedly well-respected companies providing these goods - they’re not immune to unsustainable or unethical sourcing.

What you can do:

Nepal is banned exports of Nard Oil without the proper CITES permits - so ensure that your Nard Oil supplier is following regulations. Or, you might consider avoiding nard oil all together.

Bundles of palo santo sticks and incense sticks | PC: In Causa

Bundles of palo santo sticks and incense sticks | PC: In Causa

Palo Santo

Bursera Graveolens

Native to: Mexico and ares of South America- namely Ecuador, Peru

Common Name: Holy Wood

Conservation Status: Critically endangered in Peru

Brief Background:

Traced all the way back to the Incan Empire, Palo Santo was traditionally used by shamans and healers as medicine favored for its purification properties. Essentially the South American version of North American sage, palo santo has also long been used as “smudge sticks” to clear homes and holy spaces of negative energy.

When burned it creates a pleasant smelling smoke redolent of earth and fresh woody scents. It’s pleasant scent, coupled with its purported metaphysical properties, palo santo has exploded in popularity in recent years and has become especially trendy in homes the United States.

The bursera graveolens tree belongs to the same family as frankincense and myrrh. As you can see they look quite similar.

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Traditionally, wood is collected from branches that have naturally fallen from the tree - the live tree is never cut. The wood is then left to cure for a period of 3-5 years to allow the resin to crystallize.

Unfortunately, due to its rise in popularity, palo santo trees are being illegally harvested and the cutting of live trees has become common place.

This problem has earned the tree a place on CITES appendix II , which affords the tree a certain level of protection to prevent its continued overexploitation and endangerment. The Peruvian government has place restrictions on the harvesting of this wood and has implemented clear regulations in its collection and trade.

What you can do:

Never buy palo santo sourced from live trees. Make sure that it has been collected from fallen branches only in accordance with the Peruvian government regulations and CITES. Some suppliers source their palo santo from tree farms, while others work directly with native families who cultivate the trees and replant in the wild.

Some ethical brands include Third Eye Wood , Anima Mundi Herbals , and Incausa

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Agarwood

Aquilaria

Native to: East India through Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malay peninsula, IndoChina

Conservation Status: Some species are not rated while others are listed as vulnerable or endangered. The A. Malaccensis and A. Craassna are both listed as Critically Endangered (IUCN), population trend is decreasing. And, despite its listing as “vulnerable” in India, it is believed to be extinct already.

Three species are currently listed on CITES Appendix II

Common Names: Oud, Gaharu

Brief Background:

A fast-growing evergreen tree, there are several species of Aquliaria, but only 2 or 3 produce agarwood.

Aquilaria is typically scentless until the bark becomes damaged, which encourages the growth of mold. In response to the mold infection, the tree produces resin which increases the density of the wood, and changes the color from pale yellow to red, dark brown, and even black. To harvest, the infected, resinous wood, is pulled away from healthy wood.

Agarwood resin is used in incense chips and also distilled to create Oud Oil, also known as liquid gold - found most notably Yves Saint Lauren’s perfume M7 Oud Absolu.

The rise in popularity has led it to the brink of extinction and is a target of poaching because of the high prices it can fetch on the black market - agarwood is considered one of the most expensive trees in the world

The trees take years to mature and only 7% of mature Aquilaria trees produce the resin. So, it’s very likely that poachers are poaching trees that won’t even have what they’re looking for.

What you can do

Buy incense or oils sustainably harvested from Aquilaria plantations. If agarwood is an ingredient in your favorite perfume, reach out to the brand and ask where they source it from.

Learn more about agarwood from Plantations International, which is a plantation and farm management company providing sustainable agroforestry services.








*This list is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive. These are examples among the most popularly used aromatics and essential oils. There are likely many others that I have not included here. Just because you don’t see it listed, does not mean it might be problematic.