If you’ve ever been inside of a friend’s home and were suddenly entranced by a gentle yet powerful scent, you’ve been in a room where incense is burning. For centuries, humans have burned incense to produce fascinating, powerful and mood-altering aromas. The word itself comes from the Latin, “To burn.”
But what is incense made of? What combination of herbs and other ingredients blend so perfectly to create scents strong enough to refocus our energy? That’s a more complicated question than you may think.
Incense has been a part of human rituals since the days of Ancient Egypt, and it’s still used today for many of the same purposes, including:
- Religious purposes
- To fight unwanted odors
- Pleasant fragrances
- Meditation and yoga
Given that you’re lighting things on fire and breathing in the smoke, it’s probably a good idea to know what it is you’re breathing! This blog will go over common ingredients used in incense and the health benefits and risks associated with using them.
What is Incense Made of?
Incense is a fairly simple product, composed only of fragrant materials that are held together by a flammable binding. Usually, the fragrant material is derived from some kind of plant, often barks, seeds, resins, flowers, and roots.
What is incense made of? The ingredients used tend to vary from region to region, but popular ingredients in the West include:
The flammable binding also varies, but is usually wood powders or charcoals.
Incense’s design was created specifically to bring out the most fragrance of the burning material.
Ways To Burn Incense
Incense can be bought in a variety of different ways, such as:
To burn, properly ignite the flammable binding. For stick incense, (probably the most common) this is done simply by lighting the end of the stick. The incense will burn, slower than a cigarette, and unleash the scents contained within.
Something else that’s difficult to pin down with incense is the time it takes to burn through a batch or stick. Stick incense typically lasts 50 to 90 minutes, and it will burn out on its own rather than needing to be extinguished.
The reason for such a discrepancy has to do with the quality of the materials you’re using.
Low-quality materials are going to burn faster than those that are selected and prepared with care. You may be paying a little extra, but you’ll be making your house smell fresher longer.
Obviously, when dealing with anything flammable, you should take some precautions. Always be sure to:
- Use it on a stand or burner, away from anything else that can catch fire. This will allow you to control the ash.
- Place incense on a fire-resistant surface.
- Never leave incense alone. If you have to go somewhere, extinguish it.
If you’re burning sticks of incense daily, it’s ideal to burn the same scent for a week. Then, after letting the air clear for a day or two, change fragrances. This will allow a smooth transition between the way your house smells.
Are There Any Health Benefits To Using Incense?
One would think, for something that has been in our culture for centuries, that we’d have a very clear understanding of the health effects of the product. But the truth is, the research done on the health benefits of incense has been very limited.
The only real ingredients we have hard data on are frankincense and myrrh. This makes complete sense, as incense is often used in religious services, so naturally, humankind was most curious about the Biblical ingredients.
A 2008 study done on mice and cell cultures found that frankincense can cause responses, not unlike that of an antidepressant. Furthermore, frankincense produced responses in the brain areas commonly associated with anxiety and depression.
So there is some scientific basis for the idea that incense has a calming effect. This is likely why it’s so commonly found in meditation sessions. But there are physical benefits as well as psychological ones.
In 2017, another study found that compounds of frankincense and myrrh also had an anti-inflammatory effect in mice. Much like it’s much more controversial cousin marijuana, we’re starting to learn it has medicinal benefits.
But we’re less far along with incense, and these two studies were working with purified compounds. More research needs to be done to prove conclusively that the smoke that incense gives off produces the same results.
Other benefits associated with incense include:
- Increased calm and focus: Using essential oils such as rosemary and peppermint has been known to improve mental cognition.
- Increase sleep: Lavender is a well-known sleep-aid, so burning some incense with it before bed would likely help with rest and fight insomnia.
- Complement Yoga: Incense has a well-known reputation for being found in yoga rooms, and with good reason. You need excellent focus to practice, and incense is proven to help increase focus.
- Stimulate creativity: Burning incense has been said to help boost creativity.
- Purify air: One study showed that incense removed 94 percent of bacteria from the air, though the science of the study is not confirmed.
Incense and Religion
Burning incense for spiritual or religious purposes is a long-held tradition in almost every religion. In recent years, it’s become a common stereotype to associate incense with hippies, yoga gurus, and oddballs. But the Catholic church has burned frankincense in ceremonies to help bring its community together since its inception.
The Incas used to burn Palo Santo wood to clear bad energy and today has been adopted by green activists who wish to see a more sustainable future.
Is Incense Harmful To Your Health?
There’s obviously some data supporting the idea that incense has some medicinal benefits, but it’s worth looking at the other side of that coin as well. We often associate inhaling any kind of smoke with harm, and for good reason. Is incense harmful?
Incense smoke is made up of a lot of different ingredients that, when burned, give off gasses. One such gas is carbon monoxide. There are a few studies regarding incense that should be heeded.
A study from Singapore in 2008 found that using incense long-term has been linked to an increased risk of getting squamous cell lung cancer.
In 2009, a study on children in Oman reported wheezing in asthmatic children who had been exposed to incense. Incense can not cause someone to develop asthma, but it can easily trigger an attack.
A 2017 study of adults in China found evidence that incense could play a role in high blood pressure.
These studies are certainly damning, but they should not be the end of the conversation. Some studies conducted, though we can’t speak for the ones mentioned above, are paid for by tobacco companies who see incense as a vague threat.
But that’s not to say their findings aren’t alarming. Low-quality materials are often problematic. There are ways to ensure your incense is just a little safer. The first of which is not to use a stick a day, as the problems appear to be related to overexposure.
Is Incense Bad For Pets?
This is a special warning for cat lovers. Incense has been known to be particularly dangerous for cats, particularly if you are burning essential oils. If you are using incense around any pets, it’s important that you make sure the room is well-ventilated.
Cats have shown digestive problems, neurological issues, and other, even more serious concerns when exposed to too much incense over a long period of time. The best option is to keep your animals away from incense when it’s burning.
Ultimately, the decision to use incense is up to you. There are some potential risks, but the benefits are particularly enticing.
- Are Incense Sticks Harmful to Your Health?
- Incense And Cats. Is it Safe to Burn Incense Around Fluffy?
- Incense and Dogs. Is it Safe to Light Incense Around Fido?
Synthetic Vs. Natural Fragrances
In today’s market, it’s difficult to sell authentic, natural incense. Everything has been commercialized, incense is often bought at dollar stores and much of the store-bought stuff contains artificial aromas.
If the bag lists ingredients as “fragrances” or “parfum”, this means there has been no government regulation on them. The chemicals are harmful both to humans and to the environment and should be avoided at all costs.
Artificial aromas come with nasty side effects, too. There have been reports of skin irritation and headaches, but the long-term effects, potentially including the ones discussed in the last section, are much worse.
How Can I Tell If My Incense Is Natural?
The first sign that your incense is manufactured using unnatural materials is the ingredients list. That’s, of course, if the company actually included them. Some well-known manufacturers make it hard to tell what their ingredients are.
And if you’ve ever picked up incense from a dollar store, you’ve probably seen some very poor labeling.
If the ingredients list is not there, assume the worst. If it is, read it carefully. The words “fragrance” and “parfum” are dead giveaways that the incense is synthetic.
The second way to tell if your incense is natural is simply your own nose. You know what smells like cinnamon when it tickles your senses. Let your nose be your guide.
And the third way is to see our list of the Best Natural Incense Sticks around!