A beginners guide to incense
From delicate rose to sandalwood scents, it comes in coils, cones, and sticks. Discover the benefits and potential negative effects of various types of incense.
With fire, came incense.
When ancient humans congregated around the fire after hard, dangerous days of hunting, gathering, and braving the elements, we quickly learned that when someone threw a piece of bark, a handful of fragrant herbs, or an aromatic plant on the fire, the atmosphere changed. We also discovered connections between certain herbs and certain moods.
Ancient cultures burned incense to influence healing, cleanse physical spaces, practice rituals, ease stress, and carry prayers to the heavens.
Many of us do the same today.
Psychological and physiological benefits
People burn incense for different reasons, at different times of their lives.
“For me, rose represents the heart and love. I burn it when I need self-care and compassion,” says Sacha Elliott, a naturopathic physician. “Sandalwood and patchouli have earthy and woody scents that are grounding. They help put life’s issues in perspective. The spicy scent of cinnamon has an uplifting quality, which is useful when I’m in a sombre mood. And citronella is energizing—it lights a fire under my feet when I need to accomplish tasks.”
Some fragrances revitalize and renew energy, such as cedar, ginger lily and dragon’s blood. Other scents cleanse the atmosphere from negativity or tension, such as frankincense, sage, juniper, or pine.
Incense can also be a pleasant reminder of the past. For instance, incense coils are Elliott’s favourite. They remind her of travelling in Asia and entering sacred monasteries thick with the sweet, aromatic scent of incense and respect for the divine.
Burning incense can be a ritual for creating strength, connection and peace. Or it can involve releasing negative or toxic energy. “Smudging,” for example, is a ritual that cleanses, purifies and heals a person, space, or object.
Incense isn’t just about what you smell—it’s about what you see. When you watch the smoke from a stick of incense ascend to the heavens, you might visualize yourself healing from trauma or strengthening your connection to Mother Nature, God, or the Universe.
Research shows that incense isn’t just good for the soul; it’s also good for the brain. Scientists found that burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) activates ion channels in the brain and alleviates anxiety and depression in mice. This discovery helps doctors understand diseases of the nervous system and offers a physiological explanation for why we’ve been hooked on incense since we discovered fire.
The potential negative effects
“Pregnant and nursing women, people with asthma, or people prone to seizures may want to consult a physician before burning incense,” says Elliott. If you have health issues, talk to a doctor about the potential effects of inhaling incense smoke.
A 2008 study involving 61,320 participants showed that long-term use of incense can increase the risk of respiratory cancer. Burning a mixture of plant materials and oils produces a mixture of possible carcinogens, including polyaromatic hydrocarbons, carbonyls and benzene.
Cindy Wetherington, owner of Mountain Creek Candles, has discovered a few unpleasant truths about the chemicals found in some types of incense. “Most stick incense contains DPG (dipropylene glycol),” she says. “Some people claim it’s not dangerous to your health, but it is a chemical.”
She adds that most cone incense contains saltpetre (potassium nitrate), the critical oxidizing component of gunpowder. Chronic exposure to this chemical can damage your health. Also, powdered incense is burned on self-igniting charcoal, which has its own odour and isn’t healthy to inhale. Bamboo charcoal is better, says Wetherington; it’s not self-igniting and has no odour.
Tips for buying or making incense
“I buy higher quality natural ingredients, free from synthetic additives and binders,” says Elliott. “If I smell a strong odour through the sealed package, it’s likely cheap incense sticks that were dipped in harsh chemical solutions. Most natural incense doesn’t release a strong aroma until it is lit.”
She warns to watch out for fruity fragrances, which often indicate artificial ingredients. Instead, purchase natural, high quality incense at your local natural health retailer to help you stay emotionally and physically healthy.
Or, if you’re really adventurous, you could make your own incense! Wetherington mixes herbs and essential oils with a base (makko powder), which makes it combustible without chemicals. “But, you have to remember that not everything that smells good dry will smell good burning,” she says. “I learned this the hard way!”
Making incense adds another element: a sense of personal meaning. “I made a new batch called Blessings when my granddaughter was born,” she says. “I wanted to burn something to represent my love for her and the blessing of her life. I used lavender for tranquility, rose petals for love, oak bark for strength, meadowsweet for peacefulness and a few other things I wanted to bring into her life.”
Creating your own incense involves research, experimentation and trial and error. But with the wonderful blends you will end up creating, it’s well worth the effort.
These fragrances can be burned on their own or as ingredients in incense recipes.
A dry, woody, herbaceous, leatherlike scent. Often burned during summer solstice to symbolize letting go of the old.
Scent depends on the tree; often fresh, fruity, citrus with resinous, woody undertones. Used for spirituality, protection, strengthening, courage.
A sweet, woody base with delicate, spicy, oriental undertones. Used for relaxation, mental clarity, devotion, spirituality.
A herbaceous aroma with underlying fruity notes. Used for cleansing and purifying, strengthening, creativity.
A deep, intense, sweet, spicy, woody balsamic odour. Used for protection, sleep, cleansing/purifying.
A sweet, floral, herbaceous scent with balsamic and woody undertones. Used for love, happiness, soothing.
A warm, floral, slightly spicy, rich scent. Used for love, awareness, sensuality, meditation.
A strong fruit-sweet potato-yam scent. Used for cleansing/purifying and love.
A strong, spicy, herbaceous scent. Used for cleansing and purifying, strengthening, meditation.
Making sense of incense
With the many forms of incense available, it’s important to know the benefits and safe practice of each.
|Form of incense
|How to burn
|How long it lasts
|For safe use
|Coil (hanging or vertical)
|Light the tip of the coil, let it hold the flame for a few seconds, then blow or fan it out.
|often burns the longest, from 3 to 24 hours
|Use a bowl specifically made for coil or spiral incense, or a heatproof ceramic or soapstone bowl to catch the ashes. Fill with sand or ash.
|Light it, let the fire burn for 10 seconds, then blow or fan it until it’s red hot and smouldering.
|around 30 minutes, depending on size of cone
|Use a heatproof dish; keep away from flammable materials.
|Same as cone.
|30 to 45 minutes
|Same as cone.
|Light the edge of a charcoal, place it in centre of burner, then sprinkle incense on or near charcoal.
|Incense sprinkled directly on charcoal will burn faster than when sprinkled next to hot charcoal.
|Use chemical-free charcoal; make sure charcoal is completely extinguished before discarding.
|Same as cone.
|about 30 minutes
|Burn the rope on a bed of ash or in a rope incense burner.