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Incense Smoke: Is It Bad for Your Health?

Modern-day life is so fast-paced. Between work, taking care of the family, tending to chores, running errands, social engagements, maintaining relationships, managing finances, and all of the societal issues that have plagued the world over the past year, life can be hectic and wrought with stress. If you’re looking for a way to alleviate your stress and improve your mental and physical health, you may be considering adding mindfulness practices to your routine.

For centuries, people have relied on such practices, such as meditation and yoga, to find their center, rebalance themselves, and soothe their minds and souls. Given the chaos that life is filled with these days, mindfulness practices have become increasingly popular. Often, these practices involve the use of incense. A combination of spices and gums, when burned, incense is produces an aroma; hence why incense is commonly used along with meditation, yoga, massage therapy, and just when kicking back and relaxing while soaking in a hot bubble bath.

While the fragrances that incense emits can be quite soothing, since those scents are released in smoke, you might be wondering if breathing in the smoke produced by incense has an ill effects on your health. Whether you’re using it for aromatherapy or simply to make your home smell better, read on to find out more about incense and whether or not it does pose adverse health risks.

Incense through history

Though it is known that incense has been used for centuries, the exact date that it was first invented and/or starting being used is unknown. The very first renditions of incense burning may date as far back as when fire was first discovered and when ancient men and women found that burning different types of substances, including flowers, tree barks, and spices, created different aromas. With that said, however, the first historical documentation of incense use dates back to the 15th century BC, when the ancient Egyptians used incense for religious ceremonies and rituals, as they believed that the scent incense created was the “aroma of the gods”.

Since that time, incense has been used in for religious celebrations, offerings, and practices throughout cultures across the globe, but particularly in Western and Asian cultures. In some locations, it isn’t uncommon for incense to burn for hours on end, as the smoke and the aroma when incense is burned is associated with spiritual connotations, as well as mental and physical well-being; attracting and safeguarding different kinds of energies and spirits, for example. In Buddhism and Taoism, incense burning has long been used to worship deities and ancestors. In some Christian traditions, incense is used during religious ceremonies and rites of passage, such as Palm and Easter Sunday masses, as well as during sacramental rites.

Incense isn’t reserved solely for religious and spiritual purposes; it is also used as an air freshener in many homes, as the burning the spices that are used in incense emits a highly fragrant aroma. Another common use of incense is in aromatherapy to promote relaxation, such as during meditation and yoga.

How do you burn incense?

In order to understand the components that incense smoke is comprised of, it’s first important to understand what incense is made of. Traditionally, incense is made of plant materials; different types of woods, herbs, blooms, and resins. Essential oils are commonly used in incense, too.

Incense is often direct burning. This method of burning involves the use of sticks or cones of incense. The stick or cone is placed in a holder, the tip is ignited until, creating a flame, the flame is blown out, and an ember remains. The ember burns the incense, and as it does, it emits the fragrance-containing smoke. It can also be burned indirectly. With the indirect burning method, the incense is powdered, made into a paste, or is formed into another collection of raw materials, and the substance is placed on top of a combustible surface, such as glowing embers or lighted coals, and as the material burns, the aroma that the incense contains is emitted.

When any substance is burned – tobacco, firewood, food, candles, and incense, a process known as combustion is facilitated. When you’re burning incense, combustion is the chemical reaction that occurs between the source of fuel, which is the incense itself, and oxygen, which results in a gaseous compound, or the aroma-filled smoke.

Is incense smoke harmful to your health?

It’s no secret that when you burn tobacco, wood, or other types of combustible materials, the smoke that is generated can contain harmful pollutants. The same is true for incense. The smoke that incense creates – especially when burned inside – and as such, can become an indoor air pollutant. That’s because incense smoke does produce harmful gaseous matter, as well as particulate matter. As a matter of fact, studies have found that several types of incense smoke contain carcinogens that are similar in nature to the carcinogens that cigarette smoke contains.

The specific kinds of pollutants that are released into the air when incense is burned varies and largely depends on the chemicals that are present in the material that you are burning. With that said, however, in a study that tested 23 different kinds of incense, it was determined that the concentrations of carbon monoxide (CO), nitric oxide (NO), and sulfur dioxide (SO2) gaseous matter found in incense smoke could potentially be significant enough to negatively impact your health. That same study revealed that incense smoke releases high levels of fine particulate matter that could potentially cause indoor air to exceed the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) that have been established by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The NAAQS was created as a part of the Clean Air Act as a way to protect against airborne pollutants that have been deemed harmful to public health and the environment.

Since incense is commonly burned in enclosed spaces where ventilation tends to be poor, the particulate matter that is produced can build up in your home over a prolonged period of time. If you burn incense on a regular basis, you could potentially be exposed to greater levels of harmful indoor air pollutants than you probably realize.

Is incense smoke harmful to the lungs?

It’s known that the smoke that incense creates when it burns can increase the levels of particulate matter in the air. As such, you’re probably wondering if that particulate matter that is produced is bad for your health – particularly your lungs. The particulate matter that incense creates, as well as the chemical compounds, are hazardous, as they are small enough to be inhaled, and they can travel deep within the respiratory tract, including the lungs. There is also a chance that those compounds and particles could make their way into the bloodstream.

As per the EPA, breathing in the particulate matter that incense smoke contains has been found to cause asthma, inflammation of the lungs, and can even increase the risk of cancer. It’s also been determined that long-term exposure to incense smoke increases the risk of developing cancers in the upper respiratory tract, as well as squamous cell lung cancer. Furthermore, incense smoke contains carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and nitrous oxide, all of which can lead to inflammation of the lung cells, triggering the development of respiratory health issues, such as asthma. Children, babies, and developing babies who are exposed to incense smoke, in particular, are prone to the effects of carbon monoxide and other airborne pollutants, as their bodies are still developing. Moreover, carbon monoxide can lead to the development of adverse health reactions in individuals who have preexisting heart conditions.

Is exposure to incense smoke as harmful as tobacco smoke?

It’s a known fact that tobacco smoke causes adverse health effects, but what about incense smoke? A study that was conducted in 2015 determined that the smoke that incense creates and the smoke that tobacco products create – such as cigarettes, cigars, and pipes – have a lot of similarities. Both kinds of smoke were found to contain similar types of toxic elements, ad to produce similar mutagenic reactions in the cells that were exposed to both types of smoke. In fact, in certain conditions, it was found that incense smoke is toxic at lower concentrations than cigarette smoke; however, when interpreting these findings, there are a few important things to note:

  • When incense is burned, the respiratory tract isn’t being exposed to the same levels of concentrations of smoke as when cigarettes are smoked, which could play a role in the ways the different kinds of smoke impact the cells of the lungs.
  • In the study, only four types of incense sticks and one type of cigarette were tested. This sample size is much too small to be able to effectively apply the findings to incense and cigarette smoke as a whole.
  • The lead researcher of the study worked for a tobacco company, and whenever examining a scientific study, it’s important to note if the sources have a potential bias.

Though it cannot be concluded with certainty that incense smoke is worse for your health than cigarette smoke, it is known that incense smoke can be a source of heightened levels of indoor air pollutants. This is particularly true when incense is burned indoors in small, poorly ventilated locations, as the particulate matter that is released by the incense smoke can build up in the location over time, just like the particulate matter in cigarette smoke can build up in the household of a smoker over time.

Are there healthier alternatives to incense?

If you enjoy the use of incense – whether for religious, mindfulness practices, or just because you enjoy the smell – you might be concerned about the health issues that may be associated with burning it. As such, you may be wondering if there is a safer alternative to incense that offers a similar effect. Yes, there are some things that you can use instead of incense. Examples include:

  • Filling bowls, pots, or sachets with dried flower potpourri
  • Essential oils
  • Fragrant plants

These alternatives do not produce harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to your home’s indoor air; thus, they can be considered safer alternatives that can offer similar effects. It is important to note that aerosol air fresheners should not be used as an alternative to burning incense, as aerosols and the ingredients that they contain high levels of VOCs, which can increase the air pollution and can cause several adverse health effects.

Can you reduce indoor air pollution cause by incense?

If burning incense is important to you, but you want to minimize the impact that it has on your home’s air quality and your health, you may be looking for ways to reduce the levels of air pollution that the incense creates. The following tips can help:

  • Increase ventilation. Increasing the ventilation in the space where you are burning incense can help to minimize the levels of particulate matter that build up in your home. Open doors and windows, and put on fans, to improve the airflow in the space.
  • Change your incense. Not all incense are the same. Use an incense that is made of organic, plant-based ingredients that do not contain harmful chemicals, as it may help to reduce the level of air pollutants that are released in the smoke. You might also want to try using a low-smoke or a smokeless incense. Avoid burning resin incense on charcoal briquettes, as the smoke that the burning charcoal generates can put more pollutants into the air, like carbon monoxide.
  • Keep the incense contained. Avoid using incense in various spaces throughout your house, and stick to low-traffic, well-ventilated areas. By walking through your house or constantly changing up the locations – especially if the areas aren’t well-ventilated – you will increase the amount of particulate matter in the air throughout your home.
  • Use an air purifier. You can also try using an air purifier to reduce the airborne particulate matter that incense creates. Make sure to use an air purifier that is designed to remove gaseous matter, such as activated carbon or PECO filtration, as these types of air purifiers effectively trap gases, including carbon monoxide, and can help to minimize the level of pollutants that are present in the air of your home during and after you have burned incense.