Whether you are burning incense as an act of worship or simply to make your home smell better, you should consider whether incense smoke may be bad for your health.
Below, we’re talking about conventional incense, not Organic Smokeless Incense, like the delicious ones Bodha makes.
Incense through the ages
No one knows when the use of incense first started. It may have been as long ago as when man first discovered fire (and subsequently discovered that burning different substances in the fire produced a variety of different scents). The first historical mention of incense burning is in the Egyptian society of 15th century BC. Incense was thought to be the “aroma of the gods” and was burned as a type of religious offering.
Since then, incense has been a part of religious ceremonies in a variety of Western and Asian cultures. In some homes, it is common for incense smoke to be present for several hours a day or more. The smoke from burning incense has been thought to have spiritual connotations such as attracting or protecting from different energies and spirits. In Taoism and Buddhism, burning incense is traditionally used for ancestor and deity worship. In some Christian traditions, incense is often used during church services and in a variety of religious rites.
In addition to playing a role in different religious practices, many people use incense as a home air freshener. Another popular use of incense is to cultivate a relaxing atmosphere during yoga and meditation.
How is incense burned?
To understand the different components present in incense smoke, we must first understand what incense is made of. Incense is traditionally created with plant materials, such as different types of wood, herbs and resins, as well as essential oils.
When you burn anything— tobacco, incense, firewood or even food—you are facilitating a process called combustion. In the case of burning incense, combustion is a chemical reaction between the fuel source (incense) and oxygen that results in a gaseous product (smoke).
When incense is burned inside, the smoke created during this process can be a major source of indoor pollutants as it produces harmful gas and particulate matter (source). In fact, many types of incense smoke have been found to contain carcinogens similar to those found in cigarette smoke (source).
The exact type of pollutants released into the air depends on the chemicals present in the incense being burned.
Is burning Incense Bad for your Health?
We know that burning incense can add high levels of particulate matter to the air in your home, but why is that particulate matter so bad for your health? These particles and chemical compounds are dangerous because they are small enough to inhale. They can travel deep into your respiratory tract, including your lungs, and even make it into your bloodstream.
Additionally, the levels of carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and nitrous oxide found in incense smoke can cause inflammation in lung cells, signaling asthma and other respiratory problems (source). Children and unborn babies are especially susceptible to the effects of carbon monoxide and other pollutants in the air because their bodies are still growing and developing.
Note: Your pets breathe the same air that you do, so any pollutants released by incense smoke can affect both human and animal members of your household.
Natural Alternatives to Burning Incense
For some people, incense plays an important role in religious beliefs and practices. Avoiding incense altogether may not be an option.
- Increase your ventilation Consider opening windows and doors to improve the airflow in the room in which you are burning incense.
- Switch to a safer type of incense Not all incense is created equally. By choosing incense made from natural, plant-based ingredients without the addition of harmful chemicals, you may be able to decrease the amount of air pollutants released in the smoke.
- Keep your incense in one room Avoid regular incense use in high-traffic areas of your house, especially if any members of your household have existing lung conditions. Having a specific area that is used for incense burning and little else may help decrease your exposure to the air pollutants present in incense smoke.