Incense is a smoke-emitting substance. It’s made of natural materials that can be burned to create a fragrant, aromatic smoke.
Different kinds of incense have different scents and materials. Some examples are cedar or rose. Some are made with resins, while others are made with powders.
Incense is used to freshen up the scent of indoor areas, for spiritual purposes, for health, and more.
Like anything else that emits smoke, incense smoke will be inhaled when using it. Recently, there have been some inquiries into how incense negatively affects health. Let’s take a closer look.
Incense is usually made of mostly natural materials. The first incenses created were made from aromatic materials such as sage, resins, oils, wood, and others.
Over time, more materials have been added to incense to enhance their fragrance, ability to combust, and to hold incense blend materials together.
You’ll need a flame source to use most types of incense, such as a lighter or matches. The end of the incense — which can be cone, stick, round, or other — is lit with flame to burn and emit smoke.
The smoke released is designed to have a sweet, pleasant smell. It can also contain particulate matter that’s easily inhaled, which means it can have possible health impacts.
Many cultures burn incense for hygienic and even spiritual purposes. However, recent research reveals there could be some health drawbacks.
Incenses contain a mixture of natural and unnatural ingredients that create small, inhalable particulate matter. A study in 2009 confirmed some of this particulate matter was carcinogenic, meaning it could cause cancer.
This study also found an association between higher cancer risk and incense use. Most of these cancers were upper respiratory tract carcinomas or lung carcinomas.
Many toxic and irritant compounds were detected in the smoke alongside its aromatic compounds, meaning that it could create other health effects, too. These compounds include:
- polyaromatic hydrocarbons
Particulate matter in incense smoke not only contains carcinogens but also irritants. This means it could lead to a number of respiratory diseases, such as asthma.
One study evaluated over 3,000 schoolchildren for asthma, symptoms of asthma, and burning incense. The questionnaire revealed there was an association between incense, asthma, and asthmalike symptoms, such as wheezing.
It also showed an association between incense use and an increased need for asthma medications.
Studies suggest incense smoke can also trigger chronic inflammation in the body.
One study showed it may cause inflammation not only in the lungs, but also in the liver. The study was limited since it was done only on animals. This inflammation was caused by the body processing particulate matter into metabolites, which also caused oxidative stress.
Compounds in incense smoke may also affect metabolism. A study on rats showed it negatively impacted metabolism and weight. It noticeably caused undesirable weight loss and lowered good cholesterol levels.
More studies are needed to explore if this can happen to humans, too.
Like asthma and cancer, incense smoke has also been associated with increased risk of heart disease.
In a study of over 60,000 Singapore citizens, long-term exposure to incense in the home was linked to cardiovascular-caused deaths. Researchers think this may be tied into the smoke’s effects on metabolism as well.
Recent research suggests there are overlooked health hazards in incense. However, consumers should also be cautious about what studies say.
For example, the study stating incense smoke may be worse than cigarette smoke was undertaken by researchers who worked for a tobacco company. This could have contributed to a certain bias, which may have had an effect on results. The sample sizes used to complete the study were also quite small.
The study also compared smoke from incense to cigarettes as if it had the same exposure. But since cigarette smoke is more directly inhaled than incense, it’s unlikely incense will have effects anywhere near those in the study. Cigarette smoke also has greater contact with the lungs than incense smoke.
There are many different kinds of incense containing different ingredients. Only certain kinds have been studied, so these results can’t be applied to every type of incense.
Lastly, studies surveying populations for cancer, asthma, heart disease, and incense use only note an association between these. They don’t show that incense caused any of these diseases, only that there’s a correlation.
Experts have interpreted the research on incense smoke and its health risks. They recommend consumers take these risks seriously.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emphasizes that burning incense can indeed increase risks of certain health problems. This is especially the case if done indoors where smoke is most likely to be inhaled.
According to the EPA, the risks include:
- contact dermatitis
The EPA didn’t say what amount and how much could contribute to this risk, or any limitations to research thus far.
Incense smoke may pose health risks, but there are some alternatives.
These aren’t linked to increased risks of health problems or the risks are minimal. Each can be used to improve the scent of an indoor space in different ways:
- smudging, such as with sage
- oil diffusers
- candles without lead-core wicks
- natural home deodorizers
Incense has been used for thousands of years with many benefits. However, studies are showing incense can possibly pose dangers to health.
Incense isn’t officially deemed a major public health risk comparable to smoking tobacco. Correct use to minimize risks hasn’t yet been explored. Neither has the extent of its dangers been explored, since studies thus far are limited.
Reducing or limiting incense use and your exposure to the smoke may help lower your risk. Opening windows during or after use is one way to reduce exposure.
Otherwise, you can explore alternatives to incense if you’re concerned about the risks.