Incense is a substance that’s burned to produce a fragrant scent. In fact, the word “incense” is derived from the Latin word for “to burn.”

Incense has been around since ancient times — it was used in religious rituals in ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Greece. Over the centuries and into the present day, people throughout the world have used incense for a variety reasons, including as a:

  • component of various religious practices
  • tool to counteract bad or disagreeable odors
  • way to repel demons or evil spirits

Read on to learn more about this popular substance.

Incense is typically made up of an aromatic material that produces a scent and a combustible binding material that holds it together in a particular shape.

The aromatic materials used for making incense are typically plant-based and can include a variety of resins, barks, seeds, roots, and flowers.

The specific ingredients used in incense can vary by region and manufacturer. Some specific examples of aromatic ingredients that you may recognize include:

  • cinnamon
  • frankincense
  • musk
  • myrrh
  • patchouli
  • sandalwood

The combustible binding material found in incense is what ignites, allowing the incense to burn and produce smoke. The materials used vary, but can include things like charcoal or wood powders.

Incense comes in a variety of forms, including:

  • coils
  • cones
  • powders
  • sticks

In order to burn incense, you first gently ignite it. For example, to burn an incense stick you would use a lighter or a match to light the tip. Once the incense has been ignited, you then gently extinguish the flame, typically by blowing it out. The incense will then glow and begin to produce scented smoke.

The burning time of incense varies by its form. For example, a stick of incense may last between 50 and 90 minutes. When the incense is done burning, it’ll extinguish itself.

Incense is naturally a fire hazard. According to some incense manufacturers, you should:

  • Use an incense burner or stand when burning incense. This will help contain the burning incense and its ash.
  • Place incense holders on a fire-resistant surface.
  • Never leave burning incense unattended.

You can find incense sticks, coils, and holders online.

Incense has been used throughout the world for centuries, but does it have any benefits to health or wellness?

There’s limited research on the possible health benefits. Many of the available studies focus on the incense ingredients frankincense and myrrh.

Burning incense has long been associated with religious practices and meditation. But does incense actually have a calming or psychoactive effect?

One 2008 study in cell cultures and mice identified a compound in frankincense resin that could cause a response similar to an antidepressant. Additionally, a response to this compound was seen in the areas of the brain associated with anxiety and depression. It also activated receptors associated with a feeling of warmth.

A 2017 study found that some compounds isolated from frankincense and myrrh resins had an anti-inflammatory effect in mice. Researchers isolated several compounds from the resins and found that some of them were able to inhibit an inflammatory response in mice, depending on the dose.

It should be noted, however, that the researchers in these studies worked with compounds purified from frankincense resin. Further studies will be needed to determine if they’re present in incense smoke and whether they elicit the same response in people.

While there are some data suggesting that incense ingredients can have possible health benefits, what about the opposite? Can inhaling incense smoke be harmful?

Incense smoke consists of a variety of components. These include tiny particles generated from the burning of the incense and a variety of gases, including carbon monoxide.

Various studies have linked burning incense or inhaling incense smoke to a variety of harmful effects. Some examples include:

  • A 2008 study of adults in Singapore found that long-term burning of incense was associated with an increased risk for developing squamous cell lung cancer.
  • A 2009 study of children in Oman that found incense burning triggered wheezing in asthmatic children. However, incense burning wasn’t associated with an increased prevalence of asthma. Incense doesn’t cause asthma but can trigger an attack.
  • A 2015 study found that components in incense smoke were toxic to cultured cells at lower concentrations than cigarette smoke. It should be noted that only the smoke of four incense sticks and one cigarette were assessed in this study.
  • A 2017 study in Chinese adults found evidence that incense burning could play a role in an increased risk of high blood pressure.

Incense has been around for a long time and utilized for a variety of purposes, including religious practices, neutralizing foul odors, and comfort. A variety of substances, typically plant-based, give incense its scent.

Despite the fact that incense has been around for centuries, the information on its health effects is mixed. Some studies indicate possible antidepressant and anti-inflammatory effects of incense components. Other studies found associations between incense burning and negative health effects, such as cancer.

If you do choose to burn incense, be sure to do so safely in order to minimize any fire hazards.

Healthline and our partners may receive a portion of revenues if you make a purchase using a link above.