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In our increasingly fast-paced society, many people are seeking to become more conscious of their physical and mental health. Mindfulness practices involving incense burning, such as yoga and meditation, are as popular as ever. However, the burning of incense is far from being a new phenomenon. For centuries, incense has been used as an important part of religious ceremonies across many different cultures. 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.

Incense use throughout 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.

Incense may be direct burning—which typically comes in the form of incense sticks or cones—or indirect burning. Indirect burning incense can be powdered or it may come in the form of a paste or collection of raw materials. This type of incense is burned by putting it on top of a combustible surface, such as lighted coals or glowing embers.

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).

Can incense smoke contain toxic pollutants?

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 (Cheng, Bechtold & Hung, 1995). In fact, many types of incense smoke have been found to contain carcinogens similar to those found in cigarette smoke (Friborg et al., 2008).

The exact type of pollutants released into the air depends on the chemicals present in the incense being burned. However, a study that tested 23 different types of incense found that the concentrations of carbon monoxide (CO), nitric oxide (NO) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) gases found in incense smoke may be high enough to adversely affect your health (Jetter, et. al, 2002).

That same study found that incense smoke emits high quantities of fine particulate matter that could cause the air inside your home to exceed the US EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). These standards were created by the EPA as a part of the Clean Air Act to protect against air pollutants deemed harmful to public health and to the environment.

Because incense is usually burned in enclosed spaces with little ventilation, the particulate matter may accumulate in your home over time. If you regularly burn incense, you may be exposed to more harmful indoor air pollutants than you think.

Is incense smoke bad for your lungs?

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.

According to the EPA, exposure to the particulate matter present in incense smoke has been linked to asthma, lung inflammation and even cancer. In fact, long-term exposure to incense smoke was found to be related to an increased risk for upper respiratory cancers as well as squamous cell lung cancer.

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 (Cohen, et. al, 2013). 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. Carbon monoxide may also cause adverse reactions in people with existing heart conditions.

Is incense smoke as bad as tobacco smoke?

Just how harmful is incense smoke? A 2015 study found that incense smoke and tobacco smoke may have more similarities than you may think. The two types of smoke were found to have similar toxicities and produce similar mutagenic reactions in cells exposed to the smoke (Zhou, et. al, 2015). Under certain conditions, the incense smoke was even found to be toxic at lower concentrations than the cigarette smoke. However, it is important to note a few things while interpreting these findings:

  • When you burn incense, you are not exposing your respiratory tract to the same concentration of smoke as when you smoke a cigarette. This may play a role in how the different types of smoke affect your lung cells.
  • Only four incense sticks and one cigarette were tested in this study. This sample size is too small to be able to apply the findings to incense and cigarette smoke as a whole.
  • The study’s lead researcher worked for a tobacco company. When looking at scientific studies, it’s always important to note any potential sources of bias.

For more on how dangerous incense smoke is when compared to tobacco smoke, read this article from the UK National Health Service.

While we cannot positively conclude that incense smoke is worse for your health than cigarette smoke, we do know that it can be a source of high levels of indoor air pollutants. This is especially true when incense is burned in small, enclosed spaces in which the particulate matter released in the smoke can accumulate over time, similar to the way that cigarette smoke can accumulate in the household of a habitual smoker.

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.

What are some alternatives to burning incense?

If you use incense to make your home smell nicer, there are a variety of ways to achieve the same effect. The first step is to take extra care with keeping your house clean. Search for and eliminate any sources of bad odors. When you are not trying to mask a bad smell, it does not take as much effort to make your house smell good.

After that, consider using fragrant plants, essential oils or dried flower potpourri to give your home a fresher scent without adding harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to the air that you breathe. However, you should consider avoiding aerosol air freshener sprays. Some indoor air fresheners can contain high levels of VOCs that can increase indoor air pollution and cause a variety of health effects.

An isometric diagram of a living room with "Increase ventilation", "Use safer incense", "Isolate in one room", and "Use an air purifier" labels

Are there ways to reduce the indoor air pollution caused by burning incense?

For some people, incense plays an important role in religious beliefs and practices. Avoiding incense altogether may not be an option. Here are some steps that you can take to help protect yourself from the side effects of habitual incense smoke inhalation:

  • 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. Consider trying smokeless or low-smoke incense. If possible, you should avoid burning resin incense on a charcoal briquette. The smoke from the burning charcoal can produce additional air pollutants such as carbon monoxide (Cohen, et. al, 2013).
  • 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.

Indoor air purifiers and incense smoke

If you cannot avoid burning incense regularly, using an indoor air purifier for smoke may be another way to reduce the amount of pollutants that accumulate in your home. However, no air purifier can completely eliminate smoke or the particulate matter found in incense smoke.

Incense smoke, if burned regularly and in large amounts, may be bad for your health, just like inhaling any type of smoke would be. The best way to keep incense from decreasing the quality of air in your home is to burn it as sparingly as possible. It may be best to enjoy the benefits of burning incense through alternative “smokeless” ways or only with proper ventilation and avoiding direct inhalation of incense smoke.

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