Incense--the modern version of the 50s cigarette image?

If you look at movies, TV shows, and even cartoons of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, it is not uncommon to see people lighting up often. These days a movie with a character that smokes is enough to garner a PG or greater rating on the basis of smoking alone. (It has even been suggested that smoking should be enough to give a movie an R rating, although that currently is not MPAA policy.)


Back in generations before us, smoking was just a fact of life. With the knowledge of the various conditions that smoking can cause, many people today opt not to smoke. Nevertheless, it is still seen as "socially acceptable" (and in some cases practically required) to light up incense both for ritual purposes and for general burning in the home. 


Incense sticks typically contain 21% herbal and wood powder, 35% fragrance material (which often involves synthetic petrochemical-based oils), 11% of adhesive, and 33% non-burning bamboo stick. When it is burning, an incense stick produces carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, benzene, and toluene, as well as xylenes, aldehydes, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). Many of these substances are known carcinogens, as well as having a lot of other side effects--everything from anemia to irregular menstrual cycles to insomnia to depression to dermatitis. 


For those who blend their own incense, there are no guarantees about the safety of inhaling incense charcoal fumes. The higher quality brands (Three Kings, Swift Lite) talk in their promotional materials about how they burn "safe and clean", and sometimes even say that their products are "organic", with the caveat that the countries where these products are produced (as incense charcoals are not produced in the US) may or may not regulate the use of those terms. If you go with an off brand, many times they are made in China...and we all know what the Chinese track record is about the safety of ingredients in unregulated merchandise! 


In a study in the medical journal Cancer, exposure to burning incense over long periods of time almost doubles the risk of respiratory track cancers, including developing squamous cell upper respiratory track carcinomas in the tongue, mouth, nasal/sinus passages, and larynx. Although this topic is not incredibly well researched, the studies out there are pretty damning. Of particular interest and concern is a study from 1991 about a church that used thermal proofing (i.e., improving insulation from cold) that developed problematic amounts of soot dust deposition from candles and incense. 


For our household, we have opted to go largely incense free in our personal practices. For times when we do use incense, we do so only in a room in the house that has a separate air filtering system and then run an air scrubber for several hours after ritual is done. No question--our health has improved. Just like smokers get numb to the scent of cigarettes over time, we find that most people we run into are numb to the "incense residual" that is present in houses and places where incense is used. It lingers a lot. I had no clue until we stopped using in our homes.


This puts me in a very awkward position. On the one hand, I know this stuff has caused the death of elders in my upline. I know that some of the elders I know are currently suffering health issues that appear to be tied to incense use. I know that, based on these studies, a number of my peers could have their lives shortened because of incense use. On the other hand, there are times when I do like incense for ritual. How much is too much, however? In general, I get exposed to incense smoke once a month (for esbats). When I pull my robe out a month or two later, I can still smell the incense infused in it. I love that smell. Then again, smokers I know love their ciggies, too.


So many self-described pagans I know like to think of themselves as being earth-centric in their practices and speak negatively about chemical pollutants. Yet these same people willingly burn chemical pollutants in their house. Is this a hypocritical behavior?


In ritual, part of the use of incense is for the mystique--but how is that different from the glamor of cigarette smoking in previous decades? Is it possible that incense will fall away in popularity, just as smoking as fallen out of vogue?


The simple answer is "just don't burn incense indoors", yet I think for many of us, rituals are often done indoors--and ventilation in modern houses isn't a good option (and, with good ventilation, it isn't safe and/or practical to burn candles). In addition, some local parks are enacting smoking bans, and it is likely that burning incense would also be frowned upon (if not declared outright illegal). 


I have lists upon lists of substitutions for incense as an elemental representation. But when push comes to shove, incense is what I personally love as a physical representation of the element of air. At the same time, I want to live a long and healthy life. How can I reconcile doing something that I know is profoundly harmful just because there's some level of spiritual fulfillment that comes from this.


Has anyone else given thought to this? Do you think that eventually incense will become too impractical or too politically incorrect and will not be used often in rituals? For those of the younger set, do you think incense use is/will continue to be popular or do you think it is on its way out? Does anyone have ideas about how they handle this issue--or am I just a worrywart? ;)


For those who are curious about some of the info out there on incense use and health issues, here's a handful of links. If you want more, let me know...there's quite a bit more out there.;

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So many self-described pagans I know like to think of themselves as being earth-centric in their practices and speak negatively about chemical pollutants. Yet these same people willingly burn chemical pollutants in their house. Is this a hypocritical behavior?


Not intentionally. I'd put it under "ignorant" - unfortunately, too many "Pagans" seem fond of the notion that "natural" or organic or herbal equals harmless. They simply do not think that those things can be just as harmful as artificial products and in some cases deadly.


Personally, I use incense extremely rarely. As a matter of fact, a couple of weeks ago was the first time I used incense within 6+ years of practice! And even then, I was on the balcony because I can't stand smoke (my mother is a smoker and I can't stand being near when she smokes).


As far as health risks are concerned: there are already way too many health hazards in our everyday lives. Regardless of what I do, I am a passive smoker and I live in one of the most polluted (air and otherwise) capitals of Europe. Inhaling a bit of incense smoke once in a blue moon (less actually!) is by no means comparable to those things. We are already harming ourselves in countless ways imagineable. A bit of mindful harm with greater - for me - benefits is worth it.


As an aside, I'd say that considering incense burning a cause of death for people seems a bit unreal to me... But then again, I do not know the lives of the people you mentioned, so I couldn't completely rule it out. It simply doesn't seem enough for me.

Thanks for this Leisha.

It is certainly food for thought.

I like incense and do use it in ritual, we have run ritual once or twice without it and it is not 100% the same.

With alcohol which I also love (ok, I'm a Brit!!) , some times I take my turn as the designate driver and don't mind at all that I don't have an alcoholic drink in my hand.

So perhaps it is time to start cutting down on the use of incense in my home. I don't let people smok in my home so is it rude of me to have them put up with the smell of incense?? I will certanly ask people if they mind the residual smell. And if they complain I'll fry some fish and see which they rather!! lol.


I have stopped using the pre-made Joss sticks in the house after I was given some (I think, rather poor quality ones) by a friend and after burning them I had a dreadful headache. They were just a chemical coated stick.

One alternative I use when I need to concentrate and my butterfly brain won't let me is rosemary. When ever I trim my rosemary bush in  my garden I use the leaves for cooking and then dry the twigs, they burn real well, just like an incence stick. And they help with concentration too.


As for loose incense burnt on a charcoal disk, I have found a good local producer of blended resins and another supplier of loose resins, they are good "natural" products, as far as we can tell (as you point out above), but the charcoal disks? I have no idea what they are like! I am going to have to investigate other ways of burning resins I think.

Thanks again for the thoughts I will certainly mention the health concerns to my coven and, like alcohol and nicotine, let them make their minds up.


In one of the studies, PAH levels inside a temple where incense was burned were about equal to that found at a traffic intersection in Taiwan or produced in a graphite-electrode producing plant, so frequent incense use is on par or, depending on what you're burning, more extreme than environmental pollutants. For the people I know who developed forms of cancer from incense smoke, these are folks who get up in the morning and have incense lit and burning from 8 AM to midnight, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Even the worst chain smoker has times when they don't have a cigarette lit. I think that's where it gets really squicky for me is that kind of constant use...and it might just be a U.S. thing to always have incense lit when you're awake. 


By no means to I think that there's never a time for incense use... although I'm trying to justify *why* it is needed and aside from "because it looks awesome and witchy", I'm having a rough time finding valid reasons.


FWIW, in a typical ritual, we go through anywhere between 2-4 charcoal tablets with homemade incense or 6-12 incense sticks, so that's the levels I'm looking at.

Oh, forgot to add that as far as elemental representation goes, up until now, the few times I needed/required/wanted a physical symbol, I used a feather or a leaf. Within the Hekatean praxis, which is rapidly shaping and dominating my overall practice and modus operandi, the Hekatean Rod is of the Element of Air, while the Pillar of Air (a stone magically "forged" into an embodiment of Air) is the "foundation" tool for any elemental representation of Air from now on.

I think that it's a matter of dosage more than anything else. There is a world of difference between inhaling incense once a month and having incense burning day in day out in a room. The issues found in places like churches come up because in those places, they never stop burning candles and incense - but in a personal home, there is nothing wrong or dangerous in burning incense every once in a while. :)


As we are now, the simple act of breathing is cancerous, and eating is also cancerous, and going outside is cancerous - not to mention hazardous - and etc. etc. At some point, one has to make the decision to live and stop fearing the various hazards that science comes up with LOL.


I've been burning incense for most of my life - I have phases where I burn some every day, and then I'll spend months without any. I see no difference in our health - nor in my son's, who has suffered childhood asthma and still is sensitive to smoke. I notice a greater difference in air quality between summer (open windows) and winter (closed windows) than when I burn incense or not.


So, in my view, incense is like butter, or sugar, or salt: a little is safe, too much will harm you, so use in moderation. But, for mystique's sake, *do* use it if you like it. :D

FWIW, in a typical ritual, we go through anywhere between 2-4 charcoal tablets with homemade incense or 6-12 incense sticks, so that's the levels I'm looking at.


Ah, that is indeed a considerable amount. In my case, it would be half a stick for an average ritual (I used less and I would probably use more depending on the case at hand).


As far as the other things, I stand corrected. :D I had no idea the amount was so grandiose.


ETA: (Why do I keep forgetting to address all points in *one* post?) By no means to I think that there's never a time for incense use... although I'm trying to justify *why* it is needed and aside from "because it looks awesome and witchy", I'm having a rough time finding valid reasons.


In my case, I don't use incense as a representation of Air, although its associated qualities and attributes do reinforce the reasons I'm using it for. The reasons themselves are, more or less, the following: it is used as an empowerment in workings, enhancing the goal of the working or the power of the ingredients/materials depending on the type of incense burned; it is used as a bridge/carrier of messages between the working, myself, the powers brought forth and the Gods - a link in other words; it is used as a main tool, fulfilling certain purposes (e.g. using x incense for y role, instead of a herb or oil); and finally, it is used as a sacred tool in rituals and rites.

I think many things in our lives have risks - so being thoughtful about them is good, but letting them take away things that have other benefits is also problematic. (I'm asthmatic, btw.)


My own take is that the sense of smell is incredibly powerful, and I'd hate to lose that sense from my ritual work. There are certainly some alternatives - a oil warmer using natural oils, fresh flowers or plants, etc.) but many of those options are very diffuse, and don't work for, say, lighting a specific incense just before the invocation of a particular deity.


So, my solution is to use incense sparingly : tradition practice is a single stick, lightly used, and generally placed on the altar (so people who don't want to be near it can stand elsewhere.) We very occasionally will do the incense charcoal and specific incense for invocation. My practice moves that further along to using incense from known providers who are clear about their ingredients (I like Devonshire, but there are certainly others), and for personal ritual where I use it, I'll often light it, let it burn for 10 minutes, and put it out again - just long enough for the circle casting steps it's used for, and to give a light fragrance to the room. (I also run an air filter all the time anyway.)


And when working with others, part of our early discussions before someone is invited to ritual is a discussion about our incense practices, and whether they have any allergies or sensitivities. (Due to specifics in the tradition, I'd have to do some negotiation with other elders to drop it entirely, but I'm generally open to considering a different brand or scent.)


In that quantity (2, maybe 3 times a month), I'm honestly getting a lot more exposure to chemicals of concern from many cleaning products, including the natural ones.


I also look at other ways to include scent - oil warmers aren't great for some things, but they're wonderful for a low-key scent in a room. I use perfume rather than incense for most of my personal work, both because I enjoy it more, and because it's less likely to bother my lungs. And it's easier to a) get it from sources that are clear about their ingredient sourcing and b) to dilute it to a very manageable level if I wish. (Normally, I just apply very sparingly: a drop on my wrists that's then rubbed in the appropriate location, depending on what I'm using it for - heart, back of neck, etc.)

Interesting piece! thank you! How is the risk when you simply burn sage or Verbena leaves? I rarely use charcoal (I think I just finished the packet of twelve I bought when I first started practicing 11 years ago) as the smoke is usually not worth it for me. I do burn herbs, raisins and woods but over a flame. That way the smoke is minimal but the scent still comes off. 


I don't really like the pre-rolled sticks as I can't see a natural way for raisins, herbs and others to transform into that so that's been out for about six or seven years. In all honesty, the element of Air is usually a bit neglected in solitary ritual ;) I simply feel it's always around, anyway so a large feather in a vase is enough for me. Sometimes also because I don't want to add the element of Fire to my Air corner. I do, sometimes, burn essential oils on the altar. I have no idea how harmful that is.


All in all, I think a lot of things will kill your in the long run, hell; our bodies kill us in the long run by wearing out. We'll die anyway. I am very careful with everything else so I'm allowed my (very occasional) vice ;)


Still, it's good to be informed, so thank you!


I have not actually burned any incense of nearly a year now and now i burn essential oils in a burner, but i have not thought about these concerns before.


I have always despised cigarrette smoke for the health issues it arises, and so i am shocked and, at the same time, not surprised that incense could have the same effect.


Thanks for the heads up, it is indeed something to think about.



I've also never been fond of cigarette smoke, in fact my father died from the early stages of emphysema brought on by smoking, but we have always been heavy incense burner's. I have always made a point of keeping my animals out of rooms filled with incense and ventilating them afterwards, but I've never considered my own health in regards to incense.


I simply love incense especially in the bathroom, where it mixes with the hot steam, and there have never been health warnings about incense even though I myself have wondered about my trouble breathing sometimes (when its a heavy incense time) and the incense, sometimes, my eyes even burn while in a ventilated room, where I'm simply trying to get rid of the smell my cat makes. I have found a shop that sells nice sprays so I think I'm likely to use those instead now and only use incense for Sabbats and Esbats. 


Another point is like Alorer I cannot get away from second hand smoke, almost all my friends smoke and I live near a place where there are often factory fumes, as well burning tyres and going to the city for varsity is just disgusting smog. It's impossible to get away from it completely, but I would never willingly inhale car fumes. this has definitely given me food for thought. 

These are the reasons why I make my own and look for means to burn them without the use of charcoal. However I do understand the burning of anything has it's risks as well, especially when consistently exposed to it indoors.


I can testify too about the health improvements in my home, with the discontinued use of burning primarily commercial incense.  Any incense that I do burn now is of my own making, not on charcoal, in a well ventilated area and seldom.  I find oil burners, potpourri/potpourri simmering pots and fragrant candles make good alternatives for incense without all the smoke. 


Absolutely, feel free to share with whomever. I'm glad that it is giving people something to think about. There's no real hard-and-fast answers, but as long as people are making their decisions based on knowledge and thought, I think that's a great thing. :)

Seren Haf said:

Thank you for posting this, its given me something to think about.

I use incense at home and in ritual, although I never burn incense carelessly.. I personally love the smell and don't mind the residual scent

I'm a non smoker and do not allow smoking in my home and never burn incense when there are other people here [ in case of allergic reaction or just them not liking it]

I buy my incense and charcoal from a responsible supplier...but will re think buying more

Thank you again for this it alright if I share this with my friends?

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