Delving Into the Debate – Are There Dangers in Using Incense?

Incense burning is a widespread practice for religious and personal use. While it is a pleasant fragrance, the smoke released during the burning process contains various pollutants that can cause serious health issues if inhaled regularly.

Inhaling these pollutants leads to respiratory complications, eye irritation and aggravated oxidative stress. Let’s delve into what specific pollutants incense smoke releases and the risks associated with them.


The burning of incense creates a complex mixture of irritants and toxicants. The smoke contains small, inhalable particulate matter and many of these chemicals are carcinogenic. A study in Environmental Chemistry Letters found that some of the incense ingredients were more cancerous than cigarette smoke, though this was only tested on animal cells and not humans.

Incense smoke has been shown to have a high oxidative stress potential and may cause damage to DNA. It is also possible that incense smoke can induce inflammatory responses through activation of various pathways.

While there is no official risk level set for incense, it is still important to use it sparingly and consider alternative ways of freshening your home without exposing yourself or your pets to harmful chemicals. Opening windows during and after incense use is one way to help reduce your exposure.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Volatile organic compounds are a group of carbon-containing chemicals that evaporate easily in air and are found throughout the environment. They are commonly released from burning gasoline, wood, coal and natural gas as well as paints, glues, and household and office products such as spray cleaners. VOCs also are released into water, affecting drinking water quality.

Inhaling VOCs can cause a variety of health problems, including eye and skin irritation; respiratory problems, such as asthma and allergies; and memory impairment. In addition, many of the most common VOCs are known or suspected carcinogens.

When combined with nitrogen oxides, they form ground level ozone, or smog, which reduces crop and forest yields, contributes to climate change and impacts evaporation rates, cloud formation and precipitation levels.


The particulate matter in incense smoke is easily inhaled and can contribute to a variety of respiratory problems. Several studies have linked the use of incense with lung inflammation and asthma, especially in children.

Incense smoke can also contain irritants that lead to skin irritation. One study found that regular burning of incense was associated with a higher risk for nasopharyngeal cancer.

However, it was not confirmed whether the increased incidence of nasopharyngeal tumors is directly due to incense. Since people who are exposed to incense smoke always inhale a complex mixture of gas products and particulate materials, it is difficult to single out the health effects caused by a specific substance. Generally, the adverse effects of incense smoke are believed to be due to oxidative stress and irreversible DNA damage.

Allergic Reactions

Many people use incense for religious or spiritual purposes, but there are possible dangers associated with this practice. Burning incense creates particulate matter and volatile organic compounds that can be inhaled into the lungs. These pollutants can cause respiratory problems, and can even lead to lung cancer.

Research by a graduate student in the Gillings School of Global Public Health found that burning two common types of incense (Oudh and Bahkoor) emitted large amounts of toxins into the air, including benzene, formaldehyde, and oxides of nitrogen. These chemicals irritate the lungs and induce an inflammatory response in the body.

This study only compared four different incense sticks and one cigarette, however. The study’s leader also worked for a tobacco company, so the results may be biased.


Researchers have found that incense burning can result in the release of a variety of toxicants including carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These chemicals can trigger oxidative stress in the cells of people exposed to incense smoke and cause DNA adducts that can lead to carcinogenesis.

Studies have also linked incense to lung problems such as asthma and coughing. Children are especially susceptible to these effects because their lungs and respiratory tracts are still developing.

Some people suffer from a condition known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome, in which they develop a variety of symptoms when exposed to certain chemicals including fragrances and perfumes, detergents, cleaning products and incense. This is a serious problem that can be life-threatening. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to use natural, fragrance-free incense sticks.