Incense has long been a part of religion and culture. It’s also a popular way to relax and de-stress in our homes, wellness studios, and beyond.
The scented ash of incense burns for extended periods to release aromatic compounds. Different types of incense are shaped into sticks, cones and coils.
One of the oldest traditions that’s still going strong today is burning incense. It’s believed that the practice dates back to ancient Egypt where traces of fragrant resins like frankincense and myrrh were found in the tombs. Later it migrated to Greece, Rome and Asia where the burning of incense was part of many ceremonies including purification rites.
In the early Christian church incense was used to symbolize prayer—as mentioned in Revelation when the smoke from burning frankincense and myrrh ascends from before the throne of God. Since then it’s been an important ritual for various religions.
Incense can be consumed without any religious meaning—like art for the eyes, music for the ears or fine cuisine for the palate, it’s often simply appreciated as a refined sensory experience. This is particularly true of Indian masala incense (where several solid scented ingredients are blended together) and Chinese jingxiang (, ‘offering to ancestors/gods’). It’s also been used for chronological measurement with incense clocks—simple trails of the raw incense material that burn at specific intervals to mark time.
As a natural air freshener, incense eliminates odours and improves indoor air quality. When used with a focused intention, it can also increase productivity and enhance mental focus and concentration.
Various scents have been known to affect our emotions. Citrus scents such as orange can stimulate the senses and promote awareness, while floral scents such as rose can soothe and comfort. Sweeter scents such as cotton candy can help reduce stress levels.
The fragrances used in incense must be balanced with the odourless binder to ensure even burning, and are often mixed with water to form a malleable dough. This dough is either pressed into shaped molds to produce cone and coil incense, or kneaded into sticks of different lengths. Much Arabian and Japanese incense is made using this method.
Gum bound incense requires an oxidizer to be effective, but the quantity must be carefully proportioned to prevent the incense from drying too quickly or burning too fast. This is a difficult art to master, and the resulting incense requires special care in handling.
For centuries, people have used incense to create a peaceful environment, neutralize foul odors and provide comfort. Agarbattis also have antibacterial properties and burning them helps reduce germs in the air. Moreover, the scent of incense stimulates the sense of smell. This, in turn, activates the limbic system of the brain and triggers a response to certain memories and emotions.
Besides, burning incense releases beneficial chemicals that relieve stress and anxiety. A 2008 study found that frankincense smoke alleviated depression and anxiety in mice by stimulating a receptor protein.
The soothing aroma of incense can also help with sleep problems. It has been proven that fragrances such as lavender, chamomile and ginger can help ease anxiety, lower heart rates and induce sleep. In addition, these scents are known to soothe menstrual cramps and pain. Burning incense also purifies the air of harmful toxins and pollutants and enhances the ambiance in therapeutic centres. The sedative effect of incense also helps reduce respiratory problems.
Incense is an integral part of many religious rituals, and people often use it as a form of aromatherapy. However, it can also cause health issues if not used correctly. For this reason, you should only burn incense that is made with nontoxic materials. It is also important to keep your pets and children away from incense smoke, as it can irritate their lungs.
A study conducted by NYU Abu Dhabi revealed that daily incense burning increases the likelihood of oral infections. This is because it changes the diversity of oral microbiota.
The study used a test chamber that mimicked a living room and burned 2 types of incense sticks. The researchers then observed the gases and particulates in the room. The study showed that the PM levels in the air increased when incense was burnt. The PM fractions triggered oxidative stress and enhanced random biochemical reactions in human alveolar epithelial cells. This aggravated DNA-damage markers like 8-hydroxydeoxyguanosine.