Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

Incense has been around for over five thousand years. The first piece of incense was probably a piece of wood such as ash; when it was burned it smelled good, and so people continued to burn it.

The word incense comes from the Latin word “incendere” which means to burn. Choices of scents can come from many different sources, including berries, bark, flowers, gums, leaves, roots, seeds, spices and woods. It can also come in many forms such as raw wood, chopped herbs, pastes and powders.

It can be made using one note of scent, or many; a “note” meaning different layers of scent. When the first note is burned, then the second comes into play. Chinese incense is generally set up to work this way. The first note is usually pleasant and the second note has a spicy scent or exotic scent.

Incense is used for many different purposes. It has been known to be used for prayer, worship, purifying air and uplifting emotions.

Archaeologists have found evidence in tombs and other places, of many different civilizations using incense. In fact, archaeologists have found that Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Arabia, Egypt, India, Greece and Rome used incense extensively.

Buddhist monks brought incense to China around 200bce, and by the Tang Dynasty (618-607) incense was allowed to be used for things other than medicine and religion. Stick incense was invented in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and it has become a permanent fixture since.

Japan was responsible for inventing the cone style of incense, and was introduced for the first time at the Chicago Fair in the late 1800’s

There are references of incense in the Old and New Testament. In fact, one of the three wise men brought the baby Jesus incense in the form of frankincense. Incense is still used in the Catholic Church today. They believe that the smoke from the incense represents their prayers rising to their God.

Hindus use it to make a comfortable and relaxing setting for their meditations, and the ancient Egyptians used it in their temples because they claimed that it drove away bad demons, and attracted the gods.

Buddhists use it today when they meditate. They believe that it induces self awareness and frees them from of negative emotions.

Many people believe that different scents can produce different benefits to our bodies. For example Lavender is purported to make you feel calmer. Researchers haven’t been able to say definitively if this is true or not.

Some researchers have begun to suspect that incense burning may pose some health concerns. Because incense is a slow burn, many believe that it gives off a lot of chemicals such as carbon monoxide, aldehydes, and respirable particles. They are of considerable concern because these particles are both upper respiratory and pulmonary system irritants. This means that they can inflame mucous membranes, and cause asthmatic attacks in sensitive individuals.

Burning incense can also produce sinaldehyde, many different kinds of aldehydes, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and acrolein. Both formaldehyde and acrolein are also mucous membrane irritants and acrolein irritates the eyes.

One study indicated that burning incense in your house at least once a week during pregnancy made it more likely that the baby would develop leukemia once your child is born.

There are things that you can do to minimize the health risks posed by incense burning.
  • Using a type of incense that is less smoky.
  • Don’t burn it for as long.
  • Ventilating the room or building once you are done burning the incense.
So there you have it, the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to incense burning. While the scent may be very relaxing and pleasant, you should keep in mind that it may cause health problems for you in the future. Try to keep your kids away from heavy incense burning.

You should also be careful when burning incense because if the stick should fall onto the floor, or something else that is flammable, it may cause a fire.

From ancient Egypt up to the present, many people have enjoyed the pleasant smells that incense can bring. Are you one of them?