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What Is Incense? History, Ingredients, How-To's, & Benefits

incense and tarot cards

What is incense used for? 

Incense is a biological aromatic material that releases scented smoke when burnt. It is usually made from plant matter or essential oils to give it a certain scent. It can be used in aromatherapy or to simply create a pleasing aroma in the home. Burning incense has a long religious and spiritual history and remains an important ritual for many. Incense is also known to have some health benefits too.

Incense throughout history 

From fumigating tombs to preparing altars and clearing out negative energy from a space, incense has been a part of ceremony and healing for centuries. It’s believed that it all started with the ancient Egyptians who would use incense to chase out the less than pleasant scents that lingered in the tombs of the dead. Traces of Frankincense and Myrrh have been found in the burial chambers of Ancient Egypt. 

It has also been traced back to India and the southern shores of Asia where as early as the 4th century, it was used for prayer, religious ceremonies, and purifying a space all while warding off negative energies. The practice then spread to China where it was also used in ancient Chinese ceremonies. It’s even believed that as far back as the 12th century, buildings in China were specifically designed for the burning of incense. That’s how important it was in the culture. Incense showed up in Japan in the 6th century and then again later in the 15th century. It was used for everything from samurai warriors prepping for battle to ceremonial arts in the upper class. 

While incense has traveled a long way, from the spice routes that crossed Arabia to the Mediterranean, we still hold incense close to our ceremonial hearts. Even to this day, incense is used in a similar way. From the catholic church to Buddhist monks and Hinduism, the use of incense plays a major role in all kinds of ritualistic practices and offerings. 

Different types of incense 

incense cone burning

If the idea of incense is calling to you, there are different ways you can welcome this sweet-scented ceremony into your world. From sticks to powders and cones, there are various methods for welcoming scented magic. 

  • Incense sticks/ joss sticks - To make incense sticks, bamboo sticks are coated with incense or have the scent adhered to them.
  • Resins - These are natural substances that are ‘tapped’ from the tree. This kind of incense is usually used in churches and ceremonies.
  • incense cones - The cone is made from aromatic oils and combustible materials that are shaped together
  • Incense coils - The coil comes in a spiral shape and shares similar burning properties to the stick, although it will burn for much longer. 
  • Incense powders - To make the powder - essential oils, plant matter, and resins and woods are ground down until fine

What incense is made of 

Incense is made of biomaterials - plants, woods, and all kinds of natural matter. The very first forms of incense were made from woods, oils, and resins. Of course, as time has gone on, a few more ingredients have been added to enhance the scents and to keep them burning for even longer. For example, a typical incense stick is made of 21% herbal and wood powder, 35% fragrance, 11% will be adhesive powder, and then the rest will be the bamboo stick. 

Here are some of the most popular incense scents and some of the vibes they bring to the table.

Amber - for comfort and calling on the truth. Amber is all air and fire and helps us to find our inner wisdom.

Sandalwood - for healing, removing any kind of negative energy and encouraging peace.

Frankincense - for purification and power, and welcoming riches into our world.

Patchouli - for earthly pleasures, high attraction, and calling in wealth.

Cinnamon - for grounding, protection, and invoking our inner power

Citrus - for a boost of energy, confidence, and to let the sun shine down on us

Coconut -for calmness and chastity. 

Dragons Blood - for power, balance, courage, and appetite.

Bergamot - A balanced sweet scent that holds earthy notes and invites courage, motivation, power and assertion. 

Cedar - Earthy, golden, and perfect for purification and for cleansing a space.

Clove - Helps with pain relief and can improve memory and focus

Eucalyptus - Encourages positive breathing, cleanses a space, and brings enlightenment

Ginger - A fiery element that is great for casting spells and bringing energy and heat

Green Tea - Can ward off bacteria and viruses in the home and can strengthen the nervous system.

Jasmine - Increases creativity, helps with self-esteem, raises the element of love.

Lavender - Soft and nurturing and can be used to encourage a space of rest and sleep.

Lemongrass - Lifts mood, improves focus, and cuts out feelings of fatigue.

Myrrh - An ancient scent used for protection, purification, and amplifying friendship

Palo Santo - This scent has been used for thousands of years by sages and healers. Palo Santo is known for its energetic protection and for sweeping negative energy from a space.

Pine - Earthy and protective, this winter scent can also warm the soul

Rose - Brings notes of love and connection and also helps to enhance fertility.

Vanilla - Uplifting and soothing, it also helps to cool a space and dissolve anger.

White Sage - Purifies sacred spaces, removes bad energy, and heals the body, mind and soul.

Ylang Ylang - A scent linked to high levels of euphoria. 

How to light incense 

woman burning incense

Each different type of incense will have its own method of lighting and learning how incense burning works only adds to the whole lush ritualistic element of it. Some methods are easier than others - for example, the stick method is simply a matter of directly burning the raw material. Whereas the resin and the powder take a little more precision and care. Fortunately, there are plenty of incense paraphernalia items on the market to help make burning your plant materials as safe, secure, and simple as possible. The last thing you want is a stressful incense burning experience so be sure to play it safe, don’t leave your incense unattended, and always snuff out embers and keep your incense away from anything considered to be flammable. 

How to use incense sticks

Incense sticks (sometimes called joss sticks) are one of the most popular methods for burning. Usually crafted from bamboo sticks coated in incense, they are super easy to use. You simply place the incense stick into a holder and light the end of it. As soon as the flame catches, it will either die down or you will need to gently blow it out. The stick will start to ooze smoke. They can smolder for various amounts of time depending on the stick, but they usually last between 20 minutes and an hour.

how to use incense cones 

The cone-shaped incense tends to be more intense than the stick or even the coil. These guys usually billow out smoke and bring big cleansing energy with it. They also produce a high amount of heat so definitely need a good heat-proof base to keep them safe and stable. You can throw down a layer of salt or sand if you want to add some extra heat-proofing into the mix. The cone should have its point facing heavenwards and this is the part that you light. The cones actually burn for less time than the other methods but they do produce way more smoke.

How to burn incense powder 

The powder is scattered over charcoal and it's the charcoal that provides the burning element. There are special charcoal discs you can buy specifically for incense burning. This method definitely turns up the heat and it's super important to have a safe vessel for your charcoal. You need to hold a flame to the charcoal for a good 20 seconds or so until it ignites. Let it burn for a while before throwing on your incense powder. The powder can burn up in seconds so you will need to keep adding to it. This method creates intense heat and intense levels of scent too.

How to use coil incense

Coils are a great option for when you are bringing fragrance or creating a ceremony in a larger space, You will need to find a larger flatter holder for the incense coil and specially made holders even come with clips to hold your incense in place. Again, you light the end, blow out the flame and let the smoke drift out. 

How to put out incense 

Incense will usually burn itself right out, but for those who don’t want to wait for it to burn all the way down or for those who want to take extra precautions to ensure it's out fully, there are ways you can snuff it out. While you can use water to extinguish your incense this may not be the best practice if you want to continue to use the incense again as water can affect the way it burns. Other methods could include cutting the tip-off (if you are using a stick) or using a proper snuffer. With the cones and coils, you can blow or fan them until they are naturally extinguished. 

Incense burners 

You can also get incense burners which are usually made from ceramics or clay. These can be super ornate or simple and they come in a whole range of styles. You often are shaped and painted and have holes for dispersing the smoke. They are cute and fun and can be anything from a cozy little mushroom to an epic depiction of shiva. 

Incense benefits 

woman with singing bowl burning incense

With thousands of years of history behind it, incense comes with many deep healing benefits. We are sensory creatures and botanicals have long been teaching us that herbal remedies, natural spices, and certain scents can have a major impact on us. Whether you want to use incense to calm your monkey mind or if you are looking to kick some bad juju out from a space, take a look at all the ways you can use incense for aromatherapy, wellness, and a whole host of positive health effects too.

Clears out negative energy

Incense is so good at clearing out negative energy that it can literally change the feeling of a space. It’s always good to use incense for smudging and to clear a room after any kind of tension and conflict. Energy can linger in a space and it can crowd out our own energy. This is why performing an incense ceremony or simply just lighting stick incense can sweep out previous vibes and make space for your own energy to shine. You can do this when moving house, before starting a project, or just when you want to freshen and reset the tone.

As part of your spirituality

Religious practices and rites have a long history with incense and are a popular ritual to this very day. If you want to connect with your own kind of prayer or practice, you can use incense to help with that whether that's Buddhism, catholicism, Hinduism or any religion that works with prayer and ritual. Also for those who are into spiritual practices, you can use incense as part of these rituals too. From chakra cleansing with essential crystals to a tarot reading, incense can also encourage the right energy for higher connection in your space.

Calms the body and helps focus

If you are gearing up for any kind of meditation, dream recall work, journaling, or any kind of ritual or practice where you need to calm the body and connect to your inner focus, then incense is awesome for it. Frankincense is a good scent for meditation and the fresh pop of citrus can help our bran to tune in. 

Reduces anxiety

These are anxious times and regulating the nervous system is a must for self-soothing. As sensory creatures, our sense of smell can have a massive impact on how calm we are feeling. Have you ever crushed rosemary in your hand when feeling tense? It's an instant soul soother. Incense works in the same way. Incense can also encourage the body to release serotonin which is an instant pick me up. You can use lullaby scents like lavender and soft sandalwood to slow down your heart rate and cut back on anxious thoughts and feelings.

Encourages sleep

If you are someone who struggles to shut down at night, incense can help carry you off into the land of nod. Sometimes good sleep can be all about ritual and this is exactly what incense does best. By lighting incense before bedtime, you are letting that soft energy cleanse the space, regulate the nervous system, reduce anxiety and prepare you for the end of the day. Of course, it makes sense to use the most soothing incense scents you can find like lavender or jasmine.

Can increase desire

There are certain scents out there that stir up our sexuality, our desire for connection, and our want for touch. If you feel like setting the mood, then turn to shades and scents of rose, vanilla, and jasmine to awaken your sexuality, soften the body, and get very much into the mood.

As part of yoga practice

Set intention and transform your space into a calming healing oasis all by lighting a little incense. Creating a temple for your practice, you can turn to the healing scents of sandalwood, sage, lotus, and frankincense to set the tone. 

To stimulate creativity 

Incense can be an amazing way of kickstarting your creative heart! If you have been feeling stagnant or low in the creative department, then let a scent wash over you, purge the space, and finetune your focus to create something that matters to you. Not only can incense help prepare you to set this intention, but with scents like Dragon’s Blood or any scents that are pure earth and fire - you can find your creative chi all stirred up.

For medicinal reasons

Incense can help with healing. There are so many health benefits that can be gained from burning incense as our body reacts in positive ways to pleasing aromas. As mentioned, incense can encourage the brain to release serotonin which can have a powerful impact on our mental health. It can also help to stabilize our moods, reduce fatigue and headaches, and stimulate higher energy levels. Burning incense can definitely help to soothe the body and in turn this can have a knock on effect on everything from your hormones to your sleep patterns.

Because you like it

Is there any better reason for any practice in this world than ‘just because you like it? Incense should totally be about pleasure and joy and celebrating our own desires. Pick a scent you love, light it up, and just breathe deep into the beauty of this moment.

Is Incense smoke bad for you? 

incense burning in ceremonial place

Incense has a whole host of benefits but like everything in life, nothing comes completely risk-free. There has been plenty of research into incense smoke and whether or not it can have an ill effect on your health. Some studies came back as showing that there may be a link between increased risks of carcinomas from inhaling a lot of incense. A study back in 2009 also showed that incense could contain small particulate matter which could be carcinogenic.

In terms of health and wellbeing, it's also important to note that if you struggle with asthma, incense smoke may kickstart asthma issues. It’s worth noting with the research behind the increased risks and incense can be tricky. One study compared the risk of inhaling incense smoke to the same as inhaling cigarette smoke, however inhaling cigarette smoke is a much more direct experience than passively inhaling incense. Also in these studies, only certain kinds of incense were used so the results can’t be linked to every kind of incense out there. Some studies were also paid for by tobacco companies which further lends a biased light.

There are plenty of things out there that we need to weigh up the health and wellbeing factors. For example, if we weigh up incense helping reduce stress and tension (known for causing high blood pressure, heart issues, etc) does that negate the potential effects of inhaling a small amount of smoke? Again, these decisions are purely personal and we can’t guide you one way or another. Having awareness, exploring the research, and picking your own path will ultimately be the best choice for you as an individual. 

It is worth noting that choosing incense that is created from the most natural ingredients possible is going to be better for you than opting for anything synthetically made. When shopping around for your incense goodies make sure that you check the ingredients. Anything listed as ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ is a sign that there are some synthetic ingredients stashed in your incense. 

Here are some quick do’s and don’t for when working with incense. 

Do

  • Open a window a little bit after or even during your burning to not overwhelm the senses of the space.
  • Always choose all-natural incense 
  • Only burn one incense at a time
  • Make sure that your incense is well and truly extinguished before you leave the space

Don’t

  • Ever leave your incense unattended. Any kind of heat is a fire risk
  • Use incense that has synthetic properties
  • Inhale too much smoke especially if you have sensitive lungs or any kind of respiratory issue

A Final Thought

Incense can bring so much beauty and healing to your world. It’s a gorgeous ritual to get into and can help soothe the soul, cleanse a space, and encourages you to welcome in ritual and intention which ups our mindfulness when moving through life. Just make sure that when perusing the world of incense that you stay safe and that you select incense from companies that use all-natural ingredients rather than the synthetic kind. Synthetic incense can actually add to air pollution whereas natural incense can be a rich and rewarding experience.

What are your thoughts on incense? Do you have a favorite scent or ritual you turn to? Share all your thoughts with us in the comments. 

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