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Essential Oils vs. Incense: Which is Better?

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Last Updated Jun 29, 2023

Essential Oils vs. Incense: Which is Better?

What's the difference between essential oils and incense sticks? It can be confusing to make sense of this question since both are natural aromatic products. However, there are some key differences between them which you should know about if you want to make the best possible use of them in your home. In this guide, you'll learn their historical background, how they differ in scent and therapeutic properties, as well as how to use each product safely and effectively so that you and your family can have an enjoyable yet beneficial experience.

The Historical Background of Essential Oils and Incense

The use of scents and fragrances for therapeutic purposes dates back to ancient civilizations. Essential oils and incense have played significant roles in various cultural and spiritual practices throughout history. Exploring their historical background allows us to appreciate the enduring legacy of aromatherapy and the profound impact scents have had on human wellbeing.

Ancient Egypt: One of the earliest civilisations to embrace the power of scents was ancient Egypt. Egyptians considered aromas to be divine gifts from the gods. They used essential oils extensively in religious rituals, embalming practices and beauty regimens. Fragrant oils, such as frankincense and myrrh, were highly prized and reserved for pharaohs and nobility. Essential oils were extracted through a process called maceration, where aromatic plants were soaked in oil or fat to infuse their scent.

Ancient China: In ancient China, aromatherapy was an integral part of traditional medicine. Chinese herbalists discovered the therapeutic properties of aromatic plants and developed elaborate systems to classify and use them. Essential oils were extracted through steam distillation, a technique that revolutionised the production of concentrated plant essences. The Chinese used fragrances to balance the body's energy, promote relaxation and support overall wellbeing.

Ancient India: India has a rich history of aromatic traditions deeply intertwined with spirituality and Ayurvedic medicine. The use of incense played a vital role in religious ceremonies, meditation practices and daily rituals. Incense was crafted by combining various fragrant materials, including resins, herbs, spices and flowers. It was burned to purify spaces, enhance focus and create an atmosphere of tranquility. Ayurveda recognised the therapeutic benefits of essential oils, known as "scented medicines", and utilised them for both physical and emotional healing.

Greek and Roman Civilizations: The ancient Greeks and Romans also embraced aromatherapy. Greek physicians like Hippocrates and Dioscorides documented the medicinal properties of plants and their essential oils. They recognised the importance of scents in promoting health and wellbeing. In Roman culture, aromatic plants were used in bathhouses, perfumes and religious ceremonies. The Roman army utilised essential oils for medicinal purposes and to uplift soldiers' spirits during battle.

Middle Ages and Renaissance: During the Middle Ages, the knowledge of essential oils and aromatherapy was preserved and further developed by Islamic scholars and Persian physicians. Avicenna, a Persian polymath, wrote extensively on the healing properties of aromatic plants. In Europe, the use of incense and essential oils gained prominence during the Renaissance period, with renowned figures like Paracelsus exploring their therapeutic applications.

Modern Revival: In recent centuries, the knowledge of essential oils and incense experienced a resurgence. The emergence of scientific advancements and technological innovations allowed for the production of essential oils on a larger scale. The field of aromatherapy emerged, combining traditional wisdom with modern scientific research to understand the physiological and psychological effects of scents on human health.

What are Essential Oils?

You might already be familiar with essential oils which have been used in aromatherapy for years. They're available in many different forms including essential oil diffusers, soaps and perfumes. Essential oils vary in terms of their scent and therapeutic effects, depending on the plant they come from. Some have a floral scent, while others may have a more intense or spicy aroma. The most popular essential oils on the market include lavender oil, vetiver, white sage, ylang ylang, clary sage, lemongrass and frankincense oils.

Essential oils have a range of health benefits, including:

Essential oils boast antimicrobial properties and are a natural remedy for headaches, insomnia and feelings of anxiety. Several types of essential oils, such as eucalyptus, peppermint and patchouli, are also packed with anti-inflammatory properties that may benefit people with inflammatory bowel disease such as ulcerative colitis.

Essential essential oilsSource:

What is Incense?

Incense is a popular product often used for spiritual purposes or in religious ceremonies. It's typically made from resins, herbs and other plant material which are dried then burned. Incense smoke has a range of health benefits, which is why it is used in so many homes, offices and commercial establishments. Burning high-quality incense sticks causes the following:

  • Air purification
  • Induces relaxation
  • Reduces stress levels
  • Promotes creativity

They can also be used as natural air fresheners, without the risks associated with synthetic fragrances. Incense sticks emit a woody scent that is calming to the senses since they are made from various plant components such as resin, tree bark, roots, or a variety of flowers. Nag champa, sandalwood, frankincense and sage are among the most popular types of incense.

Exploring Application Methods: Harnessing the Power of Essential Oils and Incense

Essential oils and incense offer a wide array of scents and therapeutic benefits, making them popular choices in aromatherapy practices. To fully experience their aromatic qualities and potential health benefits, it's essential to understand the various application methods available. Let's explore the different ways in which essential oils and incense can be used, allowing you to find the most suitable approach for your needs.


Inhalation is one of the most common and effective methods of experiencing the benefits of essential oils and incense. For essential oils, you can add a few drops to a diffuser, a bowl of hot water, or a personal inhaler. Inhaling the aroma helps stimulate the olfactory system, sending signals to the brain that can promote relaxation, mental clarity or other desired effects. For incense, simply burn the chosen fragrance and allow the scent to permeate the air, creating a serene atmosphere.

Topical Application

Applying essential oils topically allows for direct absorption into the bloodstream, providing localised or systemic effects. Before applying essential oils to the skin, it is crucial to dilute them with a carrier oil, such as coconut, jojoba or almond oil. This helps prevent skin irritation and allows for easier application. Massage the diluted oil onto the desired area, such as the temples for headache relief or the abdomen for digestive support. It is important to note that some essential oils are more potent and require further dilution.

Bathing and Showering

Indulging in a relaxing bath or shower enhanced with essential oils can be a soothing and rejuvenating experience. Add a few drops of your chosen essential oil to warm bathwater, allowing the aroma to fill the space as you soak. Alternatively, you can mix a few drops of essential oil with a carrier oil or unscented shower gel to create a fragrant body wash. The steam from the shower or bath helps release the scent, creating a spa-like ambiance and promoting a sense of wellbeing.

Compresses and Poultices

Compresses and poultices offer targeted application for specific concerns. To create a compress, add a few drops of essential oil to a bowl of warm or cold water. Soak a clean cloth or towel in the mixture, wring it out, and apply it to the affected area. This method is particularly useful for muscle aches, joint pain or skin irritations. Poultices involve blending essential oils with a base, such as clay or oatmeal, to create a paste. Apply the paste directly to the skin and cover with a cloth or bandage.

Incense Burning

Burning incense is a traditional and versatile method of enjoying aromatic scents. Incense comes in various forms, including sticks, cones and resins. Light the incense and allow it to smolder, releasing fragrant smoke that fills the room. Choose incense fragrances that align with your desired ambiance or mood, whether it's promoting relaxation, concentration or spiritual connection. Ensure proper ventilation while burning incense to maintain air quality and safety.

Meditation and Spiritual Practices

Both essential oils and incense have been used for centuries in meditation and spiritual practices. Their calming and centring properties help create a serene environment, aiding in focus and deepening the spiritual experience. Diffuse essential oils known for their grounding and uplifting qualities, such as frankincense or sandalwood, during meditation sessions. Burn incense known for its sacred or ceremonial significance to enhance spiritual rituals and create a sense of reverence.

Which is Better for Your Home - Essential Oils or Incense?

In terms of their scent, essential oils are typically more subtle than incense, which can often be overwhelming. This is because essential oils only contain a few concentrated plant extracts, while incense contains large amounts of powdered herbs or resins. In addition to this, essential oils aren't meant to be burned; they're diluted with a carrier oil and then used for massage therapy or in an aromatherapy diffuser to purify the air.

Incense, on the other hand, is meant to be burned to produce smoke over an extended period of time. Unlike some essential oils that can be used orally, incense should never be ingested because it contains powdered herb resins.

When choosing between essential oils and incense, it's important to first identify your purpose so that you can make an informed decision. Do you want something that will quickly fill a small space with aroma, or would you prefer a product that gradually fills up a large room? In addition to this, consider how intense you want the fragrance to be. If you need something strong but safe, then try mixing essential oils into an air freshener. There are lots of different brands out there at varying price points, so it should be easy to find one that works for you.

For large spaces, opt for an essential oil diffuser so that you can choose between a pleasant-smelling fragrance or one that's therapeutic and stress-reducing. Alternatively, use incense in smaller areas like your car, office, living room or bedroom. You can burn it in an incense tray or on charcoal blocks to produce smoke that absorbs odour molecules. However, because the scent of incense is much stronger than that of essential oils, it should be used with caution in aromatherapy.

Essential oils, on the whole, have more use in the home than incense. Essential oils can be used to make natural cleaners and air fresheners that are safe for dogs and children. Incense, on the other hand, has a limited range of applications outside of its traditional role as a meditation aid. While many varieties of incense have pleasing scents, they do not have all of the therapeutic properties that essential oils offer.

Clinical Trials and Studies on Essential Oils and Incense

Numerous clinical trials and studies have been conducted to investigate the effects and potential benefits of essential oils and incense. Here is a summary of some of the key findings:

A. Essential Oils:

  • Stress Relief: A randomised controlled trial published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine examined the impact of essential oil inhalation on stress and anxiety. The study found that certain oils, including lavender and bergamot, showed promising results in reducing stress levels and promoting relaxation.

  • Pain Management: Research published in the Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare explored the analgesic effects of essential oils in patients with chronic pain. The findings suggested that specific oils, such as peppermint and eucalyptus, when used topically or through inhalation, could help alleviate pain and improve overall wellbeing.

  • Sleep Quality: A study conducted at the University of Minnesota evaluated the efficacy of lavender essential oil in improving sleep quality. The results revealed that inhalation of lavender oil before bedtime led to a significant improvement in sleep duration and quality among participants suffering from sleep disorders.

B. Incense:

  • Mood Enhancement: In a study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology, the effects of incense burning on mood and emotions were examined. The research indicated that certain types of incense, such as sandalwood and frankincense, elicited positive emotional responses, including relaxation and a sense of wellbeing.

  • Cognitive Function: Research conducted at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine investigated the impact of incense on cognitive function and attention. The findings demonstrated that certain incense fragrances, such as cinnamon and lemon, had a positive effect on cognitive performance and increased alertness.

  • Respiratory Health: A study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine explored the effects of incense on respiratory health. The research suggested that burning certain types of incense, such as pine resin, had antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties that could potentially benefit respiratory conditions.

Originally published on Feb 14, 2022

FAQs About Essential Oils & Incense

Is incense a good air freshener?

Yes, it is. When an incense stick, coil or powder is burned or smouldered, smoke is released into the air, which eliminates unwanted odours in the room, resulting in relaxation and positive feelings.

Is it safe to breathe diffused essential oils?

It is for most people, although those with respiratory disorders such as asthma may react negatively to the fumes of diffused essential oils. It could make their condition worse or lead to a serious lung infection.

How long does incense smell last?

Most incense sticks burn for 30 minutes to an hour. However, there are certain types of incense that can burn all day, leaving the place smelling enchanting. If you want this type of incense, look for one that is made entirely of resin.

Are there specific essential oils that can alleviate chronic pain?

Research suggests that essential oils like peppermint and eucalyptus, when applied topically or inhaled, may provide analgesic effects and help manage chronic pain.

Do different types of incense have varying effects on mood?

Yes, certain types of incense, such as sandalwood and frankincense, have been found to elicit positive emotional responses, contributing to relaxation and a sense of wellbeing.

Can essential oils really help reduce stress and anxiety?

Yes, several clinical trials have shown that certain essential oils, such as lavender and bergamot, have demonstrated stress-relieving properties when inhaled or used in aromatherapy practices.

Can burning incense have any impact on cognitive function?

Researchers found that certain incense fragrances, like cinnamon and lemon, may positively influence cognitive performance and increase alertness.

Can burning incense have any negative effects on lung health?

Burning certain types of incense, such as those made from synthetic materials or containing pollutants, may release harmful particles and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. Prolonged exposure to these pollutants may potentially irritate the respiratory system and negatively impact lung health. Therefore, it is advisable to use natural and high-quality incense sparingly and in well-ventilated areas to minimise any potential risks to lung health.

Related Topics

Aromatherapy,  Massage,  Essential Oils

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