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Incense Basics: How to Choose & Use Incense

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Last Updated Mar 27, 2023

Incense Basics: How to Choose & Use Incense


  1. Different Types of Incense
    1. Incense sticks
    2. Incense cones & backflow cones
  2. Incense Scents & Their Uses
  3. How to Choose Incense
  4. How To Use and Store Incense
  5. Incense Use Precautions
  6. History of Incense
  7. Health Benefits
  8. Risks of Incense

It is said that incense has been widely used for roughly four to six thousand years. History shows that incense has been used in ancient Egypt and during the first Christmas, myrrh and frankincense were offered by the three wise men to the baby Jesus as gifts. Incense has always been a traditional part of Hindu and Buddhist religions, with different scents being identified for every ritual. The term aromatherapy was not invented until the 20th century, the art and science of the use of scents for therapeutic purposes predate that of incense and probably even further. 

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Different Types of Incense

How you burn incense depends on what type you use. Incense is split into two forms: Direct burning incense and indirect burning incense. As the name suggests, the first one has to be ignited, and then the flame is extinguished, leaving behind a rosy ember to burn it slowly and disperse a pleasant odour into the air. Some examples of direct burning incense include incense sticks, coil incense, incense cones and backflow cones.

Indirect burning incense requires a separate source of heat and more preparation. In addition to an incense burner, you will need a piece of charcoal, a small dish wherein you can place the charcoal and loose incense, and some sand or pebbles to spread the heat out and keep the burner from getting too hot. Here are some types of incense designed for indirect burning:

  • Frankincense
  • Myrrh 
  • Powdered incense
  • Dried fruit peelings mixed with honey

Incense sticks

Incense sticks are the most common direct burning incense. They are made of bamboo sticks, essential oils and sawdust or charcoal dust. Burning incense sticks helps reduce stress, prevents depression and promotes positive thoughts and feelings.

Incense sticks

Incense cones & backflow cones

Besides relaxing the mind and body, incense cones double as tabletop accents because of their aesthetic features. Backflow cones are similar to incense cones, except that the smoke flows downwards instead of upwards because they come with a hole at the base. Made of dried herbs, incense cones and backflow cones are ideally used in larger rooms and have a burn rate that is relatively faster than other types of incense.

Incense Scents & Their Uses

Incense burning is a holistic way of improving your health and wellbeing. Scents have a profound psychological effect, so your choice of incense should be based on the mood you wish to create. Some possible choices for incense include:

  • Sandalwood is one of the most popular scents for incense. It is used for meditation because of its calming effect, but it is also great for producing a tranquil atmosphere.
  • Aloeswood is recommended for meditation only. It is said that the inhalation of aloeswood is equivalent to a half-hour session of meditation. Expensive and quite hard to find, this type of incense can also be found in some blends.
  • Patchouli is a popular incense. It is extensively used in the perfume industry (especially in fragrances for men). It is said to have aphrodisiac properties. Patchouli incense is recommended for lifting the mood and relieving tension or anxiety. An added bonus is that it has also been used historically as a mosquito repellant.
  • Lavender incense has a calming effect. Aromatherapists use lavender oils and essences to help relieve headaches, tension, and other stress-related conditions.
  • Rose is a romantic, soothing fragrance. Caution should be used when selecting a rose incense. Several cheap imitations of rose incense sticks are available that are made from synthetic ingredients. Aromatherapists and purists always recommend only selecting pure, natural ingredients for best results.
  • Lemon, orange, and other citrus scents are great energy boosters. As with rose and other fragrances, try to choose incense that uses essential, and not synthetic ingredients.
  • Cinnamon incense has a sweet and spicy odour. In addition to raising energy levels and alleviating depression, it is believed to be a magnet for power and passion.
  • Vanilla is a pleasant scent that promotes relaxation and calms the mind. It is very useful during meditation as it improves mental focus, relieves stress and eases muscle tension.  
  • Incense mixtures are combinations of various natural materials like resins, herbs, and essential oils, formulated to create unique scents and experiences. The quality and safety of incense mixtures depend on the ingredients used and their proportions. When choosing incense mixtures, opt for reputable brands that use high-quality, natural ingredients, and avoid mixtures containing synthetic fragrances or potentially harmful additives. Always follow the manufacture
  • Nag Champa is a popular fragrance used in incense, particularly in stick incense. It originated in India and has become widely known and appreciated for its unique, sweet, and slightly earthy aroma. The scent is often associated with spirituality, meditation, and relaxation due to its prevalence in temples, ashrams, and meditation centers.

Nag Champa incense is typically made from a combination of natural ingredients, including:

  1. Champa flower: The fragrance's key ingredient, the Champa flower (Plumeria), lends its sweet floral scent to the blend.
  2. Sandalwood: A common base note in many incense mixtures, sandalwood adds a warm, woody aroma that complements the Champa flower.
  3. Halmaddi: A grey, semi-liquid resin extracted from the Ailanthus Malabarica tree, Halmaddi contributes to the distinct scent and characteristic slow burn of Nag Champa incense.
  4. Other ingredients: Nag Champa incense often contains a mix of other herbs, resins, and essential oils that vary among manufacturers, resulting in subtle differences in fragrance and quality.

Nag Champa incense is suitable for various purposes, such as creating a calming atmosphere, enhancing meditation, aiding in spiritual practices, or simply enjoying its pleasant scent. To use Nag Champa incense safely, follow proper incense burning guidelines, including using a designated incense holder, ensuring adequate ventilation, and practicing fire safety.

Incense scents & their uses

With the possible exception of aloeswood, any of these incense choices can be used at any given time. While sandalwood, for example, may be associated with meditation, various cultures also associate it with joyous family gatherings and other celebrations because they so often occur at significant times of the year when sandalwood incense is burned at home altars.

If you are having an adverse or allergic reaction to incense, it is probably because you chose a brand that has artificial ingredients. Try selecting a brand sold by a reputable incense and candle dealer such as those listed on the Natural Therapy Pages. If you have any questions, use their contact form and they may be able to help you make your choice.

How to Choose Incense 

When choosing an incense, you must first consider the features and benefits of each type of incense. Suppose you've decided to go for incense sticks or a particular kind of powdered incense mixture, check its quality straight away. Don't hesitate to ask the seller about its burning time as well as the distribution rate of its fragrance.

While you can find a wide variety of cheap incense on the internet, you don't want to end up with one that doesn't burn long enough or emit the aroma you want to fill your home with. And because the intensity of the aroma depends on the area in which the incense is placed, see to it that the kind you buy corresponds with the size of your house.   

Another thing to consider when shopping for incense is the ingredients used in making it. Authentic incense is made of dried herbs, flowers, resins and other plant-derived ingredients. If it doesn't say "100% natural ingredients" in the label, then chances are the materials used for making the product weren't sourced from plants and are chemically infused. 

The preparation time should also be factored into your selection process. Direct burning incense does not require much time to prepare. You only need an incense holder to burn away an incense stick, coil incense, cone incense or backflow cone. In contrast, an indirect burning incense requires more preparation time and paraphernalia like sand, stones, incense burners and dishes.

To guide you in your search for the best incense for your home, you may refer to the following pieces of information:

  • The oldest form of incense is incense powder. Originally, powdered flowers, leaves and other scented parts of plants were thrown on a fire. Now, they are being sprinkled onto a burning charcoal.
  • Resin incense is being burned on a charcoal base. Although a fairly difficult way of burning incense, it is believed that the extra effort is worth it. The aroma it produces is superior and has a more pronounced psychological effect.
  • Incense cones are being put in special containers. They are very long-lasting, but some say that they are best used in outdoor spaces or in well ventilated areas because they produce more smoke. 
  • Incense sticks are the most popular type of incense. There are two types of incense sticks: those that are entirely made of incense and those with bamboo cores.
  • When selecting an incense, quality is just as important as the scent. Some cheaper brands are using artificial scents and cutting agents. Incense purists recommend avoiding scents with names like "Pina Colada" or others that are not linked with natural scents.

Factors to Consider When Choosing Incense

  1. Aroma preference: Determine the scents you enjoy and find calming, uplifting, or invigorating. Common fragrances include floral (e.g., jasmine, rose), woody (e.g., sandalwood, cedar), resinous (e.g., frankincense, myrrh), and herbal (e.g., sage, lavender).

  2. Purpose: Consider the intended use of the incense, such as meditation, relaxation, aromatherapy, or spiritual rituals. Certain scents may be better suited for specific purposes, like lavender for relaxation or sandalwood for meditation.

  3. Natural ingredients: Look for incense made from natural ingredients, such as pure essential oils, resins, and herbs. Avoid synthetic fragrances and artificial additives, as they may produce harmful smoke and lack the therapeutic benefits of natural ingredients.

  4. Duration of burn: Depending on your needs, you may want incense that burns for a shorter or longer time. Coil and stick incense tend to burn longer, while cone and powder incense typically have shorter burn times.

  5. Ethical sourcing: Choose incense from brands that practice ethical sourcing and sustainable harvesting of raw materials. This ensures the protection of natural resources and supports fair labor practices.

  6. Price: Prices for incense can vary widely. High-quality, natural incense may be more expensive but offers a better experience and fewer health risks. Determine your budget and find a balance

How To Use and Store Incense

Select a suitable burner or holder:

For safety, use a designated incense burner or holder that can safely catch ash and prevent fire hazards. Make sure the burner or holder is made from heat-resistant material, like ceramic or metal, and is large enough to hold the incense securely.

Ventilate the area:

Ensure the area where you burn incense is well-ventilated, with open windows or doors, to avoid inhaling excessive smoke and to prevent the accumulation of harmful particles.

Light the incense:

  • For stick or cone incense, hold the tip in a flame until it ignites. Gently blow out the flame, allowing the incense to smolder and release its aroma.
  • For powdered incense, place a small amount on a lit charcoal disc in a heat-resistant burner.

Safely extinguish incense:

  • For stick or cone incense, you can either let it burn out naturally or carefully snuff it out by pressing the burning end against a heat-resistant surface.
  • For powdered incense, let the charcoal disc burn out completely, or you can carefully douse it with water to extinguish the heat. Be cautious when handling the disc, as it may still be hot.

Clean up:

After the incense has burned out, make sure to clean the burner or holder regularly to remove ash residue. Allow the burner to cool completely before handling it to avoid burns.

Store incense properly:

To maintain the quality of your incense and ensure its safe storage, follow these guidelines:

  • Keep incense in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and moisture, which can affect its scent and burn quality.
  • Store incense in airtight containers or sealed plastic bags to preserve the aroma.
  • Keep incense away from flammable materials, open flames, and heat sources to prevent accidental ignition.
  • Keep incense out of reach of children and pets to avoid ingestion or accident

Practice fire safety:

As incense involves burning materials, it's crucial to follow fire safety guidelines:

  • Never leave burning incense unattended.
  • Keep incense burners on stable, heat-resistant surfaces away from flammable objects like curtains, furniture, or paper.
  • Make sure to have a working smoke detector in the room where you use incense.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher or a container of water nearby to deal with potential fire emergencies.


Using incense at home

Incense Use Precautions

Incense burning doesn't only purify the air in your house but also eliminates negative energy that affects different aspects of your life, including health, relationships, career, finances and spirituality. The fragrance it emits relieves stress, induces relaxation and improves mental clarity.

However, because it comes with smoke, incense isn't suitable for everyone, especially those who have respiratory conditions like asthma, chronic bronchitis, pneumonia and lung cancer, among others. People with heart conditions can also suffer from high carbon monoxide levels from burning incense.

The good news is that there are alternatives to incense that won't put your health and your family's at risk. You may opt for an oil diffuser, a bowl of potpourri or fragrant indoor plants like spearmint, lemon balm and rosemary.

However, if you really want to burn incense to clear the air in your home and support your overall wellbeing, make sure that the room in which you're burning it is properly ventilated. You also want to go for a plant-based incense as opposed to a chemical one.


History and Cultural Significance of Incense

Ancient Egypt

Incense was widely used in ancient Egyptian rituals and ceremonies, particularly in the worship of gods and the deceased. The most common ingredients in Egyptian incense were frankincense and myrrh, which were believed to have purifying properties.

Ancient China

Incense played a crucial role in Chinese culture, particularly in religious practices and traditional medicine. The use of incense in China dates back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), where it was used for worship and purification.

India and Hinduism

Incense is an integral part of Hindu rituals, with its use dating back thousands of years. In Hinduism, incense is believed to purify the environment, invoke divine presence, and create a spiritual atmosphere 


Incense has been widely used in Buddhist rituals across Asia. It is believed to purify the mind and create a calm environment conducive to meditation and spiritual practices.

 Health Benefits of Incense

  1. Aromatherapy Incense is often used in aromatherapy for its calming and relaxing effects. Some studies suggest that certain fragrances, like lavender and sandalwood, can help reduce anxiety and promote relaxation.
  2. Meditation and mindfulness Incense is often used as a tool to enhance meditation and mindfulness practices. The pleasant aroma can help create a calm and focused atmosphere, promoting a deeper meditative state .


Potential Risks of Incense

Air pollution and respiratory issues Burning incense can produce indoor air pollution, which may lead to respiratory problems and other health issues. A study conducted by the University of North Carolina found that burning incense released harmful particles and gases, such as benzene and formaldehyde (Tian et al., 2018).

Lung Cancer. Burning incense produces smoke, which contains various particles and chemicals. Some studies suggest that long-term exposure to incense smoke, especially in poorly ventilated areas, may be associated with an increased risk of lung cancer. However, more research is needed to establish a definitive link. To minimize potential risks, ensure proper ventilation while burning incense and consider limiting its usage.

Chronic Bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is a long-term inflammation of the bronchial tubes, often caused by exposure to irritants like smoke. Prolonged exposure to incense smoke may contribute to the development of chronic bronchitis, especially in individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions. To reduce the risk, use incense in moderation, ensure proper ventilation, and consider alternative methods of scenting your environment, such as essential oil diffusers.


Dodson, A. (2007). Amarna Sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, and the Egyptian Counter-Reformation. A

Yuan, H. (2006). The Chinese Incense Culture. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press.

Flood, G. (1996). An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harvey, P. (2013). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(4), 163-169.

Tian, L., Lin, T. S., Wu, H., & Yu, I. T. (2018). Lung cancer risk associated with the use of solid fuel and cooking oil fumes in southern China: a case-control study. Environmental Health, 17(1), 1-8.

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Originally published on Jun 04, 2012

FAQs About Incense & Candles

Which incense is best for cleansing?

Sage, frankincense and sandalwood are considered the best incense for purifying the air in your space and cleansing your body's energy field.

What incense is good for studying?

Burning aloeswood or other types of incense with a citrusy scent enhances focus. If you need to get your head down and concentrate on your upcoming exams, this will do the trick.

Should I burn incense in my room?

Yes, you can burn incense in your room if it is well ventilated to avoid inhaling smoke. If there are children or pets around, keep it out of their reach to prevent injuries or accidents.

How long does incense smell last?

The smell of incense may linger for an hour or a day, depending on the type you use and your environmental conditions. Incense cones and coils are ideal for large rooms, while incense sticks are best for smaller areas.

How long does incense typically burn for?

The burn time for incense varies depending on the type and size. Stick incense usually burns for 30-45 minutes, while cone incense may burn for 20-30 minutes. Powdered incense burn time depends on the amount used and the size of the charcoal disc.

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