Writer Ishani Mukherjee discusses whether there is a darker side to incense we should be aware of.
I have been an avid user of a Middle Eastern incense called Bakhoor for a while. The incense usually burns on top of charcoal to allow it to smoke well. My day usually doesn’t start without it, and the beautiful, sweet scent had become a signature for my room. What I had initially failed to realise was that one of my flatmates was having an allergic reaction from its scent. Upon discovering this, I began to consider what actually constituted the product. The back of the packaging had more chemicals than I could have fathomed.
Incense has been part of religious and spiritual practices for centuries. It has recently become a popular trend on the “wellness” side of social media, the swirling smoke and invigorating scents featuring in many a morning or evening routine, with the incense industry estimated to have grown by around eight to 10 percent between 2018 and 2019. Having an invigorating scent can help you start your day off productively, and for others it may be a relaxing night-time habit. The supposed benefits of incense are endless, having been found to have anti-inflammatory and anti-depressant effects as well as aiding sleep and concentration. However, despite its widespread use, the health risks associated with the overuse of incense are not very well publicised.
“Despite its widespread use, the health risks associated with the overuse of incense are not very well publicised…”
Traditionally, incense was made from plant oils or other natural products, the base being made with resins like frankincense and myrrh, aromatic wood and bark and additions such as seeds, roots, and flowers. However, with a rise in popularity, the industry has resorted to cheaper chemical compounds to save on production costs.
This increased use of chemicals have been found to potentially aggravate lung diseases and increase risk of cancer. The presence of carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide found in incense smoke can cause inflammation in lung cells, triggering asthma and other respiratory problems. It is important to highlight, however, that these health effects are generally only associated with long-term exposure for long periods of time.
It is interesting to note that whilst the concentration of inhalation of incense smoke may be less than a cigarette, the two types of smoke were found to have similar toxicities and mutagenic reactions in cells. This means that the chemical composition of the smoke can cause mutation in genetic material such as DNA. It has also been highlighted that smoke concentration in enclosed spaces can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. If there are pets or young children in the house, they are especially susceptible.
“Whilst the concentration of inhalation of incense smoke may be less than a cigarette, the two types of smoke were found to have similar toxicities and mutagenic reactions in cells…”
The question that remains is: how can we enjoy incense if it poses such risks? Do we have to give the scents up entirely? One answer is to increase airflow by opening the window when burning incense in enclosed spaces. We could also consider the alternatives of plant-based incense or potpourris to help counter the unhealthy exposure. Oil diffusers are also more natural, with no smoke inhalation involved.
Although these health risks sound scary, don’t rush off and throw all of your incense away. As long as we use incense mindfully, researching the healthier brands (although this may come with a higher price tag), increasing ventilation, and incorporating other, similar items, like oil reed diffusers, there is likely very minimal risk to your health. After all, consuming too much of anything these days seems to be bad for you – everything in moderation!