Newsflash: Your Wellness Incense May Be Harming Your Health

February 2, 2017


Incense (the stuff you burn, not how I’m feeling about the world right now) is a pretty polarizing topic. I’ve only heard someone profess a deep love or strong hatred for the stuff, and I guess it makes sense: incense, which is a natural material made of various flowers, seeds, roots, and bark, releases essential oils that give off a strong, even pungent odor when burned. Some cultures use incense for spiritual and religious purposes, while many in the West burn it because they enjoy the smell. If you’ve ever been in a yoga studio, chances are you’ve smelled this aroma wafting through the room.

We know that certain smells can induce feels of relaxation (lavender), mental clarity (citrus), and even relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression (frankincense). Proponents argue that these healing properties are what make incense effective, and it’s clearly been used across generations for exactly such purposes. But a closer examination of this practice raises some questions about the potential health risks–even it’s role as a pollutant–that are worth considering before you decide to start burning some incense of your own.

One study, which examined over 60,000 participants over a ten-year period, found that incense poses an increased risk to upper respiratory cancers. Further, this and other studies drew clear similarities between incense fumes and cigarette smoke, though there is no conclusive evidence that they are equally harmful to one’s health. Incense smoke does contain chemical irritants and toxins, which has some advocating for a warning label requirement on packaging as was done with cigarettes.

As an incense devotee, this news is pretty disheartening.* How could something that’s been around since biblical times be harmful? As with most things in life, the key is moderation. It’s not a good idea to expose yourself to these fumes for long periods of time, but this shouldn’t stop you from enjoying it from time to time (with the windows open!). Now more than ever, we have an array of other good-smelling products from which to choose. Oil diffusers, soy candles, and oil reed diffusers are just a few great alternatives.

*Full disclosure: I will probably continue to burn incense from time to time (much to my boyfriend’s chagrin–he’s convinced I’m going to burn the apartment down one of these days), but I’m excited to use my oil diffuser more often.

Do you burn incense? What are your favorite incense alternatives?

Also by Molly: These 4 Yoga Poses Will Challenge and Sculpt Your Entire Body

Related: Editor’s Picks: 7 Healthy Home Essentials

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Contributing Editor Molly Lansdowne lives in Boston, Massachusetts. In her free time, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and traveling around New England. Follow Molly on Pinterest @bostonvegan and Instagram @molly_lansdowne.


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