Is Incense Harmful? The Facts and the Fiction

People all over the world are becoming more conscious of the harm caused by some lifestyle choices. We rightly want to know that what we put into our bodies is safe - so why is incense a worry for people? Here, our experts break down the science behind this popular, ancient tool and answer the question once and for all: is incense harmful?
botanical with fragrant smoke

Is Incense Harmful to Humans?

Sometimes yes, however, sometimes no; the real answer lies in the type, origin, and method of burning incense.
For example, an incense stick containing synthetic fillers and combustibles with very little organic plant matter can be toxic when burned regularly.
However, burning 100% plant-based, mechanically extracted incense (indirectly) can be safer and kinder to our bodies, perhaps why it is increasingly used in clinical settings.
Read on to get more of the nitty gritty on why incense can be soul and body healing, but why it can also be harmful.

Is Incense Harmful to Pets?

Many domesticated animals have more sensitive noses than humans, so potent scents combined with synthetic chemicals produced by some incense can cause some irritation.
You can easily mitigate this by ensuring you purchase incense made from only natural, unadulterated materials. However, some natural fragrances can still upset our pets - here are our favourite pet-friendly natural scents!
Lavender: dogs & cats
Chamomile: dogs & cats
Ginger: dogs
Frankincense: dogs & cats
Rosemary: dogs

What is Incense?

Incense comes from the Latin word census, meaning 'something burned'. Pretty vague, right? Well, it may surprise you to learn that the incense industry thinks so too, and this is proven by the many forms incense takes on today's market.
We break down the most common incense types and associated health risks below.

What is Natural Incense?

aromatic botanicals
Natural incense is 100% plant-based and without added chemicals or synthetics. It involves the burning of aromatic substances such as resins, essential oils, and botanicals; resins and essential oil are extracted cautiously from raw plant materials. Some examples of extraction methods are steam distillation or cold-pressing.
We like to burn our natural incense using only indirect methods, e.g. using an oil warmer. This reduces the amount of smoke and particulate matter produced and ensures the incense experience is safe and effective.

What are Incense Sticks?

burning incense stick
Incense sticks are thin pieces of wood, usually made from bamboo or sandalwood, which are dipped in a blend of fragrant plant matter, combustible wood powders, and binding agents.
Studies suggest, when set alight, the sticks produce polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These PAHs are linked to respiratory and cardiovascular issues in humans and animals.
Not only is smoke from incense sticks potentially harmful, but it also does not offer the pure scent of the plant matter. For example, a vanilla incense stick will smell vaguely like vanilla, with strong overtones of wood and synthetic fillers.

What are Incense Cones?

burning incense cone
Incense cones are similar to incense sticks, however, they do not contain a stick base, only plant matter, combustibles, fillers, and binders, which combine to form a cone shape.
This incense smoke produced may produce a slightly less woody aroma but is still contaminated by the smell of the chemicals.

What is Loose Incense?

loose incense
Loose incense is mostly a mixture of resin and dried plant matter such as leaves and petals, however, there are other forms. Because of this, there are many different ways to burn incense in its loose form.

What can make incense smoke harmful?

Burning certain types of incense can produce smoke containing toxic compounds, which in turn can have negative health effects and result in indoor air pollution. The types of incense that produce the most harmful by-products are sticks, cones and coils. This is because they burn directly; unlike burning incense on an oil warmer where a lit tea light candle heats the incense (this is much kinder on the lungs). Sticks, cones, and coils also contain a lot of added ingredients and synthetics. Read on for more details on some of these potentially harmful substances and how you can best avoid them.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)

PAHs, such as naphthalene, are a type of chemical that are by-products of burning tobacco, wood, and gasoline, among others. When released into the air, especially indoor air, they can irritate the skin and the respiratory tract.
How to ensure your incense is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon-free
If your incense is made from wood or wood-based combustibles and is directly burned, then it is likely to produce PAHs. To avoid this, it is best to go with an indirect burning incense instead.
This could be resins, essential oils, or other botanicals burned using an oil warmer or charcoal disc.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Volatile organic compounds are usually human-made chemicals produced as a result of some pretty gnarly industrial processes, such as chlorination as well as fuel and pharmaceutical production. So it may be a surprise that they can also come from burning incense indoors.
VOCs in incense smoke may be linked to lung cancer, as well as other respiratory issues. So it is best to avoid them, especially in enclosed spaces like your home.
However, this generally only applies to mass-produced sticks and cone incense smoke. This is because they contain synthetic materials as fillers and binders for the aromatics components.
How to ensure your incense is VOC-free
Always ensure you purchase incense that you know only contains natural ingredients.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a noxious gas, well-known for being present in cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes. So, as you can imagine, the health effects aren't significant. But this harmful gas can also be found in some incense and candle smoke too.
This is because, when burning incense sticks and cones, particulate matter releases and emits carbon monoxide (CO), VOCs and PAHs into the indoor air.
Carbon monoxide can contribute to heart and respiratory issues, as well as other negative health effects, so it is wise to keep your potential exposure to a minimum.

How to ensure your incense is carbon monoxide-free

To be sure your incense is free of carbon monoxide, you must ensure it is not a direct-burning incense - i.e. not ignited directly. Instead, opt for an indirect burning incense, such as an oil warmer or charcoal disc.
Incense Burning: The Non-Toxic Way
Our guide to incense burning will ensure you can burn incense safely in the knowledge that you are staying well clear of harmful PAHs, VOCs and Carbon Monoxide and keeping the indoor air pollution in your home to a minimum.

Before you begin

You must have everything you need to burn incense before you start. This will ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.
You will need
  • Natural incense blend
  • Essential oil warmer
  • Candle lighter (the super long kind)
  • Tea light candle
How to Burn Incense Safely

Time needed: 30 minutes.


  1. Set up.

    Place the tea light candle in the bottom chamber of your oil warmer.

  2. Place a sheet of tin foil onto the top bowl-like surface of your warmer. Ensure it is tightly fitted, doesn't dangle, and can not set a light.
  3. Pour water into the top bowl-like surface of your warmer - 3/4 of the height.

  4. Add your natural incense to the water.

  5. Light up.

    Using your candle lighter, ignite the tea light candle until it is producing a consistent flame.

  6. Enjoy.

    Continue to top-up the incense blend until you don't feel you have finished with your incense. If you find the aroma becoming too powerful, either open a window or proceed with step 4.

  7. Extinguish.

    When you are finished, gently blow out the tea light and allow the oil warmer to cool before touching it.

The Bottom Line

Maintaining great air quality in your home is becoming more and more critical. So if you want your home to be a cosy, welcoming space with an incredible fragrance, we advise you to stick to natural incense solutions and steer clear of synthetic-laden, mass-produced sticks and cones.
Your body, and your furry friends, will thank you!

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