by Cathy Douglas
We love the smell of incense, but we’re also aware that air quality is very important and shouldn’t be taken for granted. A few studies have showed a correlation between heavy incense burning and cancers of the upper respiratory system (throat, mouth, sinuses, tongue). But when applying research to real life, it’s important to know what researchers were looking at.
The studies that show the strongest correlation between incense and negative health effects compare areas with a lot of incense burning constantly in an unventilated space with outdoor air. For example, one much-quoted study compares the air quality inside and outside Asian temples. These temples have a constant stream of visitors lighting incense as offerings, which means incense is burning constantly and in large quantities. In a temple or other place of worship, the incense may fill the air to the extent the air looks smoky, and this can irritate sinuses, eyes, nose, etc. or cause headaches. It’s no surprise that air in such a temple also shows a high level of potentially harmful chemicals (benzene, hydrocarbons), especially compared to fresh, outdoor air.
But assuming you don’t live in an temple, you have control over how you use incense. The studies are helpful in showing what not to do: don’t burn too much incense at a time, and don’t cut off ventilation. If the air is smoky in appearance, that’s bad. What they don’t do is tell you much about how to enjoy incense safely. So here are a few common-sense tips:
Ventilate as best you can. Open a window in summer, or an inside door or chimney vent in winter.
Buy good quality incense. While there is no such thing as a “hypoallergenic” incense, the purer the incense is, the less it’s likely to cause trouble. The wooden stick creates smoke without enhancing the smell of the incense. Many Japanese varieties are made without sticks or perfumes, and they’re no more expensive than other brands. Incense of the West comes in stick-free blocks, scented with natural woods. A few other brands do have sticks, but are scented only with pure essential oils with very few additives. Mimosa’s sales staff will be happy to assist you in picking out the brand that’s right for you.
Use only the right amount of incense for your space. A joss stick or half a stick of Japanese incense is plenty for a single room. A whole stick or cone is enough for a couple rooms, or a room with the windows wide open. The extra-large, foot-long sticks are meant to be used outside.
This is something that has to be handled carefully, but I sometimes burn incense when I’m not in the room. A few hours later, the smoke has settled, leaving just the scent. To do this, it’s very important not to create a fire hazard. The incense should be in a proper burner away from curtains or paper, and there mustn’t be any danger of a cat or the wind starting a fire.
Unburnt incense smells good too. Many people come into Mimosa and ask what smells so good; it’s all the unburnt incense on the shelves. Leaving an open pack of incense in a closet or drawer will make it smell nice.
If you use resin incense, you should be aware that bamboo charcoal is purer than the discs, which have additives in them to help them start and continue burning (often saltpeter and sulfur). Resin incense, while very pure, is quite strong. It’s best to start with just a couple grains, adding more as you need it. Some people also place a thin piece of mica on their charcoal, to make the resin burn slower.
There are plenty of alternatives to incense, such as scented candles, oil burners, reed diffusers, room spray, aromatherapy diffusers, and nebulizing diffusers. Diffusers and room sprays don’t require fire of any kind, so you can even use them if your lease prohibits open flames.
People with allergies or asthma should be especially careful, as should pregnant women. Actual allergy to incense is rare, but sensitivity to smoke or fragrances isn’t.
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