“Incense, in common with all things, possesses specific vibrations. When the incense is smoldered in a ritual setting it undergoes a transformation.” -Scott Cunningham
Photo courtesy: Oreamnos Oddities with handmade eco-friendly incense.
Smoke and mirrors
Incense, like candles, are used by all religions for the odor, drive away demons, manifest the presence of gods, and to gratify gods. And sometimes, for us, it can be a tool to accomplish physical change or set the mood. Incense comes in many forms: Sticks, joss sticks, cones, coils, rope, and powders on charcoal. The first five of those are made with potassium nitrate to assist the continuous burning, and the sticks used are typically bamboo. The charcoal for powders, however, contain the potassium nitrate, instead. For any type, the herbs and oils used, of course, should always be organic and from sustainable farming practices.
Non-powder: Depending on the manufacturer of the incense sticks, joss sticks, cones, coils, or rope; they can release differing chemicals and gases in the air. In general, though, incense sticks contain 21% (by weight) of herbal and wood powder, 35% of fragrance material, 11% of adhesive powder, and 33% of bamboo stick. As far as health, some on average, produces particulates greater than 45 mg/g burned as compared to 10 mg/g burned for cigarettes, and gases are carbon monoxide, CO2, NO2, SO2, and some release volatile organic compounds (VOC) such as: benzene, toluene, and xylenes, as well as aldehydes and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which can be a carcinogen in high concentrations.* Again, all of this is depending on the manufacturer and what they choose to include, so always try to buy handmade and from independent artisans who don’t pack in as much chemicals!
Powder: A little more attentive but definitely great for mystical, billowing smoke! This type of incense’s concern isn’t so much the blend as it is the charcoal disk (or briquette). Firstly, to clarify, charcoal is not a fossil fuel, that’s just coal. Charcoal is typically wood that’s heated to high temperatures in an oxygen-poor environment so that the wood can’t actually catch on fire. Instead, it smolders and everything in the material, apart from the carbon and certain minerals, escapes as a liquid or gas. From there, the char is crushed, mixed with sawdust for binding, and potassium nitrate for ignition and then pressed into molds. So with these, the environmental impact comes, not just from the herbal/oil/resin blend, but the wood sourced for making the char, which is favorably hard wood like oak, maple, and fruit. This company’s charcoal disks are made from previously discarded apply branches and so does not contribute to deforestation! Another company, albeit still up and coming, called Green Brikstove, are making stoves from recycled shipping containers and boat parts, and charcoal briquettes out of food waste for families in third world countries who need a safe, environmental way to cook food.
In conclusion, as with all incense types, they should always be burned in well ventilated areas or during times of necessity only to help mitigate the air pollution for yours and your family’s health.
*studies were done in Taiwan where half the population is either Buddhist or Taoist and burn incense indoors frequently and every day, either at home or in temples.