There are rumblings across the Internet that burning incense daily can be dangerous and cause illness.
Truth is, the amount and quality of incense smoke you inhale impacts the effect it might have on your health. It also helps to only burn incense when there’s proper airflow in order to avoid illness.
Do you have a specific medical condition? Here’s what you need to know.
Can Incense Cause Headaches?
Fragrances can trigger common and migraine headaches. The scent can be so intense that normal functioning and human interactions become challenging. There’s definitely a relationship between the two.
Usually women are most often described as experiencing a negative reaction to fragrances. But research has shown that men suffer migraines triggered by odors as well.
There are lots of smells that can trigger a headache or migraine attack: perfumes, gasoline, cigarette smoke, cleaning products, and more. So this isn’t something that’s specific to incense.
Also, the exact scent that might cause a headache for you can differ from what might cause a headache in someone else.
It’s suggested that the reason incense causes headaches is because it contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are released as the incense burns. This may be partially true.
According to the American Lung Association (ALA), VOCs are “gasses that are emitted into the air from products or processes.” It’s true that some can be harmful either alone or as they react with other gasses in the air. VOCs that we hear about the most are formaldehyde, benzene, and toluene.
Exposure to VOCs can lead to eye, nose, or throat irritation. You may also become nauseous or find it hard to breathe. In severe cases, inhaling VOCs can cause organ damage or harm your central nervous system.
I’ve already mentioned some of the indoor sources of such exposure, but you can add air fresheners to the list. An outdoor source of exposure to VOCs is burning wood.
Ask Yourself This If Incense Causes You Headaches
With all of that said, if you experience headaches or migraines when burning incense, you should immediately extinguish the incense. The scent alone can be a trigger, or the incense formula might contain VOCs.
Dipped incense is more likely to contain harmful VOCs than natural incense is. This is because dipped incense is soaked in a fragrance solution that is largely artificial. If essential oils are included, it’s a minuscule amount.
After extinguishing the incense, do some research to investigate what might be causing the headache.
What’s the incense made of?
Did the manufacturer list all or at least most of the ingredients? If there isn’t an ingredients list, that’s something to pay attention to. In some cases, the ingredients on the box might be printed in a different language. If this is true, you can often go to their website to find the ingredients in your language.
At the very least, you can read about the process used to make their incense to give you an idea of whether it’s made with natural or artificial ingredients.
Was the incense artificially dyed?
Color intensity is one way to know if natural or artificial dye has been used to color your incense. If your incense has really bright colors, then it’s probably synthetic. Some companies, like Shoyeido, use natural dyes to color some of their incense. But the colors are usually less vibrant. You’re unlikely to see hot pink natural incense.
Was it hand dipped?
As I mentioned, dipped incense isn’t natural. They’re made with cosmetic oils and fragrances that can release VOCs as they burn.
Asking these questions can be helpful but know that even some natural incense can potentially cause a headache.
You’ll notice that burning wood can also release VOCs. Natural incense is largely made up of wood powders. Depending on the source and whether or not the wood has been treated, there might be small amounts of VOCs released from natural incense.
Unfortunately, you can’t always tell because companies can be vague. Even the most prudent researcher may never find clear answers.
Is It Charcoal-Based?
Some brands of incense that are hand dipped are also made of charcoal-based incense sticks. Exposure to burning charcoal can trigger a headache. It’s best to avoid Wild Berry or Gonesh incense if you find that they cause you headaches.
Ventilation is Helpful
This is why it’s important to only burn incense in well-ventilated areas. If you can open a window or door, that’s great. But you can also rely on ventilation systems within the home to move air around so that you aren’t breathing in smoke at high concentration levels.
Takeaway: If you burn artificially dyed or hand dipped incense and notice that you experience headaches, then stop burning that incense altogether. If natural incense gives you headaches, make sure you’re burning it in a room that’s properly ventilated. Otherwise, you may have to find a different way to fragrance your home.
But even fragrances that don’t emit VOCs can trigger a headache in some people, so be mindful of which fragrances you simply don’t respond well to.
Can Incense Give You a Sore Throat?
The pathways between our ears, nose, and throat are interlinked. It’s possible to inhale a strong smell or a cloud of smoke, and then experience a tickle in your throat.
When exposed to large amounts of incense smoke for long periods of time, temple workers were found to experience throat irritation and other acute respiratory symptoms.
It’s important to note, though, that this study was conducted in Asian countries where incense is typically burned throughout most of the day as part of religious and cultural rituals. So these workers were exposed to the smoke throughout their workday.
In such a scenario, the incense smoke is actually polluting the air. Those with the most exposure are directly affected.
If you burn incense throughout the day at home and notice that it causes a sore throat, you may want to reduce the amount of time that you’re exposing yourself to the incense smoke.
At the very least, create cross ventilation by opening up doors and windows to gain access to natural air.
Takeaway: It’s possible for incense smoke to irritate your throat. When used in moderation, incense smoke shouldn’t cause you to feel bad. If you must burn incense throughout the day for religious or cultural reasons, be sure to properly ventilate your home in order to prevent throat irritation.
Can Incense Cause Allergies?
According to the National Library of Medicine allergy symptoms are your body’s way of defending itself against something that doesn’t bother most people.
Your body is responding to pollen, dust mites, pet dander, mold spores, medicine, an insect sting, or even a food ingredient.
Although the allergens can originate from the outdoors or inside, genetics play a huge role in what your body does or does not categorize as an allergen.
When you come in contact with the things your body has considered to be an allergen, it defends itself as if there’s a foreign invader in your system. Once your immune system becomes triggered, you experience symptoms like a runny nose, watery eyes, swelling, sneezing, itching, rashes, or even asthma.
If you burn incense that releases VOCs, it’s possible for that incense smoke to trigger an allergic reaction.
In a 2019 research study conducted in large Chinese cities, 15% of the adults experienced burning and itching in the eyes and skin redness and dryness. Burning incense was part of their daily routine. Romanians surveyed in a 2018 study yielded similar results. They experienced allergy and flu-like symptoms after consistently burning incense indoors.
Researchers suggest that particulate matter found in the fragrance additives of some brands of incense are what cause the allergic reactions. The Environmental Protection Agency states that there are some brands of incense made with chemicals that can potentially cause skin irritation.
Although this isn’t always possible, you’re encouraged to pay close attention to ingredients used to make your incense.
Takeaway: If you can, only burn natural incense that is fragranced by its biotic ingredients and essential oils. When fragrance oils have been used instead, as they burn they release microscopic forms of matter that can cause allergic reactions.
Can Incense Cause Asthma?
Asthma is a serious and long-term medical condition that has no cure. A person with asthma can find it difficult to breathe when their airway is blocked by swelling and inflammation. Family genes play a huge role in symptom severity but no one knows the exact cause of asthma.
In addition to genes, allergies, respiratory infections, and environmental conditions contribute to the onset of asthma.
Dust and chemicals are the environmental factors that have been known to contribute to adult-onset asthma. But there hasn’t been any confirmation that exposure to incense directly causes asthma to develop in humans.
While incense smoke can trigger an asthma attack, it hasn’t been known to actually cause asthma.
Symptom severity varies by individual but in most cases, can be controlled. If you notice that you are wheezing, coughing, experiencing shortness of breath, pain in your chest, or any other asthma symptom as incense is burning, immediately extinguish the incense if you can.
You can dip the tip in water or run it under a faucet until the tip is no longer glowing.
If you still want to burn incense but have asthma, then it is even more important that you not burn incense made with synthetic ingredients. Both smoke and allergies can trigger asthma attacks. So it’s best to remove yourself from these environments where you experience these triggers, if at all possible.
You can always talk to your pulmonologist if you have questions about burning incense. He or she would be your best resource because everyone reacts differently.
Takeaway: Incense cannot cause asthma, but it can trigger it. Reduce or eliminate your contact with incense if you have moderate or severe asthma. Always talk to your specialist if you feel you must burn incense.
Can Incense Cause Lung Cancer?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking is the primary risk factor for the development of lung cancer.
In the United States, cigarette smoke likely contributed to 80-90% of lung cancer deaths. Inhaling these chemicals is detrimental to your health and can lead to many different types of cancer. A person inhaling this toxic smoke secondhand might also be diagnosed with lung cancer.
During a 12-year study of over sixty thousand (61,320) ethnic Chinese men and women between the ages of 45 and 74, researchers found that participants faced an increased risk of developing cancer over time. Many of them burned incense daily and for long periods of time.
Participants were cancer-free at the start of the study. Within those 12 years, 871 developed lung cancer – less than 1% of participants. Three hundred and twenty-five participants developed various other forms of cancer.
Of those who developed lung cancer, close to 24% had squamous cell carcinoma. This meant that tumors were visible in cells lining the internal and external body surfaces. Still, researchers didn’t find that incense had an overall effect on participants developing lung cancer, just that those who did, also had squamous cell carcinomas.
More research is needed to help determine if different forms of incense had more or less of an effect.
This was a helpful research study but it’s important to note that the population was specific to a region that relied heavily on use of incense. More importantly, there might have been other contributing factors that weren’t captured by the study.
Incense ingredients have not been found to be as toxic as ingredients used to make cigarettes. If a larger percentage of the participants had been diagnosed with lung cancer across those twelve years, then these results might have been more significant.
Also, most people are diagnosed with lung cancer between the ages of 65 and 70 years old. Therefore, the 871 participants who developed lung cancer might have been diagnosed regardless of incense use. Smoking is still the number one cause of lung cancer internationally.
Takeaway: There isn’t enough strong evidence to support the role of incense in lung cancer diagnoses. With moderate incense use in airy environments, you are at far less risk of developing lung cancer as a person who smokes regularly.
Burning incense might trigger your allergies or asthma symptoms, but with responsible use, incense probably won’t make you sick overall. Always burn incense in a space that has proper air flow.
If you know that certain scents or brands simply don’t agree with your respiratory system, then make sure not to burn those. Promptly remove yourself from any environment that has heavy smoke or fragrances that agitate your airways.
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