H​ow Does Incense Work? (Explained for Beginners)

E​ver see that magical plume of smoke rise from burning incense and wonder, how on earth does that work?

T​he simple answer is that incense is made up of a variety of combustible and highly flammable materials bound together, so when you light your incense and blow the flame out, the materials in the incense continue to burn and produce fragranced smoke.

H​owever, with so many different kinds of incense on the market that each burns in its own unique way, the science behind how incense burns can get a little more complicated.

R​ead on to find out more about how different incenses burn!

H​ow Does Incense Work

How Do Incense Sticks Work?

I​ncense sticks, much like many other forms of incense, are made from a variety of plant-based materials, such as herbs, barks, resins, etc. These materials are dried and then ground into a fine powder and mixed with a binding agent (many resins act as this binding agent to keep the powder together) and usually a little potassium nitrate (also known as saltpeter; this helps the incense burn uniformly when lit).

F​inally, a small amount of water is added to the powder mixture to form a paste. A stick of some form, commonly made from a fragrant wood (such as sandalwood, cedar, pine, fir, etc.) or bamboo, is then dipped into the paste. Once a layer of incense paste has dried on the stick, the stick is dipped again in the paste until the desired thickness has been achieved.

O​nce the stick is complete and totally dry, it can be burned in the home for fragrance.

W​hen you light a stick of incense and blow out the flame that catches, the incense will smolder (much like an ember in a campfire that’s going out) and let loose a thin string of fragranced smoke into the air.

T​he materials and chemicals that have gone into the incense stick allow the incense to burn evenly with just the heat from the hot smolder.

A​s the incense burns up, the incense from the burnt part of the stick turns to a delicate ash and will fall off the stick as it continues to burn.

H​ow Do Incense Coils Work?

A​nother type of stick-like incense you might see on the market is incense coils. These are long pieces of incense that have been wrapped into a coil shape and dried as such, making for an interesting look.

C​reated much like incense sticks, incense coils are created by a dried paste made from powdered plant materials, a binding agent, saltpeter, and a bit of water. Unlike incense sticks, they do not have a wooden/bamboo core. They are molded into this coiled structure by extruding a thin string of paste in a coil shape on a flat surface and then allowed to dry. This gives the coil a flat bottom from where it was laid to dry.

B​ecause of their shape, incense coils can burn for a long time without having to take up too much area. The smolder on the incense after being lit coils around the thin strand of incense, providing a long, even burn.

How Do Incense Cones Work?

I​ncense cones are similar in their creation to incense sticks, only they are shaped differently and have no wooden/bamboo core.

T​hey are also created by a powdered mix of plant materials, a binding agent, saltpeter, and a bit of water to help in the shaping process.

T​he paste created when making incense cones has a thick, moldable consistency, making them easy to shape into cones with nothing more than a mold or even your fingers.

L​ike incense sticks, incense cones are burned by a smoldering of the plant mixture that releases a fragrant smoke and reduces the used portion to a soft gray ash.

I​ncense cones are much more short-lived than incense sticks due to their shape that fans out at the bottom, but they produce a stronger fragrance.

A​s the incense cone burns and the shape of the cone fans out as it goes down, the smolder burns much more surface area as it descends. This produces a larger plume of smoke as well as a stronger fragrance.

How Does Waterfall Incense Work?

W​aterfall incense is incredibly similar to cone incense. Created the same way that cone incense is created, the only addition to it that makes it unique is that a small hole is drilled into the flat bottom of the cone, allowing the smoke to travel inside and through the incense cone, rather than simply floating off the top of the cone.

I​f you were to pick up a waterfall incense cone and turn it over, you will see this small hole. While only about a millimeter or two round, this little hole is big enough to channel the smoke out through the bottom in an elegant, smoky waterfall.

T​he only way this waterfall effect works is if an incense cone is placed on an incense holder specifically designed for waterfall incense. If placed on a regular, flat incense plate or holder, the smoke will be blocked from traveling through the hole and will plume off the top of the incense as it would a regular incense cone.

T​here are many waterfall incense holders on the market. Many are designed to use the smoke as an addition to the design of the holder, such as a holder that makes the smoke look like it’s a waterfall in nature, or a holder built like a dragon that makes the smoke from the incense the smoke the dragon breathes.

T​he designs are endless, and each is built with a plate specifically designed to let the smoke travel downwards and into the structure.

I​n short, waterfall incense is just as fragrant and as potent as an incense cone would be, only waterfall incense comes with an added visual delight.

How Does Backflow Incense Work?

Y​ou may have heard the term “backflow incense” alongside “waterfall incense”, and wondered what the difference was.

B​ackflow incense is the official name for incense cones that release their smoke through a hole in the bottom, and they are often referred to as both fountain incense and waterfall incense. When you hear any of these names in reference to incense, know that this is all the same kind of incense.

B​ackflow incense, aka waterfall incense, is a new type of incense on the market that has become popular in the last few years.

W​hen the smoke reaches the hollow tunnel inside the cone, the smoke cools off slightly, becoming denser and thus creating that alluring, thick gray waterfall of oh-so-good-smelling smoke.

I​f you choose to burn backflow incense in your home on a holder specifically designed to showcase that smoky waterfall, note that the smoke is not so dense that it is immune to changes in the air around it.

W​hat we mean by this is that the smoke produced is still incredibly delicate, and even so much as a gentle draft can whisk all that gorgeous smoke away from your decorative holder.

M​ake sure to burn any backflow or waterfall incense in an indoor space that doesn’t have any drafts or breezes. The stiller the air, the prettier your incense.

T​hat being said, it is still important that any and all incense you burn in your home be in a well-ventilated area. Smoke is still smoke, and too much stagnant incense smoke can lead to indoor air pollution that can have long-lasting health effects if you are frequently exposed.

How Do Incense Burners Work?

A​n incense burner is a plate, holder, clip, or other structure that is specifically designed to hold and contain incense when it is being burned.

L​it incense of any kind is both dangerously hot and extremely flammable, even if there is not an active flame. Lit incense still has a hot smolder that is hot enough to burn the incense and produce smoke. Because of this, you want to burn your incense on or over something that is designed to catch hot pieces and hold the burning incense so as to protect your furniture and your home.

I​ncense burners are also often built to catch any ashes that fall off your burning incense, making for easier clean-up once you’re ready to burn your next piece of incense.

I​ncense burners can take many different forms and are built differently depending on what type of incense is being burned on it.

F​or incense sticks, it is common to see incense burners that are little clay dishes with a small hole in the center, such as this one here, or as a short wood plank that curves up at the end where a small hole is drilled, such as this one here. Both of these have holes where you can place the incense stick in that will hold the stick upright as it burns, and they also have the extra surface area built to catch any falling ashes.

I​ncense cones may use a simpler type of heat-proof dish inside a decorative, cage-like box like this one here, whereas waterfall/backflow incense cones use more elaborate, decorative, and sculptural incense burners, like this one here.

I​ncence coil burners often take a more unique approach to holding incense. Most commonly, you’ll see incense coil burners that are cage-like (similar to many incense cone holders), such as this one here, or a small clip without a plate to catch the ash underneath it, such as this one here. If you choose to use a clip, it is recommended that you use a heat-proof dish under it to catch any hot pieces and falling ash.

T​here are many different and unique incense burners for any kind of incense, and many of them are quite pleasing on the eye. If you’re looking to heighten the visual appeal of any type of incense, there are hundreds to thousands of different holders on the market for each type of incense that will do just the trick.


T​here are so many different kinds of incense and so many different ways to display them in your home. Each comes with its own unique look and perks, but all are fantastic for fragrancing any home.

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If you’d like to read more about incense, check out our article on what to do with incense ash, or you can check out our article on how you can use incense to keep bugs away.

Grace Young

I love candles! I have personally tried over 100 brands of candles. The total burn time of these candles is over 5000 hours. I also talk about essential oil diffusers and reed diffusers. Essential oil diffusers and diffusers are also an important part of the scent in my home.

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