Full Body Detox | Natural Health Blog

Date: 01/13/2009    Written by: Jon Barron

Toxic Incense

Toxic Incense

For firemen, it's the flames; for secretaries, it's carpal tunnel; and for priests and yogis, the occupational hazard seems to be incense. According to a recently completed study published in the medical journal, Cancer, people who use incense have an increased risk of getting cancers of the upper respiratory tract--including mouth, sinus, throat, and laryngeal cancers--as well as squamous cell carcinoma. Note: the elevated risk seems to be associated only with very heavy use over a period of years.

The study followed 61,320 Chinese men and women between the ages of 45 and 74 for 12 years. Subjects reported how often they burned incense--daily, weekly, or less regularly--where in the house they burned it and over how long a period of years. Seventy-eight percent of the subjects used incense regularly, and of those, 84 percent had been using it for over 40 years, with 93 percent reporting that they used it every day.

Although the risk of contracting upper respiratory cancers remains slight, heavy incense users had double the incidence, according to the findings. Also, women seemed more prone to incense-related cancers--which the researchers attributed to the fact that Chinese women spend more hours during the day in smoke-filled homes.

Study director Dr. Jeppe Friborg, of Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen, commented, "Given that our results are backed by numerous experimental studies showing that incense is a powerful producer of particulate matter and that incense smoke contains carcinogenic substances, I believe incense should be used with caution."

When burned, incense releases carcinogens such as polyaromatic hyodrcarbons (PAHs), a class of toxins that includes formaldehyde and that has been linked to lung cancer in smokers. An earlier study found PAH content in temples that burn incense up to 45 times higher than in homes where people smoke. Incense typically contains other carcinogens such as carbonyls and benzene, which can trigger DNA mutations in human cells. Although the components of incense typically include benign plant and flower matter along with essential oils, most formulations also incorporate not-so-benign artificial fragrances and binders. The smoke produced as incense burns releases particulate matter, and because it slowly smolders, it releases even higher concentrations.

Is all incense equally toxic? Certainly if you're going to burn it, you're better off using incense made wholly from organic materials, but even so you might not be protected as the chemistry in the burning process creates the toxic byproducts. An occasional whiff is not going to set off any disease process, but being constantly enveloped in the smoke might.

As Dr. Len Horvitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said, "Anything that affects air quality negatively is not a good thing. Burning in general and the release of smoke, these things are certainly to be avoided. At the very least, chemical irritants will set off asthma, and that's reversible. Cancer is not reversible."

Whereas in Eastern cultures incense overload is omnipresent, in the West, most of us only have occasional exposure. But those who spend lots of time in certain religious settings, in meditation halls, and in dorm rooms may be at risk.

"This is not unlike the type of risk that one experiences from secondhand tobacco smoke," said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society. His colleague, Dr. Norman Edelman of the American Lung Association added, "It's not nearly the danger of smoking a pack a day for 20 years, but it's a danger." On the other hand, burning incense produces particulates greater than 45 mg/g burned as compared to only 10 mg/g burned for cigarettes--more than four times the load. So if you're sitting right on top of burning incense and breathing it in, you're getting a heavier whack of particulates than you would from smoking a Marlboro. The saving grace is that most people use incense to permeate a room rather than inhaling a focused current of toxic smoke directly into the body.

Incense has been implicated before in numerous studies (along with its cousin, scented candles). One such study found that exposure to burning incense at least once a week during pregnancy increases the risk that the child will develop leukemia by 2.7 times. Another measured air quality in several Dutch churches that burned candles and incense and found the particulate levels 20 times higher than they were next to a typical busy road. Other studies have determined links between incense allergic contact dermatitis, various respiratory conditions including asthma, and cancers of the nervous system.

The bottom line is that there is a price to pay if you use incense. The point of incense in religious ritual usually is one of purification, but as these studies show, purification (at least physically) is not what happens--although if incense is an important part of your religious or meditative practice, the risk is small. Then again, maybe some fresh flowers on your alter may do the trick. Also note that if you're using incense to cover the aroma of pot-smoke filled rooms, you might want to reconsider - the pot, that is. A New Zealand study earlier this year found that smoking just one joint a day had the same effect as smoking 20 cigarettes; heavy pot-smokers increased their risk of getting lung cancer by more than 600 percent--and burning incense simply compounds that risk.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention. Yet another recent study found that burning frankincense (Boswellia resin) relieves depression and anxiety. Ah! What to do? What to do? What to do?


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    Submitted by Alex on
    January 13, 2009 - 4:20am

    Cannabis bigger cancer risk than cigarettes: study
    Its good propaganda, but current mortality rates around the world show little evidence for this, pot is hardly a new drug and longitudinal studies would have shown this already, which they have not.
    Check out this article from the washington post:
    ""We hypothesized that there would be a positive association between marijuana use and lung cancer, and that the association would be more positive with heavier use,"" he said. ""What we found instead was no association at all, and even a suggestion of some protective effect.""
    And with the neuro-protective attributes of cannabis that have already been discovered, I truly believe you should take down this part of your article. Natural supplementations have suffered from disinformation, the war on drugs has caused much of the same thing towards a drug that has shown itself to be infinitely safer that the two main legal drugs- alcohol and tobacco. That being said, I know you showed the information with good intentions, and I highly respect what you have done here.

    Submitted by ANNAROSE on
    August 16, 2010 - 12:16am

    Am plagued by drifting tobacco smoke from flat below and wish to trace possible entry points for the smoke.2nd Law of Thermodynamics states --heat and moisture drift upwards -WISH TO DEMONSTRATE THIS TO LANDLORD USING BURNING INCENSE CANDLES-- is this possible? Does smoke lack density and is it lighter than air? Have also heard that smoke rings demonstrate this effect.Any advice will be greatly appreciated --getting desparate due to eye pain from the smoke

    Submitted by david oller on
    May 16, 2009 - 5:01am

    Most of the studies you cite are not peer reviewed, they were conducted asia and some were based on readings taken in a room described as so smoky you couldn't see accross the room. Further Incense isn't Incense! Incense is made from very different procedures and materials. Chinese incense used in the test contains formaldehyde from the glue, where Tibetan and Japanese incense use no glue. So incense uses chemicals or is dipped in chemicals and others are made of herbs and natural woods. Some are designed to produce very little smoke (Japanese) and other billow clouds of black smoke from added oils and poor manufaturing techniques.
    To say what you've said is like saying FOOD is toxice because so edibles are toxic.

    Submitted by Jim on
    April 23, 2009 - 1:27pm

    Good article, but I found a tiny misquote. there is reference to a study that shows "burning incense at least once a week during pregnancy increases the risk that the child will develop leukemia by 27 times." The linked article actually states the risk as "2.7 times". Still scary though.

    Submitted by Jon Barron on
    April 23, 2009 - 2:01pm

    Thanks for catching that typo. It's been fixed.

    Submitted by k2 herbal on
    July 7, 2010 - 1:59pm

    Wow, I never gave burning incense a second thought, thanks for enlightening me.

    Submitted by Brenda on
    August 3, 2011 - 12:21am

    Jon, the picture next to this article in the email is not a picture of incense but essential oils on sticks. I'm not talking about the picture above but the one in the email before you click on the link to see this article. I assume that it's okay to breathe essential oils on sticks right? I have one of those, it's filled with lavender and other oils and you turn the sticks over every time you want to fill the room with the scents of the essential oils. I assume that the picture was just a mistake?

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    August 8, 2011 - 4:38pm

    The problem is in the burning. Burning creates toxins. If you use essential oils in a non-burning diffuser, that’s okay. If you burn them, you most likely have the same problem as burning incense.

    Submitted by Carole Ann Mela on
    January 19, 2013 - 10:47am

    Great now I'm stressed from what was calming me. Now if my kids develop cancer it's because I burned incense everyday trying to keep our home calm

    Submitted by common sense on
    August 13, 2013 - 11:55pm

    Interesting writing style. Lol. Why not get into specifics on where the peoples incense came from, how it gets prepared, ingridients ? There are many variables that were not addressed. Yes there is toxic incense, there are toxic candles as well. They are sitting on store shelves right now. If anything you may have one in your house now, you might want to check the ingridients, look them up. On the bright side there are natural alternatives.. I personally wouldn't take anyone's word for anything. Its up to us to discern what the truth is.

    Submitted by Sasha Densikoff on
    November 12, 2013 - 9:36am

    I feel the need to nit-pick over a very important error I think you made in this article, something I really expect better of from a natural health focused blog.

    You stated that cancer is not reversible. I'd hate for someone to read those words and actually believe it to be true, and get all worried. It is not.
    Cancer is not the big bad that we are told it is. It 100% curable (meaning it goes away forever, never to return) and certainly reversible, as is the majority of the ills we find in modern society.
    There are ever so many cures for it, and I'm not going to list them all, or I'd be typing and linking for half an hour, lol!
    If you do a basic Google search for "cancer cures", you're sure to find plenty for yourself.

    A couple of paths to start you off though is the keywords: "Run from the Cure", "Phoenix oil" and "soursop and cancer"
    These real cures are trying to be discredited very hard by Big Pharma (the pharmaceutical industry that makes all the highly toxic cancer treatment drugs), so disregard any foolish people that say these things don't work. They do, and there are many hundreds of people out there that are alive and cancer free to prove it!

    As always, to avoid falling to cancer, try not to eat any overly processed foods (anything from a tin or packet), eat lots of fresh produce, and try to purge any nasty cleaning chemicals from your house.

    Always remember - you are in charge of your own health. The moment you put it in the hands of someone else, it's bound to go downhill, as they will rarely have your best interests at heart. Don't become some doctor's cash cow.

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    November 22, 2013 - 1:33pm

    Hi Sasha,

    The editor never said cancer is not reversible, that was from a quote from the Dr. Len Horvitz, a pulmonary specialist.  They just happened to grab the entire quote in the article.  For Jon Barron's true perspective on cancer, you can read his book or check out his audio chapter called, "Cancer, The Big Lie."

    Submitted by Patti McBride on
    April 29, 2015 - 7:53pm
    Knoxville , Tennessee

    I'm interested in making incense with essential oils. I have purchased what is supposed to be some of the best 'blank' (unscented) incense sticks on the market. A certified aromatherapist placed a recipe on the web.(www.aromahead.com).
    I also make phthalate free soy candles, using fragrance oils that are non-toxic. I also use the same amazing phthalate free fragrance oils for my reed diffusers. I also don't use a DPG base when making my reed diffusers.
    I was told that I can use either pure grain alcohol (PGA) or a DPG base to dilute my fragrance oils for my incense. I'm thinking that using the PGA base would be safer to use because of the toxic levels @ a 1:1 dilution strength. I'm not sure about the DPG because I'm not sure if the base is non-toxic.
    After reading your article on the safety of incense, & since I'm now the proud owner of 1,000 blank sticks, I'd like to make them as safe as possible. Do you have any suggestions?
    I think the website that spoke of the PGA was
    www.aromaweb.com. I purchase my FO's from www.candlescience.com.
    I also make vegan soaps, using only organic botanicals & other bath spa products, made only of natural ingredients.
    So, you can understand the importance of having safe products. These are my hobbies, & I won't give or periodically sell anything that I, myself, will not personally use.
    Thank you for your input on a very informative article. I
    doubt that I'll purchase anymore incense sticks after I use
    my surplus supply that I've got on hand. I'm interested in safety first.
    Patti McBride :-)

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    May 4, 2015 - 12:42pm

    DPG is not really toxic except when applied directly to sensitive skin, such as is possible when it’s used in cosmetics. Even then, it is not toxic—merely a skin irritant. When used in incense where there is no skin contact and it is burned off, it is a non issue. That said, PGA is a better solvent, whereas DPG is a better fragrance fixative.

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