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Avoiding Toxins: Is It Safe to Burn Incense at Home?

2 min read

What is incense?  

Burning incense is a common practice used in many cultures, tied to tranquility and spirituality. Historically incense has also been used as a mosquito repellent and air purifier. Incense is typically made from a combination of plant materials, such as dried herbs, flowers, resins, and essential oils, which release fragrant smoke when burned. While incense may bring a feeling of serenity and peace, burning it indoors can cause potential health hazards. This article will explore what incense is, its potential risks, and an alternative option.  

What chemicals are found in burned incense?   

The dangers of incense are primarily tied to the release of toxic compounds when incense is burned. In fact, chemical exposure from incense may be four times greater than that from cigarettes.  

Harmful emissions from incense smoke are tied to a range of toxic compounds, including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitric oxides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), benzene, and formaldehyde. These substances, when inhaled, can have detrimental effects on your health. 

  • Carbon monoxide reduces the blood’s ability to transport oxygen, which can lead to dizziness, headaches, weakness, and nausea, or even severe illness with a higher exposure. 
  • Sulfur dioxide is associated with reduced work capacity, heart and lung complications, and impaired immune function. 
  • PAHs are cancer-promoting, particularly when released indoors.
  • Benzene can cause eye inflammation, nose and throat irritation, nausea, vomiting, headaches, asthma exacerbation, and dizziness. Prolonged exposure can result in serious conditions, such as cancer, liver damage, and harm to the central nervous system. 
  • Formaldehyde is associated with an increased risk of cancer, specifically nasal cancer, and can impair the natural clearance of mucus from the respiratory system, and thereby worsen health issues. 

What are the health risks of burning incense indoors? 

When burning incense indoors, the small particle size within smoke can have negative health effects, regardless of the chemicals it contains. That’s because tiny particles remain in the air for extended periods of time, which makes it easier for them to enter the lungs.  

Research shows that air pollution is a strong risk factor for heart disease and death. This may explain why studies indicate that an increased exposure to small pollutant particles from incense smoke increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

In children, incense burning has been shown to raise the risk of bronchitis, pneumonia, and wheezing. In adolescents, studies have linked reduced overall lung function and other respiratory problems, like asthma, to indoor incense burning.   

What can I do to reduce my health risks?    

To emit aromas without generating significant levels of potentially hazardous substances, consider candles in place of incense. Scented candles seem to pose much lower risks compared to burning incense, including no known heart or lung issues.  

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