How to Burn Incense

(FAQ) How to Burn Incense Safely, plus Benefits & Risks

Burning incense is a centuries-old universal ritual. Although incense is still used for religious purposes, things have also changed. Knowing how to burn incense, can help you find peace and relaxation. All this is not without its risks, though. I invite you to discover both the risks and the benefits of burning incense, next.

In this post, you’ll be learning about:

  • Some of the most frequently asked questions about incense burning. Find out the answer to what an incense is and what it contains. Also, how it works and what the benefits and health risks of lighting incense in your home are.
  • How to burn or light incense safely, with tips for various types of incense. Plus, a few alternative ideas to help you limit your exposure to incense smoke.


How to Burn Incense – FAQ


Throughout time, all spiritual leaders understood the importance of burning incense. Egyptian priests, African sorcerers, and Asian or American shamans.


They were all, in their time, very influential people. Their purpose was to calm down the people and spirits, and incense could do that.


Age after age, this practice grew on all continents. That is why, today, when we hear the word incense, we instantly think about a holy place of divination.


The meaning of burning incense has deep spiritual and cleansing roots. These roots and traditions are still going strong, even in our days.


I propose we go over the following series of questions and answers. You’ll find lots of tips and interesting details about incense burning. At the end of it all, you’ll be able to put things into perspective and decide whether it’s good to burn incense or not.


1) What is incense?

Before learning how to burn incense, we must first understand what it is.


Incense comes from the Latin word “incendere”, which means to burn. It refers to the material itself, not the perfume it emits.


An incense is a natural material that spreads a powerful aroma while burning. This material can be plants, bark or resin.


True incense, however, refers to the resin of Boswellia and Commiphora trees. The first gives us frankincense and the latter myrrh. The Bible is full of references to these two resins. Baby Jesus was gifted with frankincense and other kingly goods.


Burning Frankincense, Myrrh and Others


2) What does incense contain (chemical composition)?

The composition of an incense material can be very complex. Natural materials like resin, bark or dried plants are full of active compounds. For one, they contain high amounts of volatile oils. They’re what give the incense its characteristic odor.


Incense also contains:

  • Plant and wood powder.
  • Adhesive powder.
  • Bamboo sticks.
  • Gummy substances.
  • Etc.


Incense is not useful unless it’s lit. Fire starts the magic of incense. While burning, incense emits a grey, whitish aromatic smoke (fumes). It’s this smoke that disinfects the air and soothes the mind.


This smoke is loaded with very fine particles of organic matter. These particles get straight into your body via inhalation.


3) How does incense work?

When you light your incense, it releases fumes (smoke). Those fumes release very fine particles into the air. Some are beneficial, others aren’t. This is why constant exposure to incense smoke may lead to severe health problems.


The active oil molecules are beneficial and uplifting. But during the burning process, the incense also produces toxic gases like:


  • Carbon monoxide (CO). It’s the same poisoning gas your car produces.
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas.
  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), causes respiratory problems.
  • Aldehydes.
  • Benzene.
  • Etc.


Once lit, the incense smoke gets into your nose very fast. From that point on, your nose sends various signals to the brain. The limbic system is the headquarter of your emotions in the brain. When you inhale incense fumes, they activate this system.


Peace and calmness are what most people feel when they smell an incense. This active smoke can also regulate the hormonal activity. It also stimulates the neurovegetative system. 


Most incense materials have antibacterial properties too. This is what made incense extremely useful in protecting from plagues and other viral diseases.


4) What is the purpose of burning incense?

What does it mean to burn incense? Today, it may mean whatever you want it to mean. Each of us has his/her own reasons for burning incense.


In the past, however, this meaning was a lot more profound. Like I said, incense burning had many purposes. The most important one was, of course, religious. People felt closer to their gods, purer and worthier this way.


Everybody knew how to burn incense back then because it was a common practice. People and spiritual leaders burned incense to:


  • Ward off evil demons.
  • Purify.
  • Be closer to God, or gods (depending on the time period and religion).
  • Meditate.
  • Disinfect their homes.
  • Scent their homes and feel better.
  • Repel insects.
  • Time an activity (social, medical or religious).
  • Improve their libido.
  • No special significance at all (only for the sensory experience).
  • Etc.


Incense is quite versatile. There was a time when it held a lot of importance, socially and economically.


How to Choose and Burn Incense


5) How to choose your incense?

The type of incense you choose to burn depends on your purpose. It also depends on personal preferences. There are many different types of incense on the market.


Depending on how comfortable you want to be, you can go for Direct-burning or Indirect-burning incense. The latter requires a bit more effort in preparation.


The incense you choose to go for also depends on your tools and needs. Not all incenses have the same effect, and not all burn the same. Some are messier than others, which require different recipients. If you’re looking for one, check out this ceramic incense burner.


Some sources suggest choosing Japanese incense over Indian incense. The reason? The first releases less smoke than the latter. I say that a good quality incense and a good material is what counts most.


Whatever you choose though, your incense must be:

  • 100% natural, sourced from wood and resin.


Flowers (scent and material) are easier to synthesize or to use artificial fragrances on. All ingredients must be clearly stated (and known), and of vegetable origin.


Usually, for religious purposes, the best incense is resin on a bed of grains (rice) and/or coal. To scent your home, incense sticks or cones work perfectly.


6) What are the benefits of burning incense?

The most obvious and practical benefit of incense burning is its antibacterial properties. It would also change the smell in a room.


There used to be a wide range of benefits for burning incense. Almost all of those benefits are outdated today. We don’t need it to time anything anymore because we have clocks.


We don’t really need it to deter insects or disinfect the air anymore either. We have aromatherapy and repellants to help us do that. And again, we don’t need it for aphrodisiac purposes. All that’s left are personal preferences and religious practices.


Incense can be used for meditation and yoga. It can also be burnt for relaxation and focus. Or, it can be used to simply change the ambient and scent in a home.


Burning Incense around Temples


7) What are the health risks of incense burning?

Using incense means burning it. How to burn incense is easy but it’s not without its risks. Can incense cause a fire? Yes, it can.


Even the smallest breeze or air movement can attach the burning incense to surrounding objects or fabrics. That is almost guaranteed to start a fire.


Bronze censers should also be placed on stone or ceramic surfaces. Otherwise, bronze is a very good heat conductor. If the censer is placed on wooden furniture, it can start a fire.


You must never let the incense burn unsupervised. If you must leave the room, dip the burning incense in some water, sand or another heat-resistant surface.


Unfortunately, burning incense is not entirely healthy or safe. Is incense toxic, you might ask? Yes, incense fumes can be very toxic. There are studies that say some incenses can be more toxic than cigarette smoke.


The same study warns us about interpreting these findings. Scientists did not test all the incense types available, thus, the results aren’t very conclusive yet. But it seems that some incense materials can produce very toxic fumes. 


The smoke consists of very fine particles. Experts associate these particles with serious health risks. They also consider that people should be made aware of the risks of burning incense indoors. Especially without proper ventilation.


It also appears that incense smoke has the potential of mutating DNA genes. The most affected organs are the liver and the respiratory system.


It’s important to know how to burn incense for the sake of your pets too. When it comes to cats and dogs, they are a lot more sensitive to scents around them. Their sense of smell is highly developed and can react very badly to strong scents.


The smoke of the incense can affect their lungs and respiratory system too. Thus, burning incense and diffusing Aromatherapy oils around pets must be done carefully.  A very good ventilation is mandatory during incense burning.


8) What are some safety tips for healthy incense burning?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to burn incense, from time to time. However, it should be done with regards to some important aspects. Here are a few tips to help you burn incense safely:


  • Supervise the burning incense at all times.
  • Keep it in an open space and avoid placing the incense under a shelf. It may deteriorate the shelf very easily.
  • Put out the incense as soon as you leave the room.
  • Avoid falling asleep with the incense still burning.
  • Keep the room well-ventilated at all times. The smoke may saturate the air very fast and cause nausea and headaches.
  • Avoid using an incense you don’t know anything about or doesn’t seem trustworthy.
  • Do not burn incense near a child younger than 6 months old. Some materials may trigger seizures or respiratory arrest. I would not recommend burning incense near children, period.
  • Avoid burning incense around sensitive or asthmatic people. Pregnant women should also use it carefully.
  • Don’t handle an incense burner while the incense is burning.
  • Keep all burning incense away from kids, pets, and fabrics.


Organic incense material (Sage and Sandalwood)
Organic incense material (Sage and Sandalwood)


9) Is it possible to make your own incense?

Yes, it is. The incense you can make depends mostly on where you live. At the end of the summer, you can gather up some resins yourself. Frankincense and myrrh, however, grow only in the Middle East and Africa.


In Europe,  you’ll find pine varieties whose resins are highly fragrant and perfect as incense. Pinus succinifera is the only tree that gives us a resin from which we extract Amber essential oil.


Also, you can gather up and mix all sorts of fragrant flower leaves and blossoms. Roses, sage leaves, jasmine blossoms… you can burn them all as incense. You’ll first have to turn them into powder or a paste with a binding resin.


Next, we’ll see how to burn incense, with steps and tips among others.


How to Light Incense: Types, Tips & Alternatives


In theory, figuring out how to light incense is easy. In practice, though, things are a bit different. They are different not because it’s hard, but because there are many types of incense.


There are two main types of incense, each with its own subtype. One is the Direct-burning incense and the other is the Indirect-burning incense. Let’s see which incense goes where.


  • Direct-Burning Incense

This incense needs to be lit directly. You do it once, after which it continues to smolder and burn on its own. You’ll know it’s working after that glowing ember. The incense materials can take any shape or form.


In this category, we have:
  • Sticks
  • Cones
  • Coils
  • Powders
  • Infused papers
  • Paper ropes


  • Indirect-Burning Incense

This category of incense doesn’t burn on its own and cannot stay ignited on its own either. But how do you burn this type of incense? You’ll need a separate heat source like coals to keep it burning. The coarser the incense material, the slower it’ll burn.


In this category, we have:
  • Whole (Frankincense, Myrrh, dried plants and flowers like star anise, jasmine, sage, etc. )
  • Granules or powders (ground cinnamon, sandalwood, cedarwood, etc.)
  • Paste (Bakhoor Arabian incense, Japanese awaseko, and Indian Dhoop. Ground raw Frankincense mixed with essential oils can also make a paste).


There you have it, the subtypes and types or categories of incense available today. While you can burn many materials as incense, there are two of them that stick out.


The two most common incense types are sticks and cones. They are so because they’re very easy to use and carry around. They don’t need much setting up either, just a good incense burner.


Below, you’ll find the steps on how to light these types of incense:


How to Burn Incense Cones


How to Burn Incense Cones:
  • You’ll need a brass or ceramic incense burner first. It’s best if it comes with a lid too.
  • Make sure there’s enough room in the burner to place your incense cone.
  • Add some rice (or sand) on the bottom of the burner.
  • Place your cone on top of the grains.
  • Use a match or a lighter to lit up the tip of the cone.
  • Let it burn for a few seconds (15-30) and then put out the flame.
  • The cone will start fumigating. At that point, you can place the lid on the burner. It’ll give a gentle aroma and the smoke will also be contained and released gradually. While burning incense, make sure you ventilate your house properly.


Now you know how to burn incense cones. Let’s see how you could use incense sticks too.


How to Burn Incense Sticks


How to Burn Incense Sticks:
  • Hold the stick from its uncovered end (the wooden “handle”).
  • How to light incense sticks is easy. Simply lit up the other end of the stick (covered) with a match or a lighter.
  • When that end ignites, blow out the flame. The stick will start to glow and smolder, giving off a gentle incense smoke.
  • The incense stick must be placed on an incense holder.
  • Normally, a whole incense stick may take 50 – 90 minutes to burn completely. If you want it to last less, simply use a paperclip to mark the length that will burn. 


Knowing how to use incense makes all the difference. It can give you the results you want and it can prevent diseases. Once you’ve decided upon a type of incense you want to use, you’ll need a burner.


An incense burner box usually has many holes and carvings in it. It’s a wooden box, so you must not use it for direct heat sources like coal or ember. Those carvings and holes are there to help. If you’ve ever wondered how to use such an incense burner box, it’s simple.


Just place the incense stick in one of the lateral carvings so your stick’s ashes may fall into the box. As you can imagine, an incense burner box prevents a lot of mess.


A metallic incense burner can corrode, thus, it needs regular maintenance. Wipe it off with some water plus vinegar (equal parts) or water/lemon and it will be like new. Ceramic burners are easier to maintain.


But how do you burn incense without a holder? It depends on the incense. Generally, though, you need a heat-resistant plaque or dish to burn the incense. Sticks are easier to use as they only require a place to contain the ash and stay upright.


How to Burn Incense Rocks:
  • Frankincense or myrrh are usually referred to as incense rocks. They’re also known as raw incense.
  • This type of incense cannot burn on its own. You’ll need to set it on coals or ember. That way the fire will sustain the process of fumigation.
  • Knowing how to burn incense rocks is easy but it requires a lot of attention and supervision!


How to Burn Incense Powder (or Granules):
  • This type of incense burns fast but not on its own. Burning so fast can lead to using a lot more incense.
  • Place the incense powder over some burning coals, in an incense burner.
  • The burner should have a lid to place on after setting up your incense. The burner should also be heat-resistant!


That said, there still remains the question of how much, right?


How Much Incense to Burn?


How Much Incense to Use?

When it comes to pure, hardened resin, even a gram can be enough. Almost all resins are highly fragrant (see frankincense). Thus, whether they’re ground or whole, you should always use very little.


Experience will also teach you a thing or two. Especially about different quantities versus different room sizes.


Don’t forget that the type of burner can also influence the fragrance and smoke your incense releases. Plus, some incense materials make a lot of smoke. A tiny bit can make your room look like a foggy forest very fast.  


Keep your window(s) open during incense burning to prevent asphyxiation.  That’ll also prevent nausea and headaches! When it comes to burning incense indoors, it’s the quality that matters; not the quantity!


Incense Burning Alternatives

The not so cool part of incense burning is that it can become toxic for your health. A totally different type of therapy that uses fragrances is Aromatherapy.


It uses highly fragrant essential oils. They can be diffused in special aromatic diffusers. You can do it every day, as many times as you want.


Essential oils don’t have to burn to release their aromas. They do, however, come with their own set of precautions and safety tips. It’s why I suggest reading the above-mentioned article, to prevent any complications.


You could also surround yourself with many plants (indoor or outdoor). They can also release fragrances in the air, purify it and provide a sense of serenity and relaxation.



Most people love the feeling that burning incense gives them. They also love the smell of some incense materials. Thus, they will continue burning incense at home with regularity.  


If that’s your case too, I suggest exercising caution while doing so. You’ll want to be able to enjoy this practice safely. And unfortunately, burning incense too often can be bad for your health.


Learning how to burn incense may require some effort on your part. Depending on what type of incense you’re using, it may be more or less. The good part about it is that, once you’ve got all you need, you can burn incense anytime.

Do you have any tips for incense lovers? What do you like most and why?


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