The Ultimate Guide to Incense

incense sticks burning

Incense is a substance that produces a fragrant odor when burned. The four basic types of incense are stick, cone, loose, and cylinder with loose incense being the oldest type. Smudging is a popular method of burning incense. Incense usually has five main ingredients:

  • wood pulp
  • potassium nitrate (to light the incense)
  • an adhesive such as gum arabic
  • water
  • aromatic material

The aroma generally comes from various woods and resins, such as cedar or frankincense. Incense is primarily used to sooth the mind/body/soul and to meditate. Some other uses include healing physical ailments, covering up pungent scents, and creating ambiance.

The History of Incense

The word ‘incense’ is derived from the Latin ‘incensum’ – to set on fire. This etymology can still be seen in words such as incendiary. The use of cedar as incense was recorded in the “Epic of Gilgamesh”, a Sumerian flood story that predates Noah. At sunrise, noon and sunset each day the ancient Egyptians burned resins and ‘Kyphi’, a blend of aromatic herbs, wine and fruit, as ritual incense offerings to the sun god Ra; whereas the Greeks burnt Juniper, Cedar or Myrrh to mask the stench of burning flesh during animal sacrifices to their gods.

In the story of when Jesus was born, the maji that visited him when he was born are said to have brought offerings of frankincense, myrrh and gold – which may have been referring to fragrant golden ambergris. Incense was a valuable commodity, and burning it was like a personal sacrifice of one’s wealth. Nearly all religions, from Buddhism to Islam to Catholicism, have embraced incense – think of the burning of frankincense during religious ceremonies; the smoldering of Sandalwood for meditation. Native Americans burnt desert sage ‘Smudge Sticks’ to cleanse and purify. Indian Ayurvedic medicine has long prescribed the burning of incense to treat physical or mental ailments. In Japan, precious pieces of aloeswood were treated as family heirlooms or state treasures.

Incense in Meditation

One of the most important reasons why incense is used that it purifies the air and has an extraordinary soothing effect on the mind. Just like candle brightens up a darkened room, the aromatic effect of incense offers tranquility to the senses. Incense is said to have several medicinal effects too. Many earlier civilizations used incense as a herbal medicine for treating health disorders. This in fact forms the basis of aromatherapy.

Many incense ingredients are used as medicines all over the world. Incense during meditation is said to dissipate the negative energy. Burning of incense helps to create a positive state of mind and helps condition the mind to associate the typical fragrance with a positive and calm mind.

Successful meditation depends completely on the mental state of the meditator. Incense and candles facilitate meditation. While a candle creates a positive visual impact, certain fragrances in the incense impart positive impulses to the brain. More importantly these positive impulses, over time, become a natural response to that particular incense. The mind becomes “conditioned” to respond in a particular way when that incense is used. Just as your personal belongings, the incense to be used during meditation should be of a special type to be used only during meditation.

There are hundreds of fragrances with which incense sticks are made. Unfortunately, there is twice as much advice on which fragrance should be used for what purpose. It is often recommended that lavender and jasmine fragrant incenses are the best tools for calming the mind and providing relief from stress. Choose the fragrance that has a pleasing and peaceful effect upon you. Efforts to categorize fragrances to definite emotions are at best subjective.

Types of Incense

There are four primary types of incense who are loose, stick, cylinder, and cone. They each have their pros and cons.

Loose Incense

Loose incense is the oldest form of incense that exists. It is also the most popular and simple form of incense. It is essentially a combination of one or more herbs or spices which are burned over a heat source, usually being charcoal. This type of incense usually is found in resin form.

  • ease of use
  • versatile
  • inefficient use of incense
  • smoke
  • toxic gas from burning charcoal
How to Burn Loose Incense

burn resin incense

The best way to burn resin and other forms of loose incense is over charcoal. You should get a special heat-proof burner that will have the incense inside of it. You can also add some sand or ash at the bottom of it, ideally 1″ deep, to create a barrier between the bottom and the charcoal.

When it comes to charcoal, using bamboo charcoal without any additives will allow the scents of the incense to be their most unobstructed. However, these tend to be difficult to light, so you may want to get one that has an additive that makes it easier to light.

Besides using charcoal, you can also get an incense burner that allows for you to put a small tea candle light underneath it, heating up the resin.

You can get different kinds of incense burners, ranging from an adjustable incense holder to a brass burner with a screen.

Once you have a good burner and have added the sand, place the burner somewhere that it will be away from anything combustible. Then, you will want to light a tea candle. Once the candle is lit you can use it to light your charcoal tablet. Ideally, you will be using tongs to hold it until it begins to glow. If you need you can also light it with a lighter. However, lighting a candle will be much easier because of how long it can take to light the charcoal.

Once the charcoal is glowing you will want to place it in the sand or ash you have put in the burner. You can also use a feather to fan the burning charcoal, as it was done traditionally. You can also just blow on it. Once there is a thin layer of ash atop the charcoal, you can start putting incense on top of it.The resin will either burn or melt slowly, with the aromatic scents permeating the air.

Depending on what type of charcoal you have, it may burn for upwards of 2 hours. Make sure to either leave the charcoal within the burner or remove it with tongs and run cold water over it.

Cone Incense

Cone incense is not as popular as loose incense or sticks but they are also used fairly often. A profound advantage that it has over loose incense is that it is much less messy.

  • self-burning
  • no charcoal needed
  • versatile
  • ease of use
  • economical
  • time consuming to make
  • occasionally burns out
How to Burn Cone Incense

cone incense burner

first, you will need a burner to hold the cone incense. These days, you can something simple, like a soapstone pyramid, that will get the incense burning nicely or opt for an extraordinary backflow burner that is a visually enjoyable experience in itself. You can also get an ornate Tibetan-style burner as well. The incense burner should be large enough to hold the incense cone. If several of your fingers fit in the burner base and the base is bowl-shaped, it has room to catch ash from a lit incense cone.

Place a small amount of sand at the bottom of the burner. Lay it out evenly so that the cone sits flat on top. This helps to improve the airflow in your burner, while conducting less heat throughout the surface or base of the burner.

Light the tip of the cone with a lighter. Allow for 5-10 seconds to pass and then extinguish the flame, blowing it out or fanning it with a feather. You will then see a beautiful spiral of smoke from the top of the cone as it begins to burn. Carefully place the cone in the burner and put the burner lid on top of it, if there is one. Allow the incense to burn down, giving off a rich aroma, until you are satisfied with the smell in the room.

Cylinder Incense

Cylinder incense is similar to cone incense because of the material used in manufacturing them and are both made by hand. They are however longer and thinner which allows for longer burning times. Unlike stick incense, this type has no bamboo core. The only material in this type of incense is the actual incense itself, such as sandalwood. They are made directly from a dried out paste of the incense material.

  • long burning time
  • ease of use
  • versatile
  • steady burn rate
  • hard to form
  • brittle
  • ingredients are in powder form
How to Burn Cylinder Incense

morning star japanese incense

To burn cylinder incense, you need essentially burn it like you would stick incense. The main difference is that you will have a special holder for the cylinder stick, which is brittle and will break if you attempt to cram it into a stick incense holder. These special holders are usually a tiny circular stone, and come with the incense, such as popular Japanese incense manufacturers like Morning Star.

Stick Incense

Stick incense is a very popular form of incense, lauded for its long burning time and economical advantage.

  • long burning time
  • economical
  • can be partially burned and then reused
  • messy
  • difficult to form
  • much of the scent is lost during the production process
How to Burn Stick Incense

incense burner box

First, you need an incense holder for your incense sticks. There are a few different types, including ones that stand the incense upright, ones that stand them diagonally, and ones that stand them almost horizontally within a hole-filled box. The ones which stand upright tend to get messy, because the incense ash falls outside of them easily. The one that holds it diagonally will contain everything if it is wide enough, which the cheap ones do not do. This one is a great incense stick holder that will contain all of the ash. This type of box will guarantee the incense ash stays contained.

To burn stick incense, you will need the incense sticks themselves, as well as a holder for them and a lighter. Place them within the incense holder. Then, light the tip of the side with the incense. Allow it to burn to 5-10 seconds, then blow it out. If it goes out prematurely, meaning you stop seeing smoke, light it again. You’ll get around half an hour of out a single stick.

The Benefits of Incense

  • Reduces depression and anxiety
    • Burning frankincense has been found to activate poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression.
  • Kills bacteria
    • Burning rose incense has been found to treat upset nerves and people suffering from lung, heart, and kidney diseases.
  • Dissipates negative energy
  • Purifies the air
  • Soothes the mind
  • Tranquility of the senses
  • Creates a positive state of mind

Benefits of Specific Incense Types

Below is a list of various types of incense and what their spiritual and health-related benefits are. You can click on the name of the incense to get yourself of high-quality incense sticks for your home.

Aloeswood: is calming and relaxing

Amber: is a great scent for balancing the body’s various systems

Basil: brings clarity; it is an diaphoretic, febrifuge, nervine, antispasmodic, antibacterial, antiseptic, cephalic, emmenagogue and antifungal

Bergamot: is uplifting, bright and relaxating and is known to open the heart and instill confidence and cheerful emotions

Camphor: is an expectorant, decongestant, stimulates the adrenal cortex of the brain, stimulating, antispasmodic, bronchodilator, nervine, analgesic and antiseptic; it is beneficial for soothing headaches caused by sinus problems

Cardamom: fights mood swings & builds confidence; it is stimulating, expectorant, carminative, diaphoretic and an aphrodisiac

Cedar: will have you experience a higher form of existence and reduces anxiety, fights depression & fights aggression; it is antiseptic, expectorant, diuretic, nervine, and rejuvenating

Cinnamon: is energizing and emotionally uplifting; it is diaphoretic, parasitic, aphrodisiac, antispasmodic, expectorant, analgesic, diuretic, alterative and carminative

Chamomile: calming, reduces irritability & stress

Clove: improves creativity & focus; energizing and emotionally uplifting; expectorant, analgesic carminative, and an aphrodisiac

Dragon’s Blood: has been proven effective in the relief of diarrhea, reducing fevers, helps to alleviate the symptoms of stomach viruses, and assists in relieving the pain of ulcers as well

Eucalyptus: is a diaphoretic, decongestant, stimulating, antiseptic, antispasmodic, alterative, diuretic, expectorant, antipyretic, regenerative, germicidal and deodorizing

Frankincense: helps in countless ailments such as ashthma and chest congestions and is great for spiritual growth since it has a calming effect on the emotions and centers the Self; it is also an alterative, analgesic, rejuvenative, anti-inflammatory, disinfectant, antiseptic and astringent. It also activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety and depression. The new research which has found these pshychoactive properties demonstrates its antidepressant qualities.

Gardenia: increases sexual energy; energizing and emotionally uplifting

Geranium: is antidepressing, nervine, aphrodisiac, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and a good menopause hormone balancer

Ginger: is stimulating, diaphoretic, antidepressant, expectorant, antiemetic, analgesic and carminative

Grapefruit: builds confidence & fights exhaustion; it is stimulating, carminative and diuretic

Green Tea: soothes, comforts and cools

Jasmine: will balance the hormones in the body and stimulate sexual activity; energizing and emotionally uplifting; it is an emmenagogue, nervine, antibacterial

Lavender: is noted for its ability to calm and soothe; is carminative, diuretic, antispasmodic, antiseptic, analgesic, and balancing

Lemon: fights breakdown, stimulates appetite & relieves stress; it is also an expectorant, carminative, astringent, antiseptic, antiviral and antidepressant

Lemongrass: is a diuretic, diaphoretic, refrigerant, antiseptic, stimulating and tonic

Lime: improves alertness & developes assertiveness; it is refrigerant, carminative, expectorant, diuretic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antidepressing, and antiviral

Lotus: helps in increasing clarity of mind and enhancing devotion; tt is supposed to help in bringing about prosperity and is supposed to activate the heart chakra

Mandarin: is calming, antispasmodic, nervine, astringent and hypnotic

Mint: soothes the mind, cools & relaxes

Myrrh: helps in a myriad of physical ailments and is helpful to relieve spasms, assist healing, fight inflammation, and reduce digestive discomfort; it is also calming and relaxing; it is an alterative, analgesic, emmenagogue, rejuvenative, astringent, and expectorant

Nutmeg: emotional healer, fights addiction & emotional healing

Orange: is a carminative, expectorant, stimulating, anti-inflammatory, disinfecting and anti-pyretic

Orange Blossom: increases sexual energy, relieves stress & prevents burnout

Patchouli: has been found to help soothe the nerves in the body and it has also been found to make the nerves stronger, act as an aphrodisiac, a cure for headaches, colds, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain and is also an aphrodisiac

Peppermint: is diaphoretic, carminative, nervine, stimulating, analgesic, decongestant and antiseptic

Pine: is diaphoretic, expectorant and antiseptic

Rose: helps to promote balance with your spiritual side and it has also been noted to assist in meditation and focusing one’s attention; it also increases sexual energy and is an alterative, emmenagogue, refrigerant, nervine, carminative, laxative, astringent, cell regenerator, aphrodisiac, stimulating and antidepressing

Rosemary: gives clarity and is diaphoretic, carminative, stimulating, emmenagogue, antiseptic, antispasmodic, cholagogue and antidepressing

Rosewood: is antiseptic and alterative; has good cell regeneration properties and is also a good tonic and relaxant and produces euphoria

Sage: clears negativity, emotional healer, relieves pain, and emits the very beneficial negative ions; is diaphoretic, expectorant, nervine, astringent, alterative, diuretic, disinfectant, carminative, antispasmodic, stimulating, hypertensor, emmenagogue and antidepressing

Sandalwood: has been used to alleviate stress and to bring one closer to spiritual awareness as well as builds confidence & positive outlook; energizing and emotionally uplifting; is alterative, haemostatic, antipyretic, nervine, antiseptic, antibacterial, carminative, sedative, refrigerant, expectorant, elevating, moisturizing, antispasmodic, diuretic, and an aphrodisiac

Spikenard: a woody herb that helps enhance contemplation; its sedative properties are useful for easing headaches, migraines, and relieving stress

Star Anise contains certain phytochemicals and ACE inhibitors, which lower blood pressure; this can produce a calming effect and help reduce pain

Tangerine: is carminative, expectorant, diuretic, nervine and refrigerant

Thyme: stimulates & relaxes

Tuberose: has excellent mood enhancing properties and is a good anti-depressant

Vanilla: dissipates sadness

Vetivert: is a deeply relaxing, soothing fragrance for the mind and body

Violet: induces sleep

White Lotus is energizing and emotionally uplifting

Ylang Ylang: is calming and relaxing, aphrodisiac, fights phobias & improves focus; is antiseptic, balancing, and a general tonic

These is by no means an exhaustive list, with there being other incense sticks that have a medley of herbs, spices, and flowers, such as the highly-popular nag champa or Satya Super Hit.

Positive Synergies

Use Frankincense and Myrrh together in order to create the most perfect atmosphere for spiritual growth and meditation possible. Myrrh is known as the feminine and frankincense is the masculine and when combined, they form a perfect male-female union of our spirit’s two sides of qualities that are male and female. It is the ultimate stabilizer that harmonizes the yin and yang into One. This is why the Maji brought frankincense and myrrh to baby Jesus when he was born. These two have been used for thousands of years for their amazing properties.

What Kind of Incense to Look for & to Avoid

Incense is produced with two methods, called direct burning and indirect burning. Direct burning is the most common production method and must be carefully blended and manufactured so that it has ability to slowly and evenly burn itself entirely. Indirect burning, on the other hand, contains mainly fragrant materials and not so much a combustible base like direct burning. The fragrant materials provides the desired aroma and fragrant smoke when the incense is burned. Many types of fragrant woods, resins, herbs,and essential oils are used as incense or to make incense.

What To Look For

To know the best fragrance for you, try and sample incenses with an incense sample kit. Burn each of these to their duration, which may be anywhere from 10 minutes to over an hour. This would be more than sufficient to get a complete feel of the fragrance. Just sit back and “watch” your emotional responses. This method is recommended because different fragrances can have very varied responses. If you get the fragrance that is right for you, it will most certainly make you a very happy person.

What To Avoid

Not all incense is healthy. The incense should not be perfumed with toxic substances. In recent times, because of mass marketing and commercialism, there is incense on the market that is unhealthy to use. Many times, cheap insense (called punk sticks) gives people headaches because of chemicals being burned. The punk incense contains carcinogenic chemicals that are unhealthy so be wary of the incense you inteed to purchase and try to find out what it’s made of. Punk sticks are cheap and in several cases can cause throat and nasal irritation as well as the headaches mentioned before. This inferior form of incense is loaded with artificial fragrances and perfumes that are usually added after the incense has been formed from charcoal powder. The two reasons that exist for this is because of the relative low cost of producing such incense, as well as there not being direct access to the acquirization of the natural fragrances from materials such as the cannabis plant.

List of incense often containing artificial fragrances:

  • Cannabis
  • Strawberry
  • Opium
  • Night Queen
  • Lilly of the Valley
  • Water Mellon
  • Ambergris
  • Musk
  • Mollusc operculum