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Is Burning Incense Really Safe in Your Home?

Tim Boyer's picture
Burning incense

A recent article titled “Hazard assessment of United Arab Emirates (UAE) incense smoke” published in the August 2013 issue of the journal Science of the Total Environment, tells us that burning incense in your home is not as safe as most people believe.


Burning incense in the home is a common practice in the Middle East. Researchers focused on identifying potential sources of indoor pollution within the home recently decided to investigate what hazards may exist from breathing in the smoke created from burning incense.

According to a new release issued by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, indoor air pollution is a significant source of lung disease. Of special concern are United Arab Emirates households where the majority of families burn incense as a cultural practice to perfume clothing and air and to remove cooking odors.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1 million people a year die from chronic obstructive respiratory disease, primarily as a result of exposure to pollutants from cook stoves and open hearths. As it turns out, previous studies have shown that burning incense releases similar pollutants and has been associated with health problems, including eye, nose, throat and skin irritation; respiratory symptoms, including asthma; headaches; exacerbation of cardiovascular disease; and changes in lung-cell structure. Some studies have shown an association between incense exposure and an increased risk of developing cancer of the lungs, head and neck.

To determine whether there is more than just an association between incense smoke and lung disease, the researchers of the study looked at what gases are released from burning incense and how human lung cells respond to the gases.

The incense used in the study consisted of two types of incense commonly used―Oudh and Bahkoor― which are aromatic resin-like substances within the Aquilaria family of trees called thymelaeceae, that grow in temperate and rainforest regions. Not a true sap, these substance are produced naturally in the wood in response to a fungal infection. However, just as cigarettes are known to have an impressive number of additives compounded with tobacco, many incense types such as the Bahkoor incense also incorporate sandalwood, essential oils and a number of unlisted chemicals.

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The incense types were burned in a specially constructed chamber built to replicate the conditions of a typical room of someone from the United Arab Emirates. While the incense burned, culture dishes containing human lung cells were exposed to the gases emitted by the burning incense while analytical equipment measured the particulate concentrations and levels of gases that included carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and oxides of nitrogen and formaldehyde.

What the researchers found was that the sizes of the particles and the concentration of the gases exceeded government regulation values. Furthermore, the lung cell cultures revealed a significant inflammatory response to the incense smoke likened to that seen with asthma and other respiratory problems. The authors state that the response of lung cells to the incense is similar to that observed when lung cells are exposed to cigarette smoke.

Adding to the problem of indoor pollution is the use of lit charcoal briquettes by some families to ignite and burn the incense. Burning charcoal is a significant source of carbon monoxide that can be trapped within a room and unknowingly inhaled. In the U.S, some incense users use charcoal tablets to burn non-combustible incense in their home.

The authors of the study recommend having a door or window open when burning incense in the home and that additional research is needed to further quantify how much harm there is from exposure to incense smoke.

Image Source: Courtesy of PhotoBucket

Reference: “Hazard assessment of United Arab Emirates (UAE) incense smoke” Science of the Total Environment Vol. 458-460, 1 August 2013, Pages 176-186; Rebecca Cohen et al.



We burn incense in churches and studies show that people who regularly attend church services and keep the faith in Jesus alive are healthier, live longer and their minds are more protected against dementia. Probably it depends what type of incense their burning: artificial with additives or natural.