Is Burning Incense Bad for You? - Dr. Axe

Fact Checked

This Dr. Axe content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure factually accurate information.

With strict editorial sourcing guidelines, we only link to academic research institutions, reputable media sites and, when research is available, medically peer-reviewed studies. Note that the numbers in parentheses (1, 2, etc.) are clickable links to these studies.

The information in our articles is NOT intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice.

This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts and fact checked by our trained editorial staff. Note that the numbers in parentheses (1, 2, etc.) are clickable links to medically peer-reviewed studies.

Our team includes licensed nutritionists and dietitians, certified health education specialists, as well as certified strength and conditioning specialists, personal trainers and corrective exercise specialists. Our team aims to be not only thorough with its research, but also objective and unbiased.

The information in our articles is NOT intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice.

Is Burning Incense Bad for You?


Is burning incense bad for you - Dr. Axe

Walk into any yoga studio and chances are high that the place will smell amazing, usually because there’s incense burning. Or maybe you use incense at home to set a relaxing mood when it’s time to wind down. Whatever the case, most of us have used incense at some point.

Many people use it as an alternative to synthetic scents, which can be really harmful to your health. But is incense that right alternative when you’re opting for a more natural lifestyle? Or in other words, is burning incense bad for you?

What Is Incense?

So what is incense? It’s really any type of material that’s made from plant materials and burned to produce a fragrance. It’s been around for thousands of years.

Ancient Egyptians used it to please the gods and eventually, its use spread around the world, usually in religious and healing ceremonies. Even today, you’ll notice that it’s routinely used in churches or to disinfect areas after someone has been sick or passed away.

How do you light incense sticks?

If you go to buy incense, you’ll notice that there are two types. Direct-burning incense is likely the one you’re most familiar with. It’s also called combustible incense. The way this one works is with an ignitable base that binds the incense together.


First, the incense is lit with a flame and then the flame is blown out. The ember that remains smolders, producing both the smoke and the fragrant scent that we associate with incense.

Indirect-burning incense requires a constant heat source to keep it lit, because the incense is made with materials that don’t remain ignited by themselves. Sticks are the most common type of incense, but you can also get incense cones, which burn fairly fast.


Is burning incense bad for you - Dr. Axe


Why do you burn incense?

As I mentioned, incense is often part of a religious practice. If you walk into a Catholic church, for instance, there’s likely to be incense burning during a Mass. Many people use it to set a particular atmosphere for activities like prayer, meditation or another quiet, spiritual type of practice. And sometimes incense is burned because it just smells good!

Is Burning Incense Bad for You? 4 Scary Dangers

Because incense is derived from natural materials, it seems like a scented solution that’s good for us. But there’s more to incense than meets the eye. Here are some reasons you might want to steer clear of incense.

1. It causes inflammation in your lungs. Just like you might get chest pains and a cough if you’re in a place with a lot of smoke, burning incense can irritate your lungs. One study found that just three hours of breathing incense smoke caused an inflammatory response in people’s lungs, likely due to the fact that incense smoke contains chemicals like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and formaldehyde. (1)

2. Incense is a type of air pollution. As mentioned above, any time you burn incense, dangerous pollutants are being released into the air you breathe. This includes including carbon monoxide, a poisonous, potentially deadly killer. (2)

Now, is burning an incense stick now and again going to poison you? Doubtful. But it could make you clumsy, forgetful and even more tired. Also, incense is usually burned in closed spaces, where there’s little ventilation. Add in the fact that any type of smoke and fumes, including incense smoke, is considered pollution, and you’re looking at a really scary situation. Since indoor air pollution is already worse than outdoor, do you really want to introduce more pollution into the air?

And if you’ve wondered is incense bad for dogs, the answer, sadly, is yes. Our four-legged friends have extremely sensitive noses. Something that smells nice to you is likely driving them nuts. Their lungs are also more sensitive to pollutants, and breathing incense smoke can give them respiratory problems.


Is burning incense bad for you - Dr. Axe


3. The smoke could be more dangerous than cigarette smoke. Additionally, another study found that air pollution around places, like temples, where incense is burned regularly is harmful to health. The smoke pollutants can cause respiratory system dysfunction and produce more particulate matter than cigarette smoke, 45 milligrams per gram, compared to a cigarette’s 10 milligrams per gram. (3)

Particulate matter, or PM, is a mixture of small particles and liquid droplets that form as a result of chemical reactions between pollutants, according to the EPA. Once a person inhales PM, their heart and lungs can be seriously affected.


4. It increases your risk of cancer. Can incense give you cancer? The answer isn’t definitive. But can it increase your risk of certain types of cancer? Absolutely.

One study of more than 61,000 women found that incense use was associated with a significantly higher risk of upper respiratory tract carcinomas, or UPT. The longer the women burned incense for and the more intense the use was, the higher the risk. (4)

Another study, published in 2017, found that a particular compound that’s released when incense is burned, auramine O (AuO), promotes lung cancer malignancy, promoting activity in lung tumor cells, helping the cancer strengthen and progress. (5)

Nontoxic Alternatives to Incense

So are you destined to live life with an unscented meditation practice or cooking smells lingering in your home? Of course not. Here are some non-toxic, natural alternatives to incense.

Essential oils and aromatherapy. One of my favorite ways to add fragrance to any room is with essential oils and aromatherapy. Using certain oils or a particular mix of oils can help with health problems, improve your mood, ease anxiety, help with trouble sleeping and more, all without chemicals or toxic ingredients.

My favorite way to use essential oils to add a nice smell to the home is by using an aromatherapy diffuser. Add your favorite oil, some water and you’ll have a beautifully fragrance room in minutes. If you need help selecting the right oil, my essential oils guide will help you find the right one for whatever benefit you’re looking for.

Add houseplants to your home. Do a double whammy and invest in some houseplants. Not only do they smell nice and look great, but they also double as an air filter. That’s right, certain plants are excellent at removing chemicals and dangerous compounds from the air.

The best houseplants that remove air pollution include bromeliad, dracaena and spider plants. But really, any type of plants or flowers are a good way to clean up the air around you and lightly fragrance your home. I also like potting fresh herbs around the home, like mint, basil and cilantro. They smell nice and you can eventually eat them!

Final Thoughts

  • Incense has been used for thousands of years, mainly in religious and spiritual practices but also to mask smells or add fragrance to the air.
  • Burning incense creates fumes that are a type of air pollution. This smoke can cause a variety of health problems, from respiratory problems to an increased risk of lung cancer.
  • Incense is also harmful to your dog; they have more sensitive noses and smaller lungs, so the effect is more powerful.
  • Incense smoke can even be more dangerous than cigarette smoke.
  • Instead of incense, try non-toxic alternatives to adding fragrance to a space, like an aromatherapy diffuser or house plant.
  • If you’re set on burning incense, make sure you’re in a well-ventilated space. Choose organic brands that don’t have added fillers in them, and keep your pets away.

Read Next: Dear Uber Driver

More Health