Incense is chic again.
You have only to see all the photos of burning incense and crystals on Instagram to know that young people are following this trend. Some companies are even marketing incense as being good for your health. And while it’s true that burning incense can make your house or office smell like a calming spa; is it really a good idea? Not necessarily according to researchers.
Recent studies published in the journal Nature have revealed some surprising health risks linked to burning incense indoors which may make you reconsider using incense to create a calming, patchouli-scented environment. Here are some of the harmful health effects linked to incense burning:
- Worsening brain health: Recent research found that indoor incense burning is associated with worse cognitive performance and decreased brain connectivity. The study tested 515 older adults and found that those exposed to indoor incense burning on a weekly basis had worse cognitive performance and decreased brain connectivity after three years. That is perhaps because some of the toxic chemicals in incense smoke have been associated with intellectual decline, accelerated cognitive aging, and an increased risk for Alzheimer’s Disease and vascular dementia.
- Increased transmission of viruses such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes Covid-19. A 2020 study found that burning incense indoors can facilitate the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus by releasing coarse and fine particles into the air.
- Asthma: A study evaluating children showed an association between incense burning and asthma or asthma-like symptoms.
- Cancer: A 2009 study confirmed that some of the particulate matter in incense smoke is carcinogenic. The study also found an association between higher cancer risk—especially for squamous cell lung cancer and upper respiratory cancers—and incense use.
- Hypertension: Studies have found that pregnant women exposed to burning incense during pregnancy had a higher risk of hypertensive disorders and higher blood pressure levels.
- Developmental delays: Another study found a link between household incense burning and delay in infant gross motor development.
- Inflammation: Studies suggest incense smoke can also trigger chronic inflammation in the body and lungs.
Part of the reason for these potential health effects is that indoor incense burning is linked to poor air quality and increased levels of toxic chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are associated with a host of health problems. These compounds include:
- polyaromatic hydrocarbons
- carbon monoxide
One recent study published in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that burning incense indoors resulted in benzene, formaldehyde, and other VOCs at levels that are higher than the limits recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). Mosquito repellant incense especially has been known to release formaldehyde into the air. In fact, about 10-20% of the air pollutants from the incense was formaldehyde.
Incense cones appear to be more problematic for air pollution compared to incense sticks. Researchers found that incense cones were much more likely to be polluting than sticks. Moreover, health risks are related to the overall amount of exposure to these chemicals. Multiple studies recommend that, given the health risks of indoor incense burning, children and anyone with respiratory illnesses, such as asthma or COPD, should avoid places that burn incense indoors.
People who still wish to enjoy the calming effects of burning incense should reduce their exposure by limiting the amount of time they burn incense, choosing natural plant-based incense, using adequate indoor air ventilation or an air purifier, or burning incense outdoors.
Better yet, switch to a healthier option like essential oils to make your home smell nice. The bottom line: burning incense may be hazardous to your health, so please reconsider using it at home.
The Collins Law Firm is a premier environmental law firm representing people who have been harmed by toxic chemical contamination. If your neighborhood has been affected by contaminated air or groundwater, contact us at 630-527-1595 to discuss your options.