A QUICK HISTORY OF INCENSE
The word 'incense' is derived from the Latin 'incensum' - to set on fire. Incense, whether stick, resin, cone or herb, is smouldered to release its fragrance through aromatic smoke.
Our passion for Incense is as old as written history. 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. When Jesus was born, the three wise men 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 smouldering 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. And in Japan, precious pieces of fragrant Aloeswood were treated as family heirlooms or state treasures.
Today incense is still used for ritual purposes. But it can also be used for so much more: to relax, to scent, to deodorise. To spark creativity, to encourage sensuality, to meditate or lift the spirits. From the humble incense stick to hand made Tibetan dhoop or Nepalese rope incense, or even natural resin gums straight from the plant - we are spoiled with choices on how to bring incense into our day to day lives.
NATURAL VS ARTIFICIAL INCENSE
Not all incense is created equally, and most people are surprised to learn of the inferior materials used in the majority of cheaper modern incense. Rather than using traditional methods, it has become commonplace for some larger manufacturers to use ingredients such as coal powder, grease & used motor oil, melted tyres & inner tubes, and even albumen powder derived from the blood of slaughtered animals and used as a binding agent.
Others use 'punk' sticks - bamboo skewers coated in sawdust and glue, 'dipped' directly into harsh chemical fragrances such as 'pineapple' or 'banana', along with a cost-saving solvent called Dipropylene Glycol (DPG), which helps the scent 'throw' - to go further and last longer. Synthetic perfumes or 'fragrances' are widely believed to produce harmful carbon dioxide gas when burnt, and may cause headaches, eye irritations, or be otherwise damaging to your health. Not only this, but many artificial fragrances are believed to contain carcinogenic compounds, but as the quantity used is relatively small they're deemed as legally 'safe'. Often when you come across people who tell you that they're allergic to incense, they're actually referring to this type of stick and the chemicals that are involved. It's not unusual to find that they have never been lucky enough to experience quality natural incense.
High quality natural incense generally features a blend of pure natural ingredients: sticky tree gums are used as the binding agents (rather than glue), and ground aromatic resins, woods, flowers, herbs and other botanicals are used to scent the product - whether it be sticks, cones, pure resins warmed on charcoal tablets, dhoop or rope incense. These natural ingredients give off their scent when warmed, and after the incense has finished burning the remaining scent gradually dissipates, instead of leaving that clingy synthetic chemical after-smell so often associated with cheap incense.
Natural incense ingredients also don't tend to irritate or cause the headaches that many people experience when using inferior chemical-based incense. Though being primarily about smoke, it is generally best to avoid incense if somebody in the household suffers from asthma.
Most high quality sticks are made using the 'masala' method, which means that the raw ingredients - including naturally sticky ones - are ground into a paste, which is then hand--rolled around the inner bamboo stick. Dhoop or cones are made in a similar way, except they are pressed into a mould, rolled into a 'spaghetti' type shape, or extruded into a thicker 'dhoop stick', rather than having an inner bamboo skewer.
So a great way to get a sense of the quality of your incense can be to take a good look at the stick (or cone) itself. Is it a thin and solid looking thing that is hard to the touch? That most likely means it's a 'dipped' stick. Or can you see natural ground ingredients and powders loosely dropping off the surface - a good indicator that it's a masala stick that utilises natural ingredients like resins or ground wood powder, and naturally sticky ingredients that don't set hard like glue. Others may use a sandalwood powder base with added essential oils - there are a number of ways incense sticks can be created, and very few incense manufacturers actually admit to their ingredients list as that usually gives away just how many synthetic ingredients are included in their products. But just looking at the incense itself can give an idea of whether it may be cheap and nasty, or containing some beautiful ingredients.
Another top indication is price. If a product is excessively cheap then it’s unlikely to contain many natural ingredients as it does cost more to use botanicals than it does to take mass-produced glue & sawdust sticks and dip them in chemicals. Some brands may also appear on the surface to use natural ingredients or essential oils, however in many cases only a token amount will be natural and the rest will be padded out with synthetic perfumes and fragrances. So if a product claims to use an expensive essential oil such as Rose or Jasmine, take a quick look at the current prices of these essential oils - if a 10ml bottle of jasmine oil usually costs $100 - $200, for example, then that's a good indicator that there really isn't much of it in your $2 pack of incense sticks, and they'll instead be almost entirely scented with synthetic perfumes.
If you're looking for quality or natural incense products, just look into their list of ingredients, if it's available. Synthetic sticks don't tend to offer much of a list or description; whereas incense products that are proud of their natural quality will usually advertise some of the natural ingredients they feature. With some handmade or natural sticks you may even be able to see the ground resins or botanical powders on the surface of the stick - such a different look to the uniform dark, solid sticks of some of the cheap commercial types.
If it's important to you that you know exactly what you and your family are breathing in when you burn your incense, then you need to make sure you know what you are buying. If you're concerned about avoiding potentially toxic ingredients, we recommend that you always try to buy the most natural incense available.
As with all of our products, AROMA QUEEN aims to stock only the most natural of incense, free from animal products and artificial fragrances.
SAFETY: When burning incense, never leave it unattended while burning and always keep out of reach of children or pets. Dispose of ash once cooled.
ASTHMA: Like many other irritants, smoke from incense can irritate and cause asthma. If you are a known asthmatic please consider this before purchasing incense products.
TYPES OF INCENSE
This is what most people picture when they think 'incense' - aromatic ingredients compressed around an inner bamboo skewer.
Most popular Indian stick incense is Agarbatti incense, though they can be extremely varied in quality. Cheaper commercial 'dipped' incense can contain some pretty scary ingredients, ranging from melted tyres used for their stickiness, to rough sawdust glued to sticks and dipped in chemicals and synthetic fragrances. Good quality or natural incense sticks are quite different, and are usually made in the 'masala' method of mixing a blend of ground botanicals, flowers & herbs, roots and resins known for their aromatic qualities, along with naturally 'sticky' gums and ingredients, into a paste that is then hand-rolled around the inner bamboo stick. When people complain that incense gives them a headache it's almost certain that they're talking about the type that use artificial scents and chemicals, rather than more pure natural versions.
To burn incense sticks, simply light the end of the stick, and when it begins to glow blow out the flame and allow the stick to smoulder over an ash- catcher, incense box or burner, or heatproof dish. The incense will naturally burn out as it reaches the bamboo skewer at the end, and the ash can be disposed of once cooled.
CLICK HERE to view our INCENSE STICKS RANGE.
DHOOP (inc CONES, TIBETAN STICKS, JOSS STICKS)
Dhoop incense is similar to Agarbatti sticks, except instead of compressing the ingredients around an inner skewer, the ingredients are pressed into a stand-alone mould such as a cone or cylinder. Others such as 'joss sticks' or Tibetan dhoop sticks like those pictured below, are rolled or extruded into a long cylinder resembling a thick piece of spaghetti.
This type of incense is generally considered to be purer than sticks containing the bamboo inner core, as the scent of burning bamboo may arguably adulterate the fragrance of the stick. However dhoop sticks are also more delicate as they can snap more easily without the inner stick for strength.
Cones and dhoop sticks need to be burned on a heat-proof stand as they will burn right through to the base of the incense before extinguishing themselves ('agarbatti' sticks go out when they reach the bamboo skewer section). Any flat heatproof stand will work for cones, but a stick will need to be burned upright so will need a stand that fits the thickness of your stick: many come with simple burners to get you started, or suitable dhoop burners are also available in plenty of design choices.
To light a cone or dhoop stick, just hold a flame to the tip in the same way you would a traditional incense stick, wait until it's caught and is starting to glow red, then blow out the flame and allow to smoke.
CLICK HERE to view our INCENSE CONES RANGE.
CLICK HERE to view our DHOOP INCENSE.
Delicate Japanese 'Koh' incense is similar to Indian 'dhoop' in that it does not contain an inner bamboo skewer. The fine sticks give off less smoke and a more subtle aroma than traditional Indian incense, making them particularly fabulous as an accompaniment to a relaxing bath or in other smaller spaces as the incense is not as overwhelming as many other types.
As the smoke is fairly subtle in comparison to thick Indian Agarbatti sticks, it's possible to burn a few different types at once to create a unique signature scent of your own - or burn multiples of the same sticks to create a stronger scent if required.
Burning koh sticks is the same as other incense sticks, but like dhoop sticks they will burn until the very end so do require a suitable burner. Many types come with a simple burning tile to place over a heatproof dish that will catch the ash, or you can choose a suitable burner or even insert upright into a bowl of wet sand or earth, though the stick will usually stop burning once it reaches the sand and may not burn all the way through if you use this method.
CLICK HERE to view our JAPANESE INCENSE SECTION.
Resin incense has been used since Biblical days - pure and natural gums & resins, as well as aromatic woods and herbs that, when warmed on a charcoal disk, emit their aromas through aromatic smoke. Available in ancient favourites such as Frankincense, Myrrh, Dragons Blood and South American Copal, or botanicals such as Sandalwood chips, Palo Santo wood or crushed dried sage.
Resins are also available in blends with several resins and botanicals mixed together, such as Celtic, Forest or Cathedral Blend, or 'Ritual' Blends created for a certain purpose such as Meditation or Protection.
Resins are typically burned with a charcoal disk, which is much like a flat bbq heat bead, in a 'censer' burner, or even in a bowl of damp sand or earth - SEE OUR SEPARATE LEARN MORE BLOG ON RESIN INCENSE for a complete easy-to-understand tutorial and instructions on how to burn Resin Incense using Charcoal Tablets.
CLICK HERE to view our RESIN INCENSE SECTION.
Resin incense is also available in stick form - AUROSHIKHA have a range of resin sticks featuring finely ground pure resins pressed around a bamboo inner stick. As these burn like traditional Agarbatti incense sticks they can be easier to use than the charcoal method. Visit our AUROSHIKHA page for more details.
Nepalese Rope Incense would have to be one of the most unique incense types you're likely to come across, handmade using traditional methods. Dried herbs and other naturally scented botanicals are finely powdered and wrapped in a thin strip of hand-prepared Nepali lokta paper, which is then braided to form a soft rope-like dhoop stick, ready to burn.
To burn Rope Incense, just light the intertwined ends and once it's alight, blow out the flame to allow the stick to smoulder. Rest a lit stick in a heatproof dish of sand or ash, on a suitable burner or hanging stand, or across the bars of a purpose-made Burner Box - as long as it has air around it, the stick will smoulder until it has completely burned through. Each stick can burn up to 30 - 40 minutes depending on the breeze and burning conditions.
CLICK HERE to view our ROPE INCENSE SECTION.
Smudge Sticks are bundled wands made of bound herbs such as Desert Sage, Cedarwood or Sweetgrass. Native Americans traditionally perform a purification ritual known as 'smudging' to clear the atmosphere of negative vibrations and fill the environment with positive, uplifting energies.
Sage smudge is the most commonly used, to purify the mind, body and spirit before praying, to cleanse and purify the atmosphere & disperse negativity. Other botanicals are also used, featuring different herbs & botanicals, other sage variations, or even with ground resins added to them that will also burn when the stick is smouldering.
To use a smudge stick, remove the yarn binding the stick and place it in a heatproof dish or abalone shell filled with sand or ashes, to keep it upright (or carefully hold against a shell while moving around). Light the tip of the bundle on fire until the Smudge Stick catches, then blow out the flame to allow the herbs to smoulder, sending sweet fragrant smoke into the air. Re-light as necessary.
If your stick has become damp or has been in a humid environment it may just need to be relit a couple of times during use, or dried out before you use it - try placing in the sun or a warm environment to remove any excess moisture.
To extinguish, invert into the sand until the embers are out. Never leave a lit smudge stick unattended.
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