I’m addicted to burning incense in my home because it reminds me of the very zen time I lived in Bali. However, I’ve heard it’s actually not so great for your health to burn such things indoors, even if they do serve as pretty great anti-anxiety tools.
A quick Google search on the subject kinda freaked me out, so I turned to the pros to find out what’s real and what’s fake news—and their answers may make you think twice next time you reach for your lighter.
“There are health risks associated with burning anything,” says Well+Good Council member Sophia Gushée, an expert in toxic exposure and clean living. Otolaryngologist Nina L. Shapiro, MD, agrees. “Anything that is burned in the home creates some degree of particulate matter in air which gets breathed in,” explains Dr. Shapiro, author of Hype: A Doctor’s Guide to Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims and Bad Advice—How To Tell What’s Real and What’s Not. By “anything,” they mean all the flammable home-fragrance suspects—not just incense, but candles, sage, and palo santo, too.
Dr. Shapiro says those who suffer from environmental allergies, asthma, or any chronic lung issues may be especially susceptible to mild symptoms brought about by indoor burning—think nasal congestion, sneezing, eyes watering, coughing, or even wheezing. Yet those aren’t the only side effects related to smudging. “Extremely heavy use of incense burning, especially in closed rooms, may increase the risk of some airway cancers—primarily lung,” she tells me, adding that particulate matter and chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are to blame. (So much for my zen!)
Gushée, meanwhile, tells me the risk varies depending upon what you’re burning. “For example, candle wax can be made of a cocktail of petrochemicals, which is a lot more risky than burning 100 percent pure beeswax or sage,” she says.
In bummer news for those of us who are all about that smudge life, Gushée ultimately says that regardless of what you’re burning, it’s ideal to abstain from doing so indoors—especially if pregnant women or young children are present. “For those who can’t resist, reducing your burning of things to just special moments is a huge hack in your toxic exposures,” she says. “When you do burn, burn 100 percent pure things—get to know what you’re burning and trust the supplier. And ventilate by opening windows if outdoor air quality is good.” It can’t hurt to add a few air-purifying plants and an actual, you know, air purifier into the mix, too.
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