INTRO TO NATURAL INCENSEIf you've been put off the idea of incense because you've experienced the sickly smoke that comes from cheap commercial sticks, take a read below for a quick understanding of how much more there is to incense, including how to avoid the cheap and nasty synthetic stuff.
A BRIEF 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. In Japan, precious pieces of Aloeswood are still 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, or to lift the spirits. The choice is yours.
NATURAL vs ARTIFICIAL INCENSE
Most people would be surprised to learn of the inferior materials used in the majority of cheaper modern incense. It has become custom for manufacturers of cheap incense to use ingredients such as coal powder, grease & used motor oils, 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 chemicals and fragrances like 'pineapple' or 'banana'. These synthetic perfumes 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 small, they're deemed as legally 'safe'.
Good quality natural incense is generally made from a blend of pure natural ingredients: sticky tree gums are used as the binding agents (rather than glue), and ground resins, woods, flowers and other botanicals are used to scent the product, whether it be sticks, cones, or pure resins warmed in charcoal tablets. These natural ingredients give off their scent when warmed, which gradually dissipates after their use, instead of leaving the clingy synthetic chemical after-smell so often associated with cheap incense. Natural incense ingredients also don't tend to irritate or give headaches, as inferior incense is renowned for.
Very few incense manufacturers will admit to their ingredients list as that usually gives away just how many synthetic ingredients are included in their products. Usually an 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 these ingredients than it does to take mass-produced glue/sawdust/rubber sticks and dip them in chemicals. Some brands appear on the surface to use natural ingredients or essential oils, however in many cases only a token amount will be natural and for the most part they’re padded out with synthetic perfumes and fragrances. 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, then it's a good indicator that there really isn't much of it in your $2 pack of incense sticks, and they'll instead be scented by almost 100% synthetic perfumes.
If you're looking for quality or natural incense products, just look into their list of ingredients. Synthetic sticks don't tend to offer much of a list; whereas incense products that are proud of their natural quality will usually advertise which natural ingredients they use. With particularly handmade or natural sticks you may even be able to see the ground resins or sandalwood powder on the surface of the stick - such a different look to the uniform dark, solid sticks of the cheap commercial types.
If it's important to you that you know exactly what you're 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, always try to buy the most natural incense available.
TYPES OF INCENSE
This is what most people picture when they think 'incense' - aromatic botanical ingredients compressed around an inner bamboo skewer. Most popular Indian stick incense is Agarbatti incense. 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 heatproof dish. The incense will naturally burn out as it reaches the bamboo skewer at the end. As with all incense, never leave unattended while burning.
Dhoop / Cones
Dhoop incense is similar to Agarbatti sticks, except instead of compressing the ingredients around an inner stick, the ingredients are pressed into a stand-alone mould such as a cone or cylinder. Cones need to be burned on a heat-proof stand as they will burn right through to the base of the cone.
Joss sticks are similar to Agarbatti sticks, though can also be made without the inner bamboo skewer - the resulting cylinder resembles a thick piece of spaghetti. This type of incense is considered to be purer than sticks containing the bamboo inner core, as the scent of burning bamboo will slightly adulterate the fragrance of the stick.
Delicate Japanese 'Koh' incense does not contain a bamboo inner stick. The fine sticks give off less smoke and a more subtle aroma than your traditional Indian incense, in exotic blends such as Green Tea, Bamboo and Sandalwood. The fragrances are calming - use anywhere to create a mood of tranquility to relax the spirit and the body. Particularly fabulous as an accompaniment to a relaxing bath as the incense is not as overwhelming as many other types.
Resin incense has been used since Biblical days - pure and natural gums, resins, woods and herbs that, when warmed on a charcoal disk, emit their aromas through aromatic smoke. Available in ancient favourites such as Frankincense, Myrrh, Sandalwood Powder and South American Copal, or in modern blends that take you all round the world - Moroccan Rose, Egyptian Gardenia, Celtic Blend and more.
Place a self-igniting charcoal disk in a censer or bowl of sand (disks available in our Incense Accessories section). Hold a match or long-handled lighter against the disk until sparks begin to dance across the top. After a few minutes the disk will glow red, much like a BBQ heat bead. Add your resin, wood or herb incense a few pellets at a time - as the resins smoulder they will release a strong aromatic smoke. As the charcoal disks glow red hot, always keep them out of the reach of children or pets. Store in an airtight bag to maintain freshness. Try mixing-and- matching the resins for tailor made fragrance blends. They can also be used on glowing coals in open fires.
Smudge Sticks are bundled wands made of bound herbs such as Desert Sage 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 traditionally used to purify the mind, body and spirit before praying, to cleanse the atmosphere & disperse negativity. Some may use it to purify their homes or offices.
To use, 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. 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. To extinguish, invert into the sand until the embers are out. Never leave a lit smudge stick unattended.
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If you're after a range of incense to purchase, please visit our AROMA QUEEN STORE where you will find a large variety of Himalayan, Indian, Japanese, Smudge, Resin Incense and accessories such as charcoal tablets, incense burners and boxes, and censers. More information is also available on our Website.
AROMA QUEEN has sourced the most wonderful range of Handmade Himalayan incense sticks directly from India, where they are made in the holy mountains of the Indian Himalayas following the traditional style of incense making as used by the great Rishis (seers), and adopting yogic formulas that have been employed since ancient times. This incense truly has to be smelled to be believed, and is entirely natural, as are our pure resin Auroshkiha sticks. We also stock a range of pure resin Auroshikha sticks, ethically made Indian sticks and cones, and Japanese Morning Star incense, as well as a large range of Resins and Resin Blends / Ritual Blends, Sage smudge sticks and leaves, and burners to suit all types of incense. Plenty of kits available for beginners or gifts.
WHO IS AROMA QUEEN?
Aroma Queen is an established registered Australian online business based on the mid NSW North Coast, in the Bellingen area.
If you're interested in purchasing Aromatherapy products, please visit our AROMA QUEEN STORE for our full range of Essential Oils, Oil Blends, Carrier Oils, Accessories (burners, inhalers, cases) and natural products including incense, smudging and natural skincare.