Unveiling the Hidden Dangers: Synthetic Incense vs. Natural Incense
The following is an extract from the book ‘Incense Magick’ by Carl F. Neal.
Synthetic incense is by far the most common type of commercial incense sold in the world. Even in Japan—the country best known for high-quality incense—synthetic incense is the type most frequently used. Synthetic incense can come in any form. Cones, sticks, coils, and even loose incense are commonly scented with synthetic fragrance oils.
Most synthetic incense shares certain drawbacks. First, some brands of synthetic incense are simply waste wood powder that is combined with a binder (a type of glue) with the resulting sticks or cones soaked in synthetic fragrance oils. The wood used in the powder might be sawdust from a manufacturing plant—sometimes the wood powder actually comes from the manufacturing of plywood. It could be a waste product from any number of commercial applications. As a result, the wood might have been treated with chemicals or could contain large quantities of powerful glues. I don’t want to imply that all synthetic incense uses such low-quality wood powder, but unfortunately there is no way to know simply by looking at an incense package.
The synthetic fragrance oils themselves can also represent some problems. These scents are created in laboratories in an effort to reproduce natural scents at a substantially lower cost than the natural version. This is done through chemical analysis of a natural scent. When natural scents are analyzed, there are many chemical components that might not appear to contribute directly to the scent. Chemical engineers will look at the analysis of the scent and then begin to experiment to see if they can replicate it. They will do so using the simplest chemical method possible. As a result, some components of the scent might be deemed “unnecessary” to the effort to fool the nose. Generally speaking, synthetic fragrances are rarely chemical duplicates of the original. They are “just enough” of the chemical composition to mislead the rather dull human nose. (Well, usually they are just enough—I’m sure we’ve all encountered incense that was labeled “apple” but actually smelled like a burning house.) The bottom line is that synthetics do not truly represent their natural counterparts. At best they are a simulation of nature. At worst they are a pathetic imitation that smells nothing like the original, natural scent. Some fragrance oils are not formulated with burning in mind. They might be created to scent soaps, body lotions, or other non-combustible products. As a result their designers never considered the health impacts of burning the chemicals involved, so you truly have no idea what the ultimate result could be.
Furthermore there is the issue of so-called “extenders.” An extender is another synthetic oil with little or no scent of its own. Extenders cost far less than scented oils, so many synthetic incense makers use them to “step on” or dilute the more expensive scented oils. This allows incense makers to lower their costs by stretching the scented oils. Without an extender, a pound of scented oil might only make 500 sticks or cones of incense. With the extender, the same amount of oil could make 1,000 or even 1,500 sticks or cones. This does dilute the scent somewhat, but synthetic oils are usually so strong that the incense still has a powerful scent. Aside from the obvious ethical question of diluting oils to lower the cost (although the retail price usually stays the same), there is also a question of safety. The chemicals used as extenders have, to the best of my knowledge, never been tested in any laboratory anywhere for their safety in incense. Most extenders are actually meant to be used in products that are not burned (such as soaps and household cleaners). Dipropylene glycol (also called DPG) is the most commonly used extender. This is a great point of contention among some incense makers, but both my personal and professional experiences have shown me many shortcomings of extenders. Although I have gotten a few nasty letters from several readers disputing my sentiments on this issue, I stand by my belief that this chemical is dangerous when used in combustible materials. The MSDS (material safety data sheet) for DPG (view here) states that it releases poisonous gas when burned! If that doesn’t clearly demonstrate its possible hazards, I don’t know what would. Some incense makers are so addicted to the extra few cents of profit they get from using these extenders that they resent my mentioning this to customers. I have gotten hate letters demanding that I prove the dangers of DPG in a full-blown university study. My response to this is that the manufacturers themselves do not endorse the use of DPG in incense and the MSDS warns not to burn the material. Therefore a university study would have to be done in order to prove that it does not represent any harm. Personally, I can often identify incense with DPG in it because it gives me a headache. If you believe that you are allergic to incense, it could easily be a reaction to the synthetic ingredients in the incense you’ve tried. In any case follow your doctor’s advice on the subject.
Incense labeled “dipped” is generally made with synthetic oils, although there are a few exceptions. “Dipped” means that the incense was formed and dried as an unscented stick or cone. This “blank” incense is then soaked in fragrance oils. Some incense makers use fireworks punks (the long, smoldering sticks used to light the fireworks safely) as their “blank” incense. Aside from the drawbacks of synthetic incense I mentioned earlier, the composition of those blanks is often a cause for concern. Although I imagine there are natural blank producers out there somewhere, most blanks are of unknown composition because the manufacturers aren’t required to disclose their materials; to my knowledge, none of them voluntarily provide that information. These blanks can be made from any type of wood, so the base scent is unpredictable. It is of even greater concern that some blanks are made with waste materials from the production of plywood. That type of wood powder can contain many different chemicals including all sorts of glues. The scent is unpredictable but so is the impact of the materials on those who inhale its smoke. Again, I want to make it clear that I’m not making a blanket condemnation of the incense dipping process, but one of the biggest problems with this style of incense is the lack of consumer knowledge about its content. I know that all of this information seems to make synthetic incense appear to be a worthless product. That isn’t true. There is synthetic incense that uses high-quality wood powder and only pure scented oils. It’s true that the incense is not natural, but if no extenders are used, if the synthetic oils are pure and appropriate for burning, and if quality wood (or charcoal) powder is used, the incense should be perfectly safe to use. If your desire is to use this incense to cover a bad odor in your house (those of us with cats are very familiar with that problem) or car or other space, I feel it is perfectly fine to use good-quality synthetic incense.
Still, the problem is that synthetic incense is virtually never clearly labeled. I have never seen any synthetic incense that listed the purity of the oils or type of woods used, so it’s very difficult for a consumer to know if the quality is high or low. There are some synthetic brands that advertise that they are free of extenders. If you can locate those, they might be your best choice for synthetics. If the incense is made in a local store or by a small company, it’s unlikely you’ll have access to that type of information. You may want to ask the incense maker directly before purchasing. There are several internationally known brands of synthetic incense that are certainly made of quality materials, but incense from many makers is very difficult to confirm.
At PremaNature we take great pride in our natural Vedic incense sticks. Our supreme quality is obvious while burning the incense. We use only essential oils and other natural ingredients, we do not use DPG oil but energized water and instead of sawdust or fillers mixed with glue or other chemicals, we use pure charcoal power which produces a limited amount of smoke and reflects the fragrance of all ingredients to its fullest.
Check out our natural incense sticks here Visit the authors YouTube channel here
Organic Amber Deluxe
Amber Deluxe contains sandalwood and the popular and very exclusive halmaddi resin extracted from the Ailanthus triphysa tree, along with other supporting essential oils, resins and herbs. The combination is a very inspiring sweet-woody fragrance ideal for contemplation or meditation. The mix of pure charcoal with fragrant substances produces a very pure and soul-touching experience.
– High-energy, made with theertham(consecrated water)
– Entirely natural:
Made with essential oils, herbs, resins, wood powders
and high-grade charcoal powder for a clean burn
– DPG oil free
– Low smoke and soothing, ideal for indoors
– Hand rolled, made by women
Quantity: 34 or 68 sticks Burning time: 45 to 55 minutes
Ingredients: Sawdust, high-grade purified charcoal, tree resins, essential oils and theertham Scent: Woody and sweet; lingers on for 2 hours Benefits: Can inspire the mind and enhance your meditation; raises the vibration of the room Stick length: 20.3 cm / 8 inch