Candles and Incense Pose Health Risks


The altar table in Gustaf Vasa church, Stockholm, Sweden by Håkan Svensson (Xauxa) is licensed under CC BY- SA 3.0

Every ritual has candles and incense at its crux. It seems a time- honored and universal practice. The act of using flames and burning herbs, resins, plants, and woods for the unique smells emitted to accompany religious rituals likely go back before written records and before material culture had advanced enough to do it with competence. However, both ritual accessories can be major health risks due to the toxic fumes they release. In fact, I recently looked up the dangers of incense and candles, and it had a devastating effect on my burgeoning spiritual practice. I want to share my thoughts upon giving up my candle and incense burning, and make suggestions for how to move forward after understanding the risks involved.

First, I will go over the dangers of incense and candles. For incense, the evidence is overwhelming that burning it leaves the air full of pollutants. One study, conducted in China, showed that incense smoke had more fine and ultrafine particles than cigarette smoke. Another study showed that the air around a temple in Taiwan had many PAH’s, or Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons.  Both studies indicate what many already know: that burning any fissile material can create dangerous fumes, and that most smoke isn’t good for human lungs. The data isn’t all that better for candles. There are many reports online that suggest a majority of commercial candles release toxins, though the candle industry disputes that contention. Many candles are made with paraffin, which may be harmful to health. This report says that paraffin fumes can cause problems. It is reported that burning paraffin leaves benzene and toluene in the air. Paraffin is made with petroleum, and part of the reason it’s so widespread is it’s cheaper than using other types of candle wax. Even expensive candles are made with it, though they are said to use refined paraffin, which is supposedly better. As a result, there seems to be evidence that incense is a health hazard and that a majority of the candles out there might also pose health risks.

Learning about the health threat to my lungs impacted how I performed daily rituals. When I found out about the unhealthy effects of incense and candles, I was using them everyday. I burned one stick of incense for each altar, some days performing up to four rituals a day. I also burned separate candles for each altar and sometimes let them burn even after the ritual was over. The first step to performing a ritual was grabbing a lighter that I always put in a special spot on my shelf. So, upon learning the negative health effects, my entire ritual sequence fell apart. I felt disappointment and shock. I didn’t know how I would proceed. I had also memorized the sequence of steps and suddenly it was thrown in disarray. I contemplated what it would be like to do a ritual without the sobering smell of frankincense and myrrh. I wondered what the gods would think of my lack of devotion and perseverance. It felt so natural to light candles and incense, as they were lofty pillars of the practice.

At first, I thought I might not be able to find healthy, affordable candles. I fretted at the thought that I would have to deviate from the time- accepted norms for praying to the gods. But the more I read and did my research, the less my fears were founded. I discovered some great alternatives to the cheap, made- in- China candles I had been using. One company called Aloha Bay sold affordable palm wax and coconut wax candles. Palm wax comes from the fruit of the oil palm, a species of palm tree originating in West Africa. Palm oil is made from the fruit, and palm wax is made from the oil. Another company, Mrs. Meyers, sold soy candles. Soy candles are made from soy wax, which comes from soybean oil. Coconut wax is another wax substitute that comes from coconut oil. Some articles claim soy candles are not free of paraffin and carcinogens. There were even beeswax candles, which can be quite expensive but are completely free of toxins by all accounts. So, I learned there were healthy alternatives to paraffin wax candles, amongst them palm wax, coconut wax, beeswax, and soy wax candles.


Candles on shelves by Erkaha licensed under CC BY- SA 4.0

Though I don’t have to exclude candles from my rituals I will have to limit my use of incense. There is really no way to light incense and not pollute the air with particulate matter. Even natural, organic incense will be a health hazard for the lungs. No matter how I look at it, incense is harmful. Burning it will leave my home space with toxic air and damage my lungs. Unlike candles, there isn’t an option for burning incense if you are concerned about health.

Use of incense during rituals is an important component that is difficult to replace. One possible alternative is a diffuser, with which essential oils are broken down with ultrasonic rays or heat and become airborne. While a diffuser definitely will leave the air with pleasant aromas, they aren’t of the same quality as those scents left by incense. I will miss the frankincense the most. There is something about frankincense incense that can’t be replicated with essential oils. After reflection, I haven’t thought of a way to get the same aroma I get from frankincense and myrrh incense. Something about the incense does wonders for my clarity, mystical inclinations, and connection with the divine. Until I can find a way to get a similar aroma in a healthy way, I will miss it.

I have some suggestions for using incense at home. Use it sparingly, and use it for a short duration. You can use a small glass bottle or another source to put out the incense. Don’t let it burn too long. Be sure to ventilate the space where you burn incense. I’ve decided that I may burn incense once a week, on a chosen day. Thursdays are a good choice, as they are the day of Jupiter. As lord of wisdom and spirituality, Jupiter’s day is as good a day as any to take up the priest’s robe while doing daily rituals in your home space. Another possibility is choosing a day each week to burn incense with your rituals. One week can be Monday, another Friday, and so forth. Or you might want to hold off on burning incense and do it at less frequent intervals. It’s all up to you. But it’s important that you are aware of the health risks involved.

The change that comes from learning about the dangers posed by incense and candles may be a boon in disguise. The idea that some of the elements that go along with ritual performance are unhealthy forces one to rethink the entire scenario. It might lead to experimentation and attempts at different types of rituals. For those used to incense, it’s a challenge to find a path that doesn’t include it. That can be the beauty of changing your ritual. It will make you uncomfortable. You will meditate longer and focus more on offerings. You might explore a non-toxic way to perform ritual and pioneer one if others haven’t already. You will explore other alternatives to making the ritual complete and whole. So, there’s a silver lining.

So, there is a possibility that the majority of commercial candles pose a health risk and that there is evidence incense causes harm. Buying candles made of palm oil, soy oil, coconut oil, or beeswax is a good way to sidestep potential risk from paraffin made candles. Likewise, burning incense for short periods, leaving the windows open, and avoiding the use of incense altogether will improve the air at home and around altar spaces. It’s good to be conscious of the harm that can occur and to prevent it by implementing changes to the way rituals are performed. Rethinking the approach to rituals, in the interest of staying healthy, can be beneficial and have unexpected, positive consequences.