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Updated July 2022
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and all opinions about the products are our own. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Buying guide for best incense

Incense is one of the world’s oldest fragrances. People have used it for centuries in ceremonial events as well as at home. It’s an affordable, natural, and an earthy way to add ambiance to the environment.

Incense has cultural significance for the many people and cultures who use it in their religious rites. Early uses can be traced back to ancient societies in Egypt, India, and China. In those early days, it was integral to ceremonial rites and rituals. That wave continues today, as people of many faiths burn incense in places of worship. Many also choose to burn incense at home, whether for ritual or the fragrance alone.

Before you decide which incense product to purchase, there are a few factors to keep in mind. What will you be using the incense for? What scent do you prefer? You’ll also want to consider the incense form, its country of origin, and its price.

burning incense
Use caution when burning incense around furniture and clothing, as it can easily stain. To remove incense ash stains, spot clean with a solution of dish soap, cool water, and a washcloth. You could also spot treat a clothing item before throwing it in the washer or hand-washing it.

How to choose the best incense

What is incense?

Incense is made from fragrant natural materials. Combustible substances are included in the natural materials which allow them to ignite and smoke. Common incense materials include frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, patchouli, and sandalwood.

Scent

Most incense is made from a blend of herbs; flowers; essential oils; frankincense tree materials like sandalwood, cedarwood, and myrrh; and other substances, such as spices. If you don’t know your favorite incense scent, consider which scents you tend to appreciate in other items, such as hand lotion or perfume. If you like light, sweet scents, incense with floral notes may be best. If you prefer something earthy, a scent like sandalwood may appeal to you more.

Country of origin

Incense is made in a number of countries, including the U.S. However, some incense lovers prefer international varieties, often from countries with a long history of burning incense for rituals. Two such countries are Japan and India.

Japan is known for producing some of the best incense in the world. Some of Japan’s most trusted incense brands date back to the 1800s. The country’s incense use dates back to as early as 600 C.E. or so. As part of Buddhist ritual, tea ceremonies, art, and even Samurai battle, it’s no surprise that much of Japan’s incense is high in quality. Sandalwood and agarwood are among the main ingredients, along with tree resin and essential oils. Incense connoisseurs may seek out Japanese incense made from increasingly rare trees. Japan offers incense for both direct and indirect burning.

India is another country with a rich and storied history of incense use. India’s history with the fragrance even precedes Japan’s by a few centuries. Like Japan, incense in India is strongly associated with the rituals of several religions. The Vedas, some of the oldest Hindu scriptures, mention incense use at length. Indian incense is made from frankincense, myrrh, and sandalwood along with spices such as cloves and turmeric. Stick incense and incense cones are particularly popular in India.

Direct vs. indirect burning

There are two primary means of burning incense. If you burn incense already, you’re probably familiar with direct incense burning. This means the incense stick, cone, or coil is directly lit with a flame. From there, the incense embers and emits smoke.

Indirect burning is not as common. Instead of directly lighting the incense, you light a different flammable item — charcoal tabs, usually. Once the tab is on fire, the flame is extinguished, and you place the glowing tab in a small bed of sand. From there, pieces of incense are placed on top of the tab. The incense pieces soon start to emit fragranced smoke.

The incense used for indirect burning is often referred to as loose incense. Loose incense consists of dried herbs, resins, powders, and flowers. Some appreciate loose incense for its earthier smell, which is even more natural than incense sticks. It's definitely more of a hassle to burn, however, and you must have charcoal on hand to use it effectively.

If you’re overwhelmed by the many types of incense scents out there, Nag Champa never fails. It’s one of the most popular incense fragrances in the world for a reason.

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Incense features to keep in mind when shopping

Shape/form

Stick: Stick incense is by far the most popular form. As the name suggests, a stick is lit at the tip for easy burning. Stick incense releases smoke in a soothing, consistent pattern. Some stick incense includes a thinner stick of bamboo meant to fit in an incense holder. Other incense sticks are meant to be burned the whole way through.

Cone: Incense cones are densely packed in the shape of a cone. You’ll light the tip for five to ten seconds and then blow out the flame. The cone is then placed in an incense bowl, or coffin, made specifically for incense cones. The smoke wafts until the cone is reduced to a pile of ash. Incense cones come in large sizes and work well for wide spaces.

Coil: Coil incense comes in two forms: flat coil and hanging coil. Coil incense can make for a meditative experience, as the smoke emitting from the shrinking spiral can be soothing. Both hanging and flat coil incense require a special type of incense holder. With flat coil incense, you light the tip of the coil for a few seconds before blowing it out. Place the flat coil on a burn-resistant surface. For hanging coil incense, you light it the same way and then hang the coil on its holder.

Resin incense: This is incense distilled into its purest form. Resin incense is derived from bark roots, wood, and/or sap of various trees and shrubs. The scent of resin incense is rich, deep, and potent. It’s also a great choice for large spaces. You will need some extra materials for resin incense: charcoal tablets, an incense bowl or charcoal burner, and sand. Light the charcoal tablet for a few minutes, to the point where it’s glowing and starting to ash. Then, place the charcoal in a bowl filled with sand. Allow the heat to spread to the whole charcoal tablet, then top it with a few pieces of resin incense. The incense pieces will start to smoke, releasing fragrance.

Rope incense: Common in Nepal and Tibet, rope incense is made from dried herbs and other materials which are braided into burnable rope. Rope incense is often used in Hindu and Buddhist rituals, so it has a bit more cultural specificity than some other incense forms.

Incense matches: This is a newer and somewhat novel form of incense. Incense matches are sold as matchbooks and work the same way regular matches do: simply strike the match, blow out the flame, and let the smoke disperse through the air. Incense matches make excellent stocking stuffers or small gifts of appreciation.

burning incense
DID YOU KNOW?
Some pieces of stick incense, particularly those without bamboo at the ends, do not fit typical incense holders. You can create your own incense holder by filling a small bowl halfway with rice or sand. Light the stick incense, and place it in the bowl upright.
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How much does incense cost?

Inexpensive

It’s entirely possible to buy low-cost incense of good quality. At $5 and under, you’ll mostly find incense sticks. Some of the best ones come from India, as is the case with the few incense cones you’ll find at this price. There will typically be between 10 and 20 incense sticks in this type of package, most with bamboo at the ends.

Mid-range

Between $5 and $15, your options open up considerably. Here, you will find more incense cones and flat incense coils. You’ll also find stick incense without bamboo at the ends, meant to burn the whole way through. Many of these incense products come from Japan, India, and other foreign countries.

Expensive

If you want to indulge in some top-quality incense, the $15 and above range will open your options to hanging incense coils, high-quality incense sticks, and resins. A number of these will be foreign in origin, and if they’re manufactured by specialty incense makers, the price may be well worth it.

For easy ash containment, we recommend an incense coffin or bowl over a flat incense stick holder. Though the latter is cheapest, it doesn’t do as good of a job at catching falling incense.

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Tips

  • Catch the ashes. Invest in a quality incense holder. There are many to choose from. Boat burners, on which one side curves upward with a hole to hold the incense stick, are quite popular. So are incense bowls and incense coffins, both of which do a good job containing ashes.
  • Mind your lungs. Those with respiratory illnesses such as asthma should probably avoid incense, since the smoke can further irritate the lungs. If you have children or pets, avoid burning incense around them.
  • Use caution. Don’t throw an incense stick away unless it has been fully extinguished. An incense stick that’s still lit can touch a flammable item and start a fire.
burning incense
There are two types of charcoal tabs you can use for burning incense: instant light charcoal and regular. Instant light charcoal lights quickly and effectively, while regular charcoal tabs need the flame for a bit longer.

FAQ

Q. Is incense safe for pets?

A. Generally speaking, it’s not recommended to burn incense around pets. Cats and dogs can have sensitive lungs, and incense smoke doesn’t help. However, you can mitigate any risks by burning incense in a well-ventilated room or burning it in a room separate from your pet.

Q. Can incense catch on fire?

A. Incense doesn’t catch fire easily, but it is possible. This usually happens when incense ash falls on carpet or other flammable materials. We don’t recommend leaving incense to burn unattended.

 

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