A couple of days ago I bought some incense. A friend uses incense all of the time. I liked the smell of it, so I thought why not try buying some for myself. When I lit the first stick I could immediately smell the aloe scent and liked the look of the smoke coming from it. However, after a little while the stream of the smoke shifted and blew right at my face. It was at that point that I wondered whether incense is bad for you.
As it turns out, particulate matter released from incense contains possible carcinogens such as polyaromatic hyodrcarbons (PAHs), carbonyls and benzene. One study followed over 60,000 Chinese living in Singapore for 12 years to track the association between incense use and cancer. 821 cases of lung cancer and 325 cases of upper respiratory tract cancers were reported during the time period. The study found a link between incense use and squamous cell carcinomas of the upper respiratory tract (mouth and throat, etc.), but interestingly not with lung cancer.
Burning incense every once in a while probably isn’t going to have a major effect. One doctor likened it to second-hand smoke. “At the end of the day, people who use incense casually, I don’t think that’s a cause for major concern, but those cultures which embrace incense as part of their daily lifestyles have to consider this has a real potential risk for cancer.” If you do keep using incense, use it outside, open a window or otherwise try to ventilate the area.