From the best ingredients to look for to the difference between cones and sticks, incense experts share their advice.

By Caroline Biggs
March 01, 2021
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The right incense can elevate the ambience of your living space, and in some cases, your mood. "Incense, in its original form, refers to tree resin that was burned to produce pleasant aromas," says Kate Lauter, the founder of Feng Sway in Brooklyn. "More recently, incense generally describes a host of fragrances, burned to fill a space with warm aromas of spice and dried flora. These scents are typically designed to evoke a memory or to build a personalized ceremony around."

Along with evoking a range of emotions and memories, getting a whiff of a certain scent can also lift your spirits, studies show. "Incense offers instant fragrance and mood for your space," explains Kristen Pumphrey, the founder and creative director of P.F. Candle Co. "It is an atmospheric fragrance—between the smoke and the scent, it's definitely a vibe." Interested in burning some at home, but not sure which type is right for you? From the best ingredients to look for to the difference between cones and sticks and more, here's what experts say you should take into consideration when shopping for incense.

terracotta candlesticks, vase, and incense holder
Credit: Addie Juell

Look for natural ingredients.

With all the different types of incense on the market, separating the stellar from the so-so can be tricky. "Finding a high-quality incense can be a challenge," says Musharrat Chowdhury of Incense Pro. "The best types of fragrances are usually the ones made with 100-percent all-natural materials, such as pure resin, essential oils, and dried plants and herbs." Sticking to quality, all-natural incense won't just supply a superior fragrance, Rownak Salam, founder of Incense Route in downtown Los Angeles, says—it's also better for your health. "Some mass-produced, inexpensively priced incense has a wood-pulp base that's almost like particle board," she warns. "When combined with synthetically-made fragrance, these heavy types of incense can cause headaches and allergic reactions."

Understand the different forms of incense.

The most common forms of incense are sticks or cones, but Pumphrey says you can also find paper, coil, and rope incense; additionally, you can burn raw materials on a charcoal disc, which has a beveled base so air can easily flow through it. "The main difference between cones and sticks is how long they last," she explains. "Sticks can last for up to an hour and are better for large spaces, while cones tend to burn for about 20 minutes. Sticks are also user friendly—if you don't have an incense holder, you can even put it in a spent candle with a little wax in the bottom, or a plant pot." Pumphrey says that incense composed of raw, non-combustible materials are also popular in the form of sage or palo santo. "You can take it a step further and use a charcoal disk to burn any raw materials, such as chunks of resin, loose plants, and ground up herbs," she says.

Take smoke into consideration.

Pumphrey says the best way to pick the type of incense you want is to determine how much smoke you can tolerate. "Sticks tend to be smokier since they burn longer, and charcoal discs are very smoky as well," she explains. "I use charcoal discs only when I have a window open. Paper incense is my go-to for mornings because it burns for about five minutes. Cones are a nice in-between." When investing in cleaner and whiter smokes, Chowdhury says to be wary of incense that contains a bamboo core. "The bamboo core can make the fragrance smell smoky," she warns.

Select a scent that's personal to you.

When choosing an incense fragrance for your home, Lauter says self-reflection is key. "Some questions to start this process might include: Where have you traveled? What scent brings nostalgia for a beautiful time in your past? What was your mother or grandmother's favorite scent?" she says. "Scent and scent combinations are super personal, and there is no wrong choice." Additionally, Michelle Zara Evans, the Vice President of Merchandising and Buying at Bespoke Post, says it's also important to take into consideration the room you're planning to burn the incense in when picking out a fragrance. "For example, certain scents, like relaxing lavender and vetiver, are a good choice for a bedroom," she explains.

Consider a popular scent.

While scent preferences vary based on the person, Chowdhury says there are some fragrances of incense that are universally popular. "Warm, woody scents, like sandalwood and myrhh, are sought after for their meditative, healing, and mood-boosting qualities, while relaxing scents lavender and peppermint can reduce stress and anxiety," she says. Typically known as a pure incense, Chowdhury says frankincense is an earthy, all-natural option that's also highly in demand with aromatherapy lovers. "It is known to be a 'pure incense' that has a spicy and fruity nuance in its odor," she explains. "It's comforting and is known to stimulate the immune system."

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