Incense in the way we know it today is inherently flawed. From start to finish, we can find flaws all throughout the industry. The modern day incense making process typically involves creating stick incense, and there we can find toxic ingredients in the base blends, fragrance oils, and inequitable labor. Most stick incense is made with 3 parts, a bamboo stick, a wooden base blend, and oils. the wood is powdered, wet, and formed into a paste that is applied around the bamboo stick. Once the wood dries, it's soaked in either essential oils or fragrance oils. It's then hung to dry until it's packaged and sent to your local shop. All this seems pretty harmless so far, so where's the issue?
To really understand the many wrongs in this process, let's break down each element.
Starting with the bamboo stick. Honestly, it's hard to find a problem with this first element, bamboo is so easy to grow and process that it's probably the cleanest part of your incense, but it is ultimately counterintuitive to the incense making process. Have you ever ran an incense stick under some water to put it out? Well, if you haven't, it turns into a sharp point at the end. Why? Because that stick in the center doesn't want to burn. It's suffocated by the surrounding wood base, leaving it without the oxygen it needs to burn. So what do mass incense producers do? They add saltpeter or potassium nitrate to ignite the incense faster and keep it burning. These two chemicals are absolutely not things you want to be burning or inhaling. And that saltpeter is the reason most incense smells like a bad campfire.
Next up we have the wood base. This part is a wild ride, so buckle up. You'd think this is the part of incense with the beautiful smelling herbs, resins, and barks, but no. It's most commonly made from plywood waste... Yep. Chemically treated wood waste that's not only sprayed with chemicals to treat the wood for building, but then has any number of these additives mixed in by the incense makers themselves:
Aldehydes (classified as irritants. Yep, irritants are ADDED to incense sticks.
Ever wonder why they make your throat itch and head ache?)
Diethyl phthalate (causes issues within the liver)
Nitrodamine (causes birth defects and irregular brain growth in the womb.
Most commercially produced incense was found to need warning labels
similar to cigarettes and should not be used by pregnant women. )
Dipropylene Glycol Methyl Ether
And this plywood, even without all these other nasty additives, produces formaldehyde when burned.
The particles in these chemicals can be so harmful that prolonged exposure can lead to acute respiratory disease, cancers, ultrastructural pulmonary changes, and degenerative necrotizing of the lining of our lungs. There have been incense safety studies since the 1940s, and while different incense led to different results, one thing was a constant. The incense smoke contained particles so small they could permeate and travel through every part of our bodies. So no part of us is unaffected by these added toxins.
Now the essential oils/ fragrance oils. This is another element with multifaceted issues. Not only is the industry surrounding the production of these oils inherently unethical due to over-harvesting and mono-cropping, it's simply not safe to burn these oils. The reality is, most essential oils, and all fragrance oils, are composed primarily of carrier oils. And every oil on the planet, carrier/fragrance/ or essential oil has a smoking point. The smoking point is the temperature at which the oils begins to smoke, and the smoke from oils is known to produce carcinogens. So burning them, to create smoke makes no sense. Why intentionally put carcinogens into the air to poison our sacred spaces?
You may be asking yourself, if natural incense takes so little plant material compared to essential oils, why not just use that? Well these oil blends, don't just contain oils, they contain chemicals that amplify the smell of the oils, meaning they can use less but still get the desired scent profile. The most commonly used additive? Overstock laundry detergent. Yet again, your stick incense is made from waste. Which, I'm all for finding a purpose for things that would otherwise go to the landfills, but incense just isn't the place to use leftover detergents to amplify scent.
And these problems don't only apply to stick incense. All forms of incense on the market today have at least one of the toxic ingredients discussed above. Some with even worse additives like dyes and crystal powders. Even the companies that promote their incense as "clean" use essential oils or neglect to post their full ingredient lists, ultimately labeling them as untrustworthy and unethical. And with no labeling requirements for incense, they've been getting away with it for too long.
But not anymore.
Here at Grey Fern Herbal, we make nothing but 100% pure incense. Our ingredients are limited to herbs alone. They're organic, fair trade, ethically sourced, food grade, and handmade. We promise nothing but the best And I want to show you how it smells different, feels different, and can enhance your sacred space in ways you haven't had the chance to experience before.
It may seem silly to care so much, but when used in a way that benefits our body and soul while honoring the Earth, we open countless wonders to ourselves. I was reading the book Incense: Crafting & Use of Magickal Scents by Carl F. Neal and the author posed the idea that as we have developed with incense, our brains have evolved to respond to it. This blew my mind, and I went down a rabbit hole of Epigeneitcs. The science that shows that deep within our DNA are the lived experiences of our ancestors. Now I'm fascinated with world religion, especially the older faiths our early ancestors created the words for. And it's prevalent the whole world over that plants played a large role in spirituality. And did you know? The earliest recorded use of incense was aromatic herbs thrown on a bed of embers from the nights fire. Sounds a lot like an offering doesn't it? And that's what incense has always been, whether it be an offering to those above or a gift to yourself.
As we look deeper into the magic and medicine of plants, we learn that gift to yourself can be spiritual and physical. The micro particles found in chemical filled incense, are present in clean holistic incense too. But they don't harm the same way. The science on good incense is ultimately limited, but we know how plants work as tonics, balms, and teas. We know that aromatherapy works, and that essential oils are the basis of that. But incense, due to the tarnishing of the creation practices, has been left out of learning curve that is plant based healing. If done correctly, Incense can be used in place of essential oils for aromatherapy. They are the same thing after all. Incense burns the volatile oils, which is just another term for essential oils. Essential oils are just super concentrated forms of volatile oils.
I want to mention the Epigenetics again before you explore our collection. Take a look around, if incense played a tangible role in our evolution, it's helped to get us here. The spirits of these plants have help us to thrive on this Earth and opened so many doors for those who used them before us. Every instance of illumination is stored deep within our DNA. These plants are stored in us as well, we inherently know them. I think of the popular incense herbs that have been used for centuries by the masses. Through gatherings, ceremonies, rites, and transitions, those plants have been allies to us. In working with them today, we gain access to all of those moments and our own inspirations as well.