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Incense: Ingredient Guide, Info, Smell & More!

Incense is a biotic material that emits an earthy, woody, and spicy oriental fragrance.

Depending on the aromatic plants used, it can smell like resin with exotic, yet warm hints of smoke.

Incense has been used in spiritual rites and folk medicine for centuries.

Today, it’s prized for the oriental scent it evokes in many acclaimed fragrances for both genders.

What is Incense?

Incense is a smoke-emitting substance made of aromatic plants, occasionally combined with synthetic materials like fragrant oils. 

Its Latin etymology translates into “burn,” describing its purpose perfectly.

This biological material is burned for its aromatic smoke, which has woody, spicy, and even resin-scented notes.

There are two main types of incense:

  • Direct-burning includes incense cones or sticks made of incense paste glued to bamboo wood. These varieties emit smoke by being lit directly, which makes them a very popular choice in aromatherapy.
  • Indirect-burning, which requires an additional heat source to emit a scent. Buddhist monasteries and the Catholic church use this type of incense regularly in their religious ceremonies.

People have been burning incense since Ancient Egyptian times as a sacrificial offering to their divinities.

Over time, it has become a crucial part of funerary ceremonies to purify the air. 

Nag Champa, for instance, is a type of incense still used in many homes to attract good vibrations and positive energy.

Incense is made of mostly natural materials, one of the most common types being called gum arabic.

Extracted from Acacia trees, this resinous compound is used in cooking and gold leaf production, as well as a paint binder. 

What Does Incense Smell Like?

Most people who smell incense smoke describe it as a deep, woody, earthy scent with additional hints of spices, such as pepper.

Its resinous notes are long-lasting and the smoke released can even smell sweet, almost like burning sugar, depending on its natural compounds.

This is why incense is also a popular choice when it comes to room freshners or when you need something to overpower a space that smelled bad.

The most popular type of incense is nag champa, or Mysore Sandalwood.

Much like its close relatives from the sandalwood family, this incense smells warm, exotic, and mysterious. 

Tibetan incense, on the other hand, features deep woody notes similar to cedar and even burning leaves.

This mystical burning smell is mainly encountered in spiritual rites, as well as traditional medicine and meditation, throughout China, Nepal, and Tibet.

However, burned incense sticks can emit very different scents (some worse than others!).

For example, bamboo smoke sticks must be thoroughly bleached to eliminate chloroplasts; otherwise, the resulting incense sticks will have an unpleasant odor, like burning grass.

What Scent Family is Incense?

If you’re wondering what does incense smell like, know that it’s a trademark of the oriental fragrance family.

Opulent and rich, the scents in this category are both warm and spicy, thus inspiring romance and mystery.

Incense is also a crucial part of the woody oriental subfamily.

Much like myrrh, anise, or frankincense, incense smoke is commonly used as a base note in deep, exotic fragrances like Tom Ford’s Sahara Noir.

The versatile, relaxing incense scent has made it a popular addition to air fresheners, body sprays, and perfumes.

What are the Benefits of Incense?

Historically, people have been burning incense sticks for healing purposes, as well as their mental health benefits. 

The most common benefits are:

  • Protecting Wounds. Research found that sandalwood incense can act as a disinfectant when applied to skin wounds. As a powerful antiseptic, it also reduces the risk of infection for both external and internal injuries.
  • Reducing Depression. Those who burn incense sticks that contain frankincense show reduced risks and symptoms associated with depression, studies show. 
  • Treating Sleep Problems. Incense burning can reduce signs of insomnia by regulating central nervous system functions. Make sure to only light up an incense stick for 15-30 minutes before sleep though, as it can be a fire hazard.

Note that incense use can also come with scientifically proven health risks even when used in room fresheners!

According to this animal cell study, extensive use of stick incense might even be more cancerous than inhaling cigarette smoke.

Health experts also recommend using indirect-burning incense if you’ve been diagnosed with respiratory conditions such as asthma or bronchitis. 

Research proved that inhaling incense smoke can amplify asthma symptoms similarly to firecrackers, so it’s best to take caution.

Is Incense a Feminine or Masculine Scent?

The wide range of natural compounds can make incense smell like wood, spices, and resin.

This olfactory versatility had perfumers use it as a base note for many elegant, yet bold feminine fragrances.

Nevertheless, you can experience the pleasant smell of incense complementing many warm, ambery male perfumes as well. 

Best Perfumes with Incense Notes 

Intense, mysterious, and woody: these three qualities have turned incense into a top choice for some of the world’s most acclaimed perfumers.

1. Giorgio Armani Encens Satin

This sensual fragrance is a luxurious blend of mystery and romance.

The bold incense aroma carries you through warm notes of spice and amber

Its subtle hints of balsams tend to amplify the sweetness of oriental resin. An olfactory masterpiece, this fragrance inspires timeless elegance for both genders.

2. Tom Ford Sahara Noir

The perfume ingredients in this fragrance create an ode to oriental traditions, evoking its mystical atmosphere instantly.

It opens with exotic top notes of citrus and cypress, enveloped by earthy incense and papyrus scents. 

Its base notes of vanilla and Egyptian balsam sweeten the smell, adding a soft touch of romance. 

3. Guerlain Shalimar

Perfumer Jacques Guerlain designed this exotic perfume as the representation of Emperor Shahjahan’s love for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

The same love that inspired the Emperor to build the Taj Mahal is envisioned through an explosion of citrus top notes, including mandarin and lemon.

Its middle notes of jasmine, patchouli, and iris soften the fragrance, while its base notes of sandalwood, incense, and musk emphasize the opulence of ancient times.

The Bottom Line

Incense is a smoke-emitting compound that features an earthy, exotic scent with resinous, even sweet hints.

Commonly used as fragrant sticks, cones, or oil, it’s part of many religious ceremonies, as well as aromatherapy.

Most incense fragrances are reminiscent of the oriental opulence of ancient times, inspiring mystery and romance alike.

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