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We’re all familiar with some form of incense. Even if we may not understand how it works or where it originated, we’ve all smelled that very distinct, smoky scent at a friend’s house, shop, etc.

Many stores use incense to create a welcoming, calm atmosphere, while others use it in their homes to create a soothing fragrance that helps them unwind. It’s also commonly used in religious practices, so it’s safe to say that incense, including the very popular Bolivian Rock is used in all facets of life.

Below, we’ll be examining exactly what incense is, its origins, and how this substance is commonly used today.

What Exactly is Incense?

So, what exactly is incense? The word itself is Latin in origin, having been derived from the Latin word for “to burn.” In short, it’s a substance that produces a fragrant scent when burned.

Incense is made up of combustible binding material and aromatic material and can come in many shapes and sizes. It works simply: the combustible material ignites it, allowing it to burn, and therefore produce scented smoke.

The aromatic materials are plant-based, and the specific ingredients used can vary depending on region, purpose, and manufacturer. These can include a wide array of:

  • Flowers
  • Roots
  • Seeds
  • Barks
  • Resins

When it comes to the ingredients used to make this smell good, the options are innumerable. Some favorites have stood the test of time, however, and these include:

  • Sandalwood
  • Patchouli
  • Myrrh
  • Musk
  • Frankincense
  • Cinnamon

There is much less variety when it comes to the combustible binding material, which is usually either wood powders or charcoal.

The History of Incense

It’s safe to say that this substance has been around almost as long as we have. It has been traced back to Ancient Egypt, where it was used for both practical and religious purposes. For example, incense made of myrrh and frankincense have been found countless times in Egyptian graves, used as an offering to their gods and to fight off demons.

Incense has also been thought to have been used in India and Southern Asia centuries ago, as early as 3300 BC. In fact, it’s still widely used today in India and is a fundamental part of the Hindu faith.

Incense also spread to China around 2000 BC, where it was also used for prayer and worship. This is where we have the first documented evidence of the use of this substance, made from sandalwood and cinnamon.

By 601 BC, resin-based incense began to be distributed in Europe. It even prompted a major trading route aptly named the “Incense Route.”

Everywhere you look in history, you can see incense being used in societies across the world. Whether it is spiritual, practical, or cultural, we still see these practices being done today.

How Do You Use It?

Now that we know what it is, how is it used? There are two major ways:

Indirect Burning

There are two ways to burn incense: direct and indirect burning. Indirect burning is far less popular in modern society but was probably used frequently in historical settings.

In this scenario, the aromatic material is a loose, scented resin. This requires a separate, constant heat source to keep it burning; think fire or hot coals.

Direct Burning

Direct burning, on the other hand, is much more contemporary. These are formed into a shape or around a supporting material, much like the sticks of bamboo we are all used to seeing. This is lit directly, creating a glowing ember and allowing the incense to be burned slowly.

Forms of Incense

Now that we have a basic understanding of what incense is and what a rich history it has, let’s explore the different available forms.


The stick form is by far the most popular way to burn this substance. These are also known as joss sticks and are made out of a thin piece of bamboo. This bamboo is then coated in the preferred scent of incense.
While you can light one of these on its own, there are many options for stick holders. If you can think of it, it’s probably been made into an incense holder. You can stay traditional or have some fun!


Dhoops, or cones, are molded raw incense. These are lit at one end and left to smolder and create a much more intense experience than the sticks. Dhoops are a great option if you’re looking to fill a large space.


Matches are a classic way to use incense. Simply strike the match to light the stick, and then blow out the flame for a quick hit of fragrance.


Powdered incense is very concentrated, so a little goes a long way. You can simply open the container to use it as a solid air freshener or sprinkle a little in some potpourri. This form has grown in popularity recently, with Bolivian Rock being a crowd favorite.

bolivian rock

Final Thoughts

Well, there you have it! Everything you need to know about incense. Now that you know what it is, the significant history behind it, and some fun contemporary uses for it, what are you waiting for? Whether you try out powder, matches, cones, or sticks, you’re sure to create a calming and sweet-smelling atmosphere in no time.