Is incense the oldest perfume in the world? This ingredient from a sacred tree has been used for thousands of years to perfume and purify. Present in many cults and rituals, the use of incense has also been democratized in perfumery, both for the skin and for the home. Discover everything you always wanted to know about this bewitching resin…
What is incense?
“Incense” comes from the Latin incendere which means to burn. It refers to all materials, woods, gums, resins or plants, which give off an odor when burned.
There are 3 different types of incense:
- Resins: this is the oldest form. They are gums and resins coming from the solidified sap of certain trees, which are burned on a burning coal most of the time. They diffuse an oil with a perfumed vapor.
- Wood incense: it is made from wood chips or bark. There are sandalwood, cinnamon or cedar incenses for example.
- Vegetable incense: these are dried herbs, flowers or berries that are burned. Jasmine and sage are very common varieties.
Frankincense of olibanum
Originally, incense refers to resins that come from trees in Africa, the Middle East and India. Among them, we find the one called “true incense”. It would be the purest and the most ancestral. It comes from the Boswellia sacra tree, also known as the “incense tree”. This small and twisted tree, grows in desert areas from Yemen to Somalia. By cutting its trunk and branches, the tree releases a sap that will harden in contact with the air. This is called exudation. The precious frankincense resin, also called olibanum, is then harvested by hand to be used in several ways:
- In distillation to make an essential oil of frankincense with an amber and balsamic smell. The essence of olibanum is used in the composition of oriental fragrances.
- In fumigation: the resin, in the form of small orange-yellow crystals, is heated. The frankincense is used in many religious rites and is particularly recognized for its soothing virtues.
To know its history and its journey through the centuries, go here.
Benzoin incense: its characteristics
Benzoin incense is another particularly popular fragrant resin. It comes from the exudation of trees of the Sytrax genus, which grow mainly in Malaysia, Laos and Sumatra. There are therefore different types of benzoin depending on its origins. One of the most appreciated (and rarest) is the benzoin of Siam. Like olibanum, it can be used as an essence or or as material to be burned.
The crystals of benzoin incense give off a very intense scent. Its balsamic and sweet smell is reminiscent of vanilla. However, it is rarely burned alone because it burns very quickly and gives off a pungent smoke. It is usually associated with cinnamon or sandalwood. Benzoin incense is often burned in churches and is indicated to raise the spirit on a spiritual level.
Other types of incense
In reality, there are as many types of incense as there are raw materials to burn to diffuse a scent. It would therefore be difficult to list them all! But among the most common resins, alongside benzoin and olibanum, you should surely know the precious myrrh. Used by women in Yemen to perfume clothes before marriage, its red-brown crystals are very expensive. On the wood side, you can find the famous cedar wood which reveals a sweet and fresh smell. Let us also mention the incense of dragon’s blood, one of the most powerful in the world. It comes from the gum of a tree native to the Indian Ocean.
What are the benefits of incense?
A purifying action
In ancient civilizations, incense has a special place. A sacred commodity, it was used during religious rites. According to some writings, the smoke that travels towards the sky would have the power to appease the deities and to transmit prayers. The Egyptians used it during embalming, to purify the bodies and allow them a quick passage to the afterlife. The purifying smoke has thus crossed the centuries and cultures. Its applications in the esoteric world are closely linked to the virtues of purification of the self and its interior. Each type of incense has particular properties, from peaceful sleep to financial or love prosperity… You just have to believe in it!
The therapeutic virtues
In addition to its almost magical powers, incense has also served as a medicine for a long time. In Ayurvedic medicine, frankincense has become famous for its anti-inflammatory properties. It was used to relieve pain caused by rheumatism. From ancient Greece to India, benzoin resin was a precious ally in the treatment of lung and liver diseases. Much more recently, it has been proven that burning a scented material has the power to regulate our moods through its action on our hormones. Some scientific studies are trying to prove that it would also have anti-cancerous effects. To be continued…
The different types of incense
Various and diverse forms
To meet the need for practicality, the forms of incense have diversified over time. Alongside natural incense grains, we now find sticks, cones, powders, bricks, Armenian paper and many others. Unlike resin which needs an external heat source (usually a burning coal), the other forms have the advantage of being self-consuming. Their use is therefore more practical in everyday life. Cones and sticks are generally made of a mixture of several essences. The type of incense does not really have an impact on the smell diffused, it is up to you to find your favorite format!
From India to Japan, to each country its ritual
The perfumed smoke has a prominent place in many cultures. But depending on the country and civilization, the forms and uses of incense differ.
- Indian incense: there are different kinds, and in particular masala Indian one. It is a mixture of dry and very fragrant ingredients that are impregnated into a paste before rolling it around a wooden stick. The second method consists in dipping a stick in a mixture of essential oils and perfumes.
- Japanese incense: it is the testimony of an ancestral know-how and tradition, and is recognized for its refinement and the sweetness of its fragrance. The base os made from the bark of the Tabu-no-ki tree. It is used to create a paste, called makko, which is rolled on thin sticks before being dipped in oil.
- Tibetan incense: the art of incense in Tibet is practiced by monks who use it as an offering in temples. In powder form, Tibetan incense is often composed of a mixture of wood (usually sandalwood), spices and dried flowers.
How to choose a quality incense?
What does natural incense mean?
Marketing argument or real product characteristic? Natural incense refers to the “purest” form of incense, i.e. the resin from the trees mentioned above. It is bought in the form of crystals or grains, whose color varies according to its origin. It can also be “compounded”: different crystals are mixed in precise proportions to create a composition for burning. For example, olibanum, benzoin and copal can be blended together to create a particular fumigation called St. Michael.
3 clues to recognize a quality incense
Faced with the multitude of offers, each one more attractive than the other, it is often difficult to find a quality incense. You can rely on a few simple criteria such as the manufacturing method, the color or the country of origin. There is no obligation for manufacturers to indicate the manufacturing process of their products. Therefore, think about choosing an incense that is handmade, hand-rolled and from a producing country such as India, France, Japan or Tibet. The color is also a sign of quality: avoid bright yellow or pink, which indicate the presence of artificial colorants.
Incense to burn of Carrément Belle
As fragrance lovers, we decided a little over 10 years ago to offer you home fragrances. This is how our collection of scented incenses was born. Our collection is a variation of our skin fragrances for the home, diffusing the scents you love so much in your home. As with our eaux de parfum, the fragrance is made in Grasse, the world capital of scents. It is then sent to India to be impregnated by hand on rattan sticks, themselves handcrafted. The sticks are hand-blown, without glue or dye, a true guarantee of naturalness.
5 tips for using incense properly
How to use incense to enjoy its fragrance and benefits? There is nothing complicated about it:
- Burn your incense in a ventilated area. As it burns, stick releases smoke to a greater or lesser extent. It is important to choose a room where the smoke will not suffocate… and avoid drafts that could extinguish it prematurely.
- Let the stick ignite. Bring the flame close to the end of the stick and let it burn for about ten seconds. It will become more and more incandescent. When you see embers appear, it means it is burning properly.
- Blow gently or better yet, shake lightly. The flame will go out and give way to a delicate and fragrant smoke.
- Use a suitable holder. To enjoy your incense, place the glowing stick in a suitable holder like an incense burner. Don’t have anything handy? A cup or bowl filled with sand or salt will do the trick!
- Wait for the incense to burn completely. If you can’t or need to stop the fumigation, you can soak the stick in a little water or salt.
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