Welcome to our FAQs section

 The largest and the most comprehensive knowledge base on incense and Indian incense industry available in the web.  This section is divided into 2 sub-sections as you can see.  Please click on the numbered FAQ listing below to open the relevant FAQ section. 
 
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FAQ on incense and quality parameters of incense.

Incense denotes a substance, that when incinerated, will produce an appealing fragrance.   Incineration means slow, progressive and complete burning to ashes.
    Origin from Middle English encensen, from Old French incenser, from Late Latin incensum. 
    Incense sticks are made in the form of a thin bamboo strip covered with an incense mix, with different kinds of fragrances or combination of fragrances.
    Biblical references: “It consisted of four ingredients “beaten small” (Ex. 30:34-36). That which was not thus prepared was called “strange incense” (30:9). It was offered along with every meat offering; and besides was daily offered on the golden altar in the holy place, and on the great Day of Atonement was burnt by the high priest in the holy of holies (30:7, 8). It was the symbol of prayer (Ps. 141:1, 2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3, 4). – Easton`s 1897, Bible Dictionary
    History: 
  Great civilizations of Egypt, India, China, and Mesopotamia all had used incense in their daily life and religious rituals.  Incense were the most valuable trade items before spices, gold and gems took over.  There is extensive reference to incense and its applications in all major religious scriptures, including, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.  Other religious and spiritual streams like the Voodoo, Shamanism and Wicca also practice the use of incense for rituals and religious ceremonies.
Incenses work on the simple principle of heating together a combination of two compounds with different boiling points. The more volatile compund(Aromatic Compounds) having a lower boiling point will evaporate first. If an aromatic essential oil is blended with carrier oil with a higher boiling point and heated together, the aromatic essentials will evaporate first spreading fragrance in the air. In the incense sticks, the heating effect is produced by the incineration of the incense mix, which is dipped in the oil blends. While the carrier oil / resins will help the incense mix to burn to ashes, the heat produced will vaporize the volatile aromatic compounds, thus spreading their fragrance in the atmosphere.
There are three common methods of manufacturing incense sticks; Hand-rolled, Machine dipped, and Pressed.
(a)  Hand Rolled:  
The best incenses are invariably hand made. 
A mixture of the fragrance “dough” is made by mixing finely ground powder of coconut husk, carbonized coconut/jute husk powder and natural glue or bees wax.  The reason for using coconut husk powder, also known as “coco peat”, is its unique combination of very high calorific value and capillarity of the fibrous coco peat.  
High calorific value will produce intense heat on burning, enabling the vaporizing of aromatic oils, and capillarity ensures the absorption of maximum quantity of aromatic substances into the incense mix. 
This mixture is then “hand rolled” into a thin strip of bamboo which will hold the mixture together.
 
The best grade of masala incenses are made by blending the essential aromatic compounds into the incense mix and then rolling the blended mixture into the bamboo strip.  The masala incense sticks are then matured for a certain period under controlled atmospheric humidity. 
 
The maturing process of a masala incense stick is the single most important factor in determining the quality of the fragrance of an incense stick.
Incense manufacturers located outside India make their incense by dipping the un-perfumed hand rolled sticks into the required essential/carrier oil blends to make the required fragrance.
 
Hand rolled sticks are usually dark-wood-beige in colour.
 
(b)     Machine dipped:
Other manufacturing methods include “machine dipping”, where sticks, placed in a tight frame is dipped into a thick fluid of carbonized wood paste and later dipped into an oil pot containing the required fragrances. 
These incenses are cheap and of less value as most manufactures replace carrier oils and essential oils with petroleum derivative substitutes. 
Commercial grade incense are made this way as it enables to save the labour costs and replace essential oils and expensive resins with petroleum derivatives and perfumes.
This makes the incense burn for less than half the time of hand rolled sticks, and may even be quite toxic.  The fragrances of such sticks may not be the same before and after lighting the incense stick.
 
Machine dipped sticks are black in colour but also sometimes comes in other colours.
However, many reputed manufacturers do make high grade black coloured hand rolled incense sticks. 
 
These sticks are very expensive and is best suited for tropical climatic conditions with over  70% atmospheric humidity.
(c)      Pressed: 
The third type of manufacturing employs a mechanized system to “press” the incense mix like pasta to form long sticks without the bamboo strip. 
 
Most cheap incenses made in China are made this way.  
Most of the Tibetan, Nepaleese and Japaneese incense sticks are also made this way.
As this type of sticks lack the axial bamboo strip, the incense stick is held in shape by adding adequate quantities of binders or adhesives.  It should be noted that when lit, these incenses also burn the binders and glues present in the incense mix.  
Pressed incenses come in all kind of colours.   Read about coloured incense sticks below.
Tibetan incense is pressed, without the co-axial bamboo strip.  This mixture consists entirely of ground medicinal plants.  As a result, they are quite expensive.  Tibetan incense is usually reddish brown in colour.  They stand out by their unique and traditional herbal scents. 
 
The generic term “Tibetan Incense” generally refers to a type of incense that is made mostly in the Indian Himalayas by the Budhist and Tibetan communities.  Nepaleese incense are also made from similar  ingredients and technique as Tibetan Incense.
Incenses made in Buddhist communes all over the Indian Himalayas, Chinese Himalayas, Nepal, Bhutan, Japan, Taiwan and some parts of Thailand and Sri Lanka are essentially the same as Tibetan incenses, in composition, manufacturing techniques and fragrance quality.

Once lit and flamed off, the incense stick slowly incinerates itself, generating heat, which will vaporize the volatile aromatic compounds, while the resins will continue to burn. The vapours spread through the air giving the atmosphere the fragrance of the essences that are contained in the incense.

The toxicity of an incense stick is a function of its ingredients.
 
Commercial grade black/colourful sticks, which are made with perfume and alcohol blends burns faster and will not allow the aromatic compounds to vaporize.  This happens because the boiling point of carrier alcohols and that of the perfume blends are quite close to each other.
 
Since the aromatic substance is not vaporized, but burnt, carbon monoxide is produced as a byproduct of the burning of unsaturated hydrocarbons.  As a result, the ensuing smoke and vapors can cause nausea and headaches.
 
This also the reason that some incense sticks which are pleasant before being lit, produce a nasty smell when lit.
Coloured sticks are yet another marketing gimmick rather than anything to do with aromatic oils. 
 
What by-products the colourful sticks produce when lit, is yet to be investigated. 
 
It should be noted that most aromatic oils range in colour from Clear Transparent to Light Yellow to Dark Brown.  All other colours in incense sticks come from artificial colouring agents.  As all industrial colouring agents contain heavy metals, one can only guess the toxicity of such products.
 
Many colourful “Japanese Incenses” marketed in the west are actually made in China.  Some Japanese made incense are also colourful.  One is left to wonder, what are these “colours
 Commercial grade cheap incenses account for upto 70% of all incenses sold in the world incense market.
 
    All commercial grade incenses are simply a rip-off.  They do not give a good fragrance and could be toxic too.
 
    Nevertheless, some of the best incenses made in India are Black in colour. 
 
    There are many good labels making black coloured sticks, especially in Pondicherry, South India. 
 
    They are hand rolled and they use natural oils. 
 
    Some manufacturers in the west source unscented black sticks from India and dip it in aromatic oils to custome make ther products.
 
    These incenses are far more expensive than the cheap commercial grade black coloured incenses. 
 
    The logic behind using charcoal mixture instead of masala mixture is to avoid the stick catching mould.
 
    In the tropics where atmospheric humidity is quite high all fats and oils attract mould which corrupt the fragrances. 
 
    However, black sticks have much less shelf life compared to masala sticks.
From the consumers Perspective:
 
1.  The quality of fragrance, which includes clarity, strength and consistency.
 
2.  Burning time of the incense stick.
 
3.  Shelf life.
 
From the manufacturers’ perspective:
 
1.  Purity of resins used in the masala mixture.
 
2.  Uniform thickness of the axial bamboo strip.
 
3.  Uniform thickness of the masala mixture in the rolled sticks.
 
4.  Maturing process of the masala mixture.
 
5.  Quality of the essential aromatic component.
 
 
Semi-Dry Masala incenses, though the most expensive manufacturing process, provides with the best results in terms of shelf life and fragrance quality.
Good  quality incenses should burn for about one hour for a standard 20 cms stick (15~16 cms of incense mix).  A thumb rule to follow is that,  every stick should burn for about one hour.  A small box of 10 sticks normally  provides at least 10 hours of burning time.  Anything less means that you are paying more than you should. 
 
Knowing the duration of burning of an incense stick is the best way to make sure that you are purchasing a good product.   Incenses made with perfume blends with alcohol carriers or other petroleum derivatives will burn no more than 30 minutes(20 cms sticks).
(a) Look if the colour of the incense mix in the stick is dark-wood-beige and not Black or other colours.   If you encounter a black colour stick, do check with the sales person that its ingredients are indeed made from natural ingredients and not petroleum derivatives (perfume blends, alcohol carriers and synthetic binders).
 
Ask the sales person how long will the stick burn.  Good quality incense sticks(20 cm long sticks) burn for about one hour. 
 
 
 
(b) Light a tester stick and feel the fragrance.  Many consumers try to sniff at the smoke for feeling the fragrance.  The correct way to feel the fragrance is from a distance.  Getting too close to lit incense will leave you with a smoky smell  rather than any fragrance.
 
 
 
(c) Stick with well-known labels.   Beware of labels proclaiming Feng Shui, Healing, Chakras, Elements,  Peace, Love, Sex, Kamasutra, and other fantastic ideas.  These are marketing gimmicks used to sell merchandise which otherwise would have sold less.
  Just as every person is different; his or her energies and responses to fragrances will vary widely.  Trial and error is the best way to know for yourself, what fragrances your body and mind like and respond to best. 
    Aromatic properties can only point in a general direction, but specific fragrances will produce different results on different persons.  Sometimes the same fragrance can result in vastly different bodily responses. 
 
    Jasmine is a classic example of this phenomenon.  Jasmine can cause discomfort for women in early stages of pregnancy, but it is exceptionally good for late pregnancies and is a proven treatment as a potent drug for post-natal stress.   
 
    Lavender can cause discomfort for people suffering from chronic low blood pressure, but it is a great releiver for people who suffer from chronic hypertension.
 
Nag Champa or Sona Champa(Golden Champa) is the name of a flower of a tropical perennial tree of the Champaka family (Michelia Champaka) found mainly in Asia.  The Nag Champa species bear  pale orange flowers, with the top petal shaped like the hood of a Cobra snake.  In many Indian languages, the word for Cobra and other species of snakes is “Nag” thus rendering this flower and the tree the name Nag-Champa.
 
 
 
Nag Champa is popular because many consumers in the west simply came to identify Indian incense with a blue box packing of Nag Champa.  A clever marketing tactic of associating it with a certain new age stream have propelled one brand of Nag-Champa to be the best known and sold incense in the world.  Although its popularity rises, so does the number of imposters. In the main bazaar in New Delhi, there are more than 20 different imitations of this Blue Pack of Nag Champa.
 
 
 
Many consumers in the west do not know that Nag Champa is the name of a flower just like Jasmine or Lavender.  This ignorance has created the myth that the Blue Box of Incense as  the best incense.   As a result of the immense popularity of Nag Champa many reputed manufactures have succumbed to imitating the package design of their Nag Champa incense to resemble the `Blue Box”.  
 
Please see the Wiki article on Nag Champa to compare images of various popular brands of Nag-Champa incense.
 
 
 
(Disclaimer: Wikipedia, as you know, is free for anybody to edit. As a result,  many incense manufacturers have from time to time, ‘edited’ the Wiki information to promote or praise their products.  The information contained in the link posted above is not absolutely correct or complete and incensum is in no way responsible for information provided by Wikipedia. 
 
For example, the very first sentence in Wikipedia about Nag Champa states that “It has a high concentration of Sandalwood”.  That is absolute non-sense and based on hearsay.  Who ever edited that article stands to lose a lot of credibility.)
 
 
 
Masala incense refers to a kind of incense made in South India, by combining special resins  with fragrances.  This type of incenses delivers the best result in terms of fragrance quality, shelf life and the general ambience provided by the incense.  The knowledge of the manufacturing process of Masala incense is proprietary to traditional incense makers of South India.
 
 
 
This process has 2 varieties, wet masala sticks and semi Dry masala sticks.
 
Semi dry masala mixture combines powdered charcoal with natural resins and use  minimal  organic content in the incense mixture.  This way the fragrance rendered will stay more faithful to the name of the fragrance.  Incensum incense are  Semi Dry Masala incenses.
 
 
 
In other words, a Jasmine – semi dry masala stick will stay more faithful to the fragrance of Jasmine than Jasmine – wet masala sticks.   
 
 
 
Wet Masala sticks also contain a higher amount of a native resin known by the name Halmaddy or Almaty which is hygroscopic. (property  of a matter to absorb atmospheric moisture) 
 
 
 
Hygroscopic Almaatty creates 2 major problems for high grade incenses:
 
 
 
1.  Due to absorption of moisture, the stick catches mould especially in coastal areas and in tropics and sub-tropics where atmospheric humidity is high. 
 
 
 
2.  The resin is derived from the tree  Ailanthus Malabarica , a native to South Indian Rain Forests.  It is from the family  Magnoliaceae  whose resin has a heavy sweet base note.  Many wet masala sticks get ‘corrupted’ by this resin due to its heavy, sweet base note and does not stay faithful to the fragrance.  More over, this resin is the single most important reason that many Indian incenses are felt “too heavy” for the temperate climatic conditions of Europe or North America.
 
 
 
It is in this aspect, that the SEMI-DRY masala sticks becomes the clear winner of all types of incenses.  Semi – Dry Masala sticks provide, the cleanest fragrance at the maximum burning time, with a maximum shelf life as opposed to any other type of manufacturing process.  
 
 
 
Read more about Masala Incense from Wikipedia… (scroll down to sub section: Indian Incense)
 
 
 
(Disclaimer: Wikipedia, as you know, is free for anybody to edit. As a result,  many incense manufacturers have from time to time, ‘edited’ the Wiki information to promote or praise their products.  The information contained in the link posted above is not absolutely correct or complete and incensum is in no way responsible for information provided by Wikipedia. 
 
For example, the very first sentence in Wikipedia about Nag Champa states that “It has a high concentration of Sandalwood”.  That is absolute non-sense and based on hearsay.  Who ever edited that article stands to lose a lot of credibility.)
Semi-Dry Masala Incense Sticks are considered the best due to the following reasons:
 
1.   The fragrance produced by semi-dry masala sticks stays faithful to the original fragrance.
 
2.   Semi-Dry masala incense sticks have maximum shelf life(upto 2 years).
 
3.   Semi Dry masala incense sticks also have sustained burning time, providing value for money.
 
 
 
High grade hand rolled black colour sticks can produce a cleaner fragrance, but it loses out to Semi-Dry Masala sticks in terms of Burning Time, Price for the consumer and Shelf Life. 
 
 
 
In contrast, wet masala incense sticks have longer shelf life and longer burning time than semi-dry masala sticks, but wet sticks attract mould at higher levels of atmospheric humidity, thus corrupting the fragrance and rendering the long shelf life  inconsequent.  Wet masala sticks contain a higher proportion of hygroscopic Halmady resin, which also interferes with the fragrance quality.
 
 
 
The essential difference between these incenses is in the proportion of the quantity of (a) Resins, (b) Charcoal, (c) Organic medium for retaining the essential oils and (d) Quantity and quality of  the Aromatic components. 
 
 
 
More resins will corrupt the fragrance.  More Charcoal will lead to a cleaner fragrance, but will dry faster, thus having a very short shelf life(6-8 months).  Manufacturers of good quality balck coloured sticks will have to dramatically increase the aromatic component inorder to achieve a decent shelf life.
 
However, this results in a super expensive incnese, except otherwise manufacturers substitute natural aromatic compounds with synthetic substitues.

FAQ on Incensum Purchase and Trade Principles.

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