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Aromatherapy at Home: Incense, Oil Burner or Oil Diffuser?

An aerosol can is not the only option to make your home smell great. Incense, oil burner and oil diffuser work too. But which is is safe and which pose a health hazard?



Once upon a time, we went crazy over incense. We’d buy them in different scents and we’d fill the house with the fragrant smoke and savor it. You don’t get that feeling by spraying a room with commercial air freshener. Incense smoke is more like burning dead leaves and twigs in the garden. The scent can be floral, woody or herb-y depending on what leaves and twigs you’re burning.

Aromatherapy: incense

It shouldn’t be surprising. Incense is made up of aromatic plant materials and essential oils which are bound by natural plant-based binders (generally referred to as “gum”). Expensive incense contain solid aromatic materials such as wood barks (cassia, sandalwood, cedar), fruits (star anise, vanilla beans) and resins (camohor, myrrh, Dragon’s blood).

(See bonus info about Dragon’s blood at the end of the post.)


Burning incense has been around since the time of ancient civilizations — in Egypt, China and India. Incense was burned to perfume houses, to meditate, to honor ancestors…

Little did I know, however, that burning incense poses plenty of health hazards. Who would have thought, right? But modern studies show that inhaling incense smoke can be worse than second hand cigarette smoke. And the particles they unleash to the air… Emissions from incense remain in a room even 100 minutes after the incense has burnt out. Among these emissions is formaldehyde.

Oil burners

Fortunately for us, we stopped using incense long before those studies came out. No one wanted to clean the ashes from the burnt incense so we switched to a less messy form of aromatheraphy — oil burners.

Aromatherapy: oil burner

You put a few drops of essential oil into the receptacle of the burner, add water, put the receptacle in place and light a tea candle under it. The heat from the candle burns the oil and the the room is filled with fragrance. Yes, there is still smoke involved. Oil has a smoking point by nature. But that’s much less smoke and a lot more fragrance than burning incense.

Speedy was especially smitten with oil burners. Not only did he buy essential oils, he started collecting burners as well in different shapes, colors and sizes.

The thing about incense and oil burners is that the scent lasts only for as long as they are lighted. A stick of incense will burn for around fifteen minutes and, after that, the scent will linger for about half an hour unless all doors and windows are closed. An oil burner will emit the scent of the essential oil in its receptacle for as long as the tea candle beneath is burning. In short, with incense as with oil burners, the scent never lasts long.

If you think burning incense is an unnecessary health risk and oil burners are not your thing but you still like filling your house with fragrant smells that don’t come out of an aerosol can, there is a third alternative.

Oil diffusers

I discovered oil diffusers when I friend gave me one several Christmases ago.

Aromatherapy: oil diffuser with reeds

The oil diffuser set has three components — scented oil, the container for the oil and rattan reeds with multiple holes in the center to diffuse the oil.

How does it work? You pour the scented oil into the container then you drop the rattan reeds into the oil. The rattan reeds soak up the oil and emit the scent. No fire, no amber, no smoke. Brilliant, isn’t it?

I did some research after receiving the oil diffuser. According to some online sellers, bamboo sticks are no substitute for the rattan reeds. But that’s a lie. When the rattan reeds were all soaked up and no longer emitting fragrance, I replaced them with bamboo sticks — the kind you skewer meat with before grilling. And…

Bamboo sticks work well. After I dropped the bamboo sticks into the scented oil container, I put the container on the dining table and left it there overnight. When I woke up the next day, as I was going down, the wonderful scent greeted me even before I was halfway down the stairs. And we have an open floor plan on the ground floor! I can just imagine how much better the effect would be if the container were left in an enclosed space.

*Bonus: About dragon’s blood

If you have read Happy Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, or seen the film version, you’ll recall that scene where Dumbledore and Harry visited Horace Slughorn to convince him to return to Hogwarts to teach. When they entered the house, there was a bright red substance on the ceiling that looked like blood. Slughorn later admitted it was dragon’s blood.

Did Slughorn refer to the blood of a dragon or it it possible that the dragon’s blood referred to in the story is actually the bright red resin taken from several varieties of trees? Dragon’s blood was used as dye and medicine by the ancient Romans, Greeks and Arabs and as varnish by 18th century Italian violin makers. Dragon’s blood is also an ingredient for making incense.