The asthmatic witch: incense and alternatives

Probably the most common issue asthmatic witches (and various other Pagans) raise is about incense.

Different kinds of problems:

One thing people don’t always realise initially is that there are different kinds of things you can react to with incense.

Type: You might react to stick incense, but not to cone or loose incense. You might react to synthetic fragrance notes, but not natural oils. You might react to commercial binders and preparations, but not to homemade incense or even handcrafted commercial incenses.

Scents/ingredients: You may only react to some specific scents, but not to all. I’ve got a good friend who’s very reactive to lavender and rose and patchouli, but who adores other scents.

Space or amount: You might have trouble with lots of incense in a small or tightly shut room – but be fine with a smaller amount, a larger room, or better ventilation.

My current home is 400 square feet (no doors except the bathroom) and well-ventilated (another term might be ‘drafty’ except when the winter plastic is up). I have days where I burn a third or half of a stick of incense. I also have days when two or three sticks over the course of the day is just fine. I can tell in advance which is which.

Before writing incense off entirely, it may be worth doing some cautious experimentation (assuming that your asthma is generally under control, and you do this in a space you can leave and not come back to until it’s aired out.) Get someone to help you, too: they may spot you having trouble before you consciously notice it.

Consider the times you’ve had trouble before – not just with incense, but with perfumes, bath products, smoke, or other related allergens. Keep a journal for a month if you have to, of the times you find it easier and harder to breathe. Are there any patterns? Keep track of any new patterns you spot as you look at incense options. It may be that you can find options that do work for you.


Are you reacting to something specific? Consider, as above, what you actually react to. Maybe you need to avoid floral incenses, but other ones are fine. Some people find the sticks in the stick incense to set them off: some of the Japanese stick incenses (shaped like a stick, but with no wood in the middle) sometimes work better for those people. (Also, they’re shorter, so they contain less actual incense.) Some people find the charcoal used for loose incense gives them trouble, but a cone (which has finely powdered wood in it to help it burn) works fine.

Consider other scent options: Depending on what you want the incense for, you may find other options work well. Perfume and essential oils are some common ones.

If you do want to use scent, consider applying perfume or using an oil burner may work just as well. (However, there are uses of incense that don’t work as well with this.) While some people with allergies or asthma react to all perfumes, many actually react to other substances in commercial perfumes besides the perfume oil – things like the alcohol or other carrier or base.

There’s a sizeable number of natural perfumers out there, using different approaches. I’m quite fond of the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab oils (and I’m really fond of their ritual oils, which are at Twilight Alchemy Lab) I’ve also been really impressed by Magickal Realism‘s work. (Bias note on this one: I know Di from my local Pagan community.) They have different approaches, but the smells are great!

One benefit of the oil burner or applying a perfume oil to yourself is that if you do have problems, it’s usually easier to get it out of your environment fast. (Wash it off your skin or blow out the oil burner). They’re also usually far less all-involving than incense smoke can be. Remember that essential oils should be diluted before use, and that some oils aren’t suitable if you’re pregnant, or if you’re dealing with some types of medical issues (and you may want to pay attention to those ingredients in perfume 0ils, too.)

If you want to represent the element of air (but don’t necessarily need scent) you can use a feather, a fan, or ribbon.

Don’t use it:

The last logical option is simply not to use it at all. The benefit, of course, is that you can’t react to what isn’t there.

The problem is that many traditions use it for specific reasons: some of those reasons are more adaptable with alternatives than others. In addition, scent is a very powerful trigger for some people: using it deliberately can be a very moving ritual act. Removing that opportunity for a group should be considered very carefully, because it will affect everyone else in the group’s experience (and if the group trains students who will go off and found groups of their own, can also affect practices of those groups down the line).

A group may decide to take this step (and public ritualists should consider incense use very carefully), but they may decide not to change everything for one person. (at least not without first exploring alternatives.) It is good, though, to ask questions about allergies, to let people know that incense will be used (if it will be), and what kind it’s likely to be, if anyone has concerns.

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  • I have a lot of scent sensitivities. Not asthma, but strong scents, and certain scents, tend to burn my nose and throat, and give me a headache.

    For the longest time I used a bit of essential oil on a cotton ball in a soapstone container on my altar (the container had an openwork lid which hid the cotton ball nicely). I later started experimenting with incense and found which bothered me and which didn’t.

    The wood stick is not great for me, but I can deal.

    I found that resin incense on charcoal did not bother me a bit, though the charcoal smells icky at first.

    (I also have these types of reactions to perfumes, lotions etc. I have to be really careful which I buy…or make my own.)