Synthetics vs Organics

Our task, if you will, to describe an incense is made somewhat difficult by what we might call the secret of the recipe. That is, like a magician who would refuse to show you exactly how he performed an illusionary feat, an incense maker is only going to give the public the barest and most obvious ingredients of any incense recipe. You’ve seen it dozens of times, the vague “and other herbs and spices” (or ingredients, oils, medicines etc.). This is the no-mans land of the incense recipe and to be honest a great deal of activity goes on in this space because, as you known, any incense scent is more than just a combination of sandalwood, aloeswood, clove, cinnamon, patchouli and/or the dozen or more other ingredients that the makers provide us with. In fact, this secret recipe may be even more veiled when it comes to India where we’re often given no more than the one base scent an incense is to resemble, if that.

The basic definition that separates an incense using natural ingredients vs synthetics is a synthetic is “prepared or made artificially” and artificial in this case means “produced rather than natural.” That is, an artificial scent is one that is likely created via chemistry rather than, say, oil distillation. But this creates some semantic issues because oil distillation may be using natural products, but it’s not a natural end, so to speak. That is, jasmine or patchouli oil are distillations of natural aromatics in an intensity that is itself not natural. But in nearly all cases, particularly in the incense world, when we use the word synthetic, we’re not talking about the use of a natural oil, we’re talking about a chemically created product meant to resemble a natural scent.  In these cases the product is made to cut costs due to the expense of an oil if it were made from rare natural product, which is why you will see synthetic oud and rose oils far more than you’re likely to see synthetic orange or patchouli oils. And at the same time the strength of an incense stick, usually indicating the use of oils, doesn’t necessarily mean that said oil is synthetic.

The word synthetic brings a host of semantic associations with it. A synthetic oil is automatically assumed as inferior as it’s a copy of the real thing, so to speak. A copy can be a photograph of a seashore or a recording of a live music show, but unlike these examples there is usually no intrinsic downside implied like there is with a synthetic ingredient, after all both of these have implicit positives such as the ability to take pictures and recordings home with you. However, the fact that a synthetic ingredient is often used to approximate something natural carries the semantic association of it being inferior in some way and often it is.

However I think a mistake is made by creating a link between synthetic and unpleasant sensations. Lots of woods can be bitter or offputting, including cheaper aloeswoods and all of this happens outside of a laboratory. Poor quality myrrh or guggal gum can be extremely awful, sometimes approaching a bad accident at a barbeque. If you make an incense with poor quality natural ingredients, it hardly matters whether or not a synthetic ingredient is involved. And despite whether it’s imitative or not, a synthetic ingredient won’t necessarily make or break an incense, but certainly the advertising of such will likely do this nonetheless as it triggers those associations we have that synthetic equals inferior.

The main issue, however is the types of scents that are synthesized. In many cases it’s expensive florals that need synthetic analogs because the expense of distilling enough rose petals to make fine quality rose attar is high enough to impact the cost of an incense. The second issue is that there are generations of soaps and perfume products that use floral aromatics in them, which have created the associations that florals are often bitter, soapy and offputting. This is likely because a $5 bar of soap will not be imbued with a quality rose oil, it will need either a diluted rose oil or something synthetic in order to keep the costs down.

Likely this is what also happened with the Shrinivas Sugandhalaya incense line when the costs of halmaddi started to rise, in order to keep the prices in the same range, substitutions needed to be made. Certainly incense connoissuers would be likely to pay the increases in price, but a worldwide corporation marketing 10g packages of Nag Champs across hundreds of stores are thinking about their bottom line. I know I’m happy to pay decent money for a good champa, however the casual head in a smoke shop or the intermittent incense buyer in the local new age bookstore will probably take a pass and likely this is the lion’s share of intake for a big incense company.

So as substitutions are made, byproducts start to set in while the changes are relatively invisible to the consumer. The incense could smell smokier or seem harsher, and it certainly won’t smell the same. However, with the abovementioned rose oil, it’s relatively unlikely most incense buyers will have experienced a similar effect like the changes to Nag Champa incense, instead associations will have been created via soaps and inexpensive, commercial perfumes, many of which use chemicals created in laboratories to approximate the scent of a rose. So generally speaking you’re far more likely to find synthetic or synthetic-seeming aromas in the floral groups. But again, I think it’s somewhat treacherous to be 100% sure about these things unless you’re literally told an incense has a synthetic ingredient. But with all this said there are a couple things to look for that might help to identify synthetic ingredients.

Many incense companies (I’ll quote Baieido, Shoyeido, and Shroff Channabasappa off the top of my head, although there are a lot more) claim to use only natural ingredients. I think it’s incumbent upon us to trust their word on this without other evidence. However it’s also clear that Shoyeido use a lot of essential oils and perfumes in their incenses while Baieido probably only uses oils in their modern lines. But with Shoyeido I think it’s important to note that even though the oil contents in their incenses are high, they are apparently natural perfumes. But the point is that with the prevalence of incense companies that make these claims, it brings a slight cloud of doubt over those that don’t make this statement. One can’t necessarily make the judgement that the “other” companies DO use synthetics, but surely they’re more likely to.

Natural aromas tend to have depths that we assume synthetics don’t. With incenses that are under evaluation for the presence of synthetics, we often make the evaluation that the aromatic curve of an incense is going to end faster for a synthetic smell than a natural one. That is, after repeated use of an incense, if you don’t notice subtleties and new aspects of an aroma, and the scent generally stays static, I believe this increases the likelihood of a synthetic presence.

Overall, I’d sum up the situation this way. A) We don’t know for sure, unless we’re explicitly told otherwise, if an incense contains a synthetic ingredient, we can only guess. B) Unpleasantries in incense are perhaps more likely to come from synthetics but don’t count out poor natural ingredients as a source for unpleasant scents. C) if you can smell an unlit stick of incense, it’s likely to contain perfume oils, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re synthetic no matter what the strength. D) Scents that might be synthetic are often thinner or have less presence or subtlety than natural scents, but without further evidence there will always be uncertaintly involved.



  1. David Oller said,

    June 13, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Well guys, I can’t speak for other manufacturers, but as far as Baieido is concerned we have always been quite clear on the materials used in our incense products. All of the products marketed under Traditional, Meditation, Premium, are made from 100% natural whole herbs, spices, woods, roots & rhizomes etc. No essential oils, extractions, chemical potentiators, fragrances, or anything else you couldn’t find on this planet 10,000 years ago are used to make these products.

    All florals are made using fragrances, essential oils, absolutes, or a combination of the same.

    As far as the reason why fragrances (synthetics) are used in making incense there are other reasons besides cost and the other reasons mentioned. You can’t heat a Rose petal or any flower petal and achieve anything like the aroma of a rose. You will get an unpleasant result. In some cases you can use essential oils and get a pleasant result. Some floral aromas are either impossible or prohibitively expensive to distill, extract, or produce a “concrete” in order to produce an absolute.

    I don’t recall extractions being covered in the article, but some would argue extractions are “natural” given that the aromatic or flavor chemicals are extracted from the natural material. Case in point are some herbal teas and other products that claim to be “All Natural” So how do you get that much apple flavor and cinnamon in that little tea bag. The answer is that an apple contains dozens of components and chemicals, but only a few are responsible for aroma and flavor. Of course we know aroma is mostly responsible for taste because flavor only produces the sensations: sweet, salty, bitter, sour. Some add savory (umani) and fatty acids. So in most cases you can extract between two and six chemicals from the natural material and produce a facsimile of the taste.

    Some chemicals can be synthesized in a lab and these would be true synthetics, most often termed as fragrances.

    Today, especially in Japan there is a demand for modern aromas like coffee, tea, honey, etc. These products are only possible using fragrances. However our Green Tea Incense also contains real Itoen Brand Green Tea. The reason is green tea produces virtually no aroma but has a remarkable quality of being able to absorb and neutralize other aroma, especially useful after cooking. Japanese restaurants have heated old green tea in their kitchens for years.

    Personally, I like the term Whole Herb to describe purely natural incense.

    David Oller

    • Mike said,

      June 13, 2009 at 5:16 pm

      Appreciate everyone weighing in on this subject, definitely appreciate the extra information and education!

  2. Ross Urrere said,

    June 10, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    This is such a great article and rather timely, give what is happening within the perfume/fragrance industry at the moment. This centers around new regulations going into effect in Europe about what is OK to use in perfumes on both a “natural” essential oils level as well as the lab made components. Incense, on the other hand, has no real regulations in place and pretty much anything goes. Well, maybe not if the workers making the stuff started dropping, but other then that. In other words, no one is yet concerned about breathing the fumes like they are the skin contact involved with perfume. Another reason is that the “perfume wars” are based in Europe where incense is not in the same market league as perfume. Thank god for this as much of what is being codified into laws have no logical bases and there is a lot of “reformulation” going on with inferior results.
    So in incense what seems to me to determine what gets put into any blend created by any company is based on availability, price, company image, religious beliefs and some other factors( profit comes to mind). There is a real difference in the acceptable materials cost in a roll of Nippon Kodo’s uber kyara blends at 20,000 yen per box as opposed to $2.00 for ten sticks of basic Indian incense.
    One of the biggest factors right now is availability of materials. Good Sandalwood, Aloeswood/Kyara, halmaddi, musk and many other animal and plant derived raw materials are all becoming tougher and tougher to obtain, legally or not! So substitutions get made to mimic the original scent. Some of this comes from other “naturals”, much comes from synthetics. This can produce some pretty strange scents. I notice that some incenses smell OK unlit, but once burning the truth of the matter comes out ( fire, once again upholding its role as a uncover of the truth 🙂 ).
    There are a lot of incenses that to my nose just smell off when lite. My mind/nose/brain has programmed this set of smells to be considered synthetic, wither it really is or not. It could just be lesser quality material. For a long time I would not burn any Indian sticks because I was sure they were in this category, this has changed lately (thank you Mike). At the same time I can now see that in Japan incense prices play a very important part of what you are going to get, but also, does not necessarily guaranty this. I personally think some of the larger companies may be scrambling as their stock piles start to run out. Aloeswood is selling for unbelievable prices on Yahoo and EBay in Asia right now If you have not been up on Yahoo Japan or the like you owe it to yourself, gives you a whole new perspective on what people consider valuable..forget the gold, get the woods! So lesser quality materials take the place of what used to be considered the standards. At the same time I believe there is a good chance you can get a quality incense at a reasonable price from, say, a Tibetan monastery or other small makers located where the cost of getting synthetics is higher then using naturals or they are sitting on a large stockpile and using it.
    Let your nose be your guide, but make sure you give it an education along the way and keep an open mind. Of course you could roll into your neighborhood incense/head shop with a gas chromatograph, but they might not understand 🙂

  3. Nancy said,

    June 10, 2009 at 5:56 am

    Here are a few other ways to tell if your incense may be synthetic:

    ~It has a thin bamboo stick running up the middle. Synthetics require this in order to give structure. Pure sticks use natural herbal binders like tabu no ki (a.k.a. makko) to give form. Keep in mind that this is not 100% accurate because many natural masala-type incenses also have bamboo cores.

    ~There is a black tint to the body of the stick. The black tint indicates that the base of the stick is charcoal, not powdered herbs. This style of incense gets its aroma when it is dipped into a perfume oil, usually a synthetic petroleum-based perfume. The Gonesh incenses are all like this, for example, so are a lot of so-called “smokeless” Japanese sticks.

    ~You get any of the following symptoms from the stick: headache, nausea, or burning eyes. This is a clear sign that you are either allergic to the ingredients or you are inhaling too much petroleum smoke from the ignition of the synthetic perfume oils.

    ~The incense costs $5 or less. Cheaper, synthetic ingredients cost less. Price is the most significant motivation for the companies that use these inferior ingredients. Simply put, quality herbal ingredients cost more.

    ~Your incense states that it is “hand dipped.” Sounds nice but this means charcoal blanks that are dipped in synthetic petroleum oils. Quality incense is usually made from ground herbs that are extruded like spaghetti or hand rolled onto bamboo cores.

    ~Your incense states that it is scented with fragrance oils. This is an official, legal term indicating that the aroma oil is a synthetic, petroleum substance. Natural incenses will give a listing of plants, resins, spices, and essential oils as ingredients.

    ~The flavor of the incense is something nondescript like “Night Queen” or “Spirit.” This name tells you nothing about the ingredients or intended aroma, a possible clue that it has no natural origin. Many natural incenses also have beautifully poetic names, like “City of Dreams” by Shoyeido, so this is not a hard and fast rule.

    ~The flavor of the incense is for an ingredient that does not have any aromatic oils. There are many incense flavors, like strawberry, apple, and cherry, that are by default synthetic. These fruits contain no aromatic essential oils and do not smell nice at all when actually burned.

    So if your incense has a bamboo core, has a black tint to the body, gives you a headache when you burn it, costs only 10 cents per stick, and is hand dipped with cherry fragrance oils, then it is most certainly 100% synthetic.

    If, on the other hand, it has no bamboo core and a nice earthy color, it enhances your meditation practice, costs $10 per box, and it lists the ingredients as sandalwood with resins and spices, then it is most definitely natural.

    Keep in mind that there are lots of variations in between. For example, many Indian masala incenses will have a bamboo core like the cheaper synthetics, but will be rolled in powdered herbs. Also, lots of companies, like Satya Sai Baba and Nippon Kodo, will combine both natural and synthetic ingredients in their sticks. I would say that for the majority of incenses out there, this is the most common way to formulate. If you really want 100% natural incense, a general rule of thumb is that the more it costs, the better it is! Don’t be discouraged! Just like you can develop a taste for fine wines, as you explore incense your sense of smell will become more fine-tuned and the synthetics will become more and more obvious.

    (This is an edited version of my reply to Dan F. regarding natural vs. synthetic on the “Ask the Olfactory Rescue Service” page back in February.)

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