Pregnant Pagan: Putting the Incense Away

An offering of spicy tea for Brighid in lieu of incense.  Photo by Grey Catsidhe 2012.

Alcohol, caffeine, sushi, unpasteurized cheese…  Just a few things pregnant women are told to avoid or limit.  Changing your lifestyle is part of expecting.  I already find it’s impacting my spiritual practices, but not in a way that is terribly annoying or negative.

One such change has been incense.  Upon learning of my pregnancy, I started to look into it out of curiosity.  There’s smoke involved, and everyone knows pregnant women shouldn’t be smoking. There are some studies floating around about the negative correlations between incense smoke and health problems, including cancer.  People who burn it every day in an unventilated space should be especially concerned.  Incense, like some other burning matter, releases polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a pollutant.  Some studies link exposure to these during pregnancy to possible behavioral problems.

I used to burn incense a few times each week as offerings, so that probably puts me somewhere between a casual and heavy incense user.  I’ve sometimes thought about the smoke, especially as the weather cools and our windows close.  Although there is arguably room for more studies on the impact of incense on health and, in particular, pregnancy, I don’t feel like taking any chances.  The only time I currently feel comfortable with it is during outside ritual.

Earlier this year, I explored tea as an alternative to incense.  Just as with the fragrant sticks and cones, herbs are combined with heat.  The scent wafts upward with the steam.  Utilizing fire and water seems particularly magical, although it’s admittedly not as potent as incense.  Don’t expect it to mask pet odors.

If your desire is to create a fragrant smelling atmosphere, a trick my mum taught me may please you – especially during the colder months.  Before visitors come, my mum likes to bake an apple (cut in half) covered with some cinnamon.  She bakes it in the oven for 15-20 minutes on a low setting – until the apple becomes soft.  The scent is strong and far more pleasant than any artificially scented candle!  In the spring and summer, why not opt for locally grown flowers placed on a central altar?

Oil diffusers could be another possibility, but pregnant women must be so careful about which oils they handle.  Several sites I’ve looked at all suggest that lavender is safe.  Given it’s calming properties, it seems like a good choice for those expecting.  I’m especially drawn to simple terra cotta ornaments that don’t require any flame. (Check out this adorable diffuser pendant from napotterystudio on Etsy!  Perfect for a Brighid shrine!)   Should you decide to try a candle diffuser, definitely choose to use organic soy or beeswax candles as paraffin wax has shown to be more dangerous.

I definitely intend to keep digging into this matter as it’s one that is close to many Pagans.  We (generally) love to make offerings, use candles, and burn incense.  Yet, as a mother-to-be, I want to err on the side of caution.  Wouldn’t you?

Please share your ideas or any information you find!

19 thoughts on “Pregnant Pagan: Putting the Incense Away

  1. What about Indian women? They are around incense all the time (Nag Champa, anyone?), yet they continue to have children and their population continues to grow. I think it depends on the type of incense (synthetic vs. natural) and what herbs it contains.

    Another possibility is to make an incense, but instead of burning it on charcoal (which is probably what releases the chemicals), put some in a pot on the stove with some water. Bring to a boil. Add more water as needed.

    I am curious, what is the actual risk of birth defects from these things you mention? I’m talking in terms of statistics. 50%? .001%? To be honest, stepping outside has a risk, pregnant or not. Every step we take is a risk that we won’t step on something, walk onto a weak spot in the floor, etc.

    Just things to think about.

    Blessings,
    Victoria

    1. One of the links posted briefly discusses a study on temples in an Asian country showing that inside contained more dangerous pollutants than out. And organic materials, such as wood, do create pollutants, especially in a poorly ventilated room. I think that’s a huge detail. Homes in India are very well ventilated (traditionally, anyway). Their climate allows it. Not so much in Northern NY – especially this time of year. Even other natural incense, like sage wands, are not recommended for pregnant women. Our mucus membranes are able to absorb different properties. I would like to see more studies and statistics too and will keep digging. I still want to err on the side of caution. The outside has become a very polluted space and we can’t entirely control that. Why not take control of one’s own environment? It’s a mother’s job.

    2. The incense in a pot on the stove with water is essentially the tea suggestion I posted about. Just in a much larger batch! Could be worth trying to add more aroma to a room!

  2. First off I just want to say congrats again. So happy for you! Second, really informative post. I’ve often wondered about the effects of incense and if it is harmful at all. My ritual room is poorly ventilated and I tend to use a lot of incense as offerings. I may have to re-think that. I’ve noticed I get headaches with certain kinds indoors that I don’t burn any more but I may just go incense free indoors now too (or a least make sure to wait to burn the offerings until I’m ready to leave the room). Anyway I think it’s great you’ve researched the issue.

    =)

    1. Thanks again! I’m joining the ranks of Pagans/occultists with children! A whole new world… 😉

      I sometimes got headaches as well – usually when I used cheap incense from Gods know where… I tend to favor things made by the local herbalist. I know and trust her – she uses very pure, natural ingredients. Still, I really think I’m going to be an outside or open-window only incense user from now on. I will continue to research this because I have so many questions…

  3. I have horrible asthma and allergies…incense is almost always out. And when I was preggo, it was out of the question for other reasons.

    For this time of year, I slice up half of an orange, toss on some cranberries, break up a cinnamon stick, add some cloves or grate some ginger, and simmer. When the house (and everyone in it) is sick, I put on a pot of pine and lemons. I pretty much have a brew for every time of year…

    If its not a simmer pot (because who the heck wants a simmering pot on the stove in the summer?), I make beeswax candles with (real) essential oils.

  4. Congrats on your pregnancy. Everything you feel or do the baby will share the experience. Same goes for the environments you visit, the baby will sense that environment. Play a certain set of music whilst the baby is in the womb then for all life it will gain a sense of security when it encounters that music.

    1. Thanks, Alex! I’ve been thinking a lot about music for the baby, actually. Hubby and I have very diverse tastes and it includes modern pop, hip hop, and the like. It’s hard finding a balance between what I feel is appropriate for a child having to censor our tastes. I know the baby can’t understand the lyrics, but he or she will understand emotion and mood. I would rather play relaxing things like classical, folk, and like right. I find myself singing the traditional “Irish Lullaby” a lot too. 🙂

      1. It is a useful tool, perhaps certain songs that are calming with a good strong pattern. Perhaps with a beat that matches your heart beat at rest. Play such music often so the baby remembers it. Later on when baby keeps you up half the night crying, playing such music might make life easier for you 🙂

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