About the Different Types of Incense

Since I will be writing about many different types of incense, I want to provide an overview in this place.

Roughly speaking, incense can be divided into two main groups: Self-Lighting Incense and Non SelfLighting Incense; such that can be lit and then smoulder on its own and such that needs to rely on an external heat source (charcoal, incense heaters, etc.).

The SLI includes all types of incense sticks, spirals, cones and rarer forms such as rope incense, incense paper or even the kind of incense powders, which are not placed on charcoal but burned as a “trail” on a bed of ash.
So-called “Sambrani Cups” represent an intermediate form. More on this below.

NSLI are all types of loose incense, including individual ingredients, although there are a few examples that could also simply be lit (like palo santo, sweetgrass braids and herb bundles). Kneaded or pressed incense is also included in this category.


  • Bamboo core incense sticks,
    also called agarbathi/agarbatti, usually come from India, but there are exceptions where Indian-style incense sticks are made in other countries.
    • Masala
      A dough made from aromatic ingredients is wrapped around a bamboo splint by hand or extruded onto it by a machine.
      There are subcategories like
      – Dry Masala
      – Soft Masala
      – Wet Masala

      which refer to the consistency of the dough, which can provide information about its composition to a limited degree.
      There are also terms such as “Durbar”, “Fluxo” or “Flora Incense”, but these seem to be used mainly for marketing purposes and have no reliable meaning. The Ephra World Shop has a filter function for “Flora Incense”. When I asked, it was explained to me that with those, it is paid attention to “the special purity of the ingredients”, but there are also dipped, super-cheap sticks with fantasy names appearing in the search results. Scents such as “apple”, “wild cherry” or “coconut” where it is clear that synthetic aromas have to be used.
      Others use the term Flora Incense as a synonym for Fluxo Incense.
      Durbar seems to mean a cross-over between masala and dipped sticks, and is often equated with wet masala.
      Fluxo are usually particularly thick, very potent incense sticks that produce a lot of smoke.
      I will also occasionally talk about “charcoal masala” in my reviews, by which I mean sticks made using the masala method that contain a noticeable amount of charcoal.
    • Dipped incense sticks (dipped / hand dipped)
      There are two options here:
      – Charcoal base
      – Sawdust base

      In both cases, a dough that is only a carrier material mixed with binding agent is applied to bamboo sticks (usually by extruding), which are then dried and dipped into aromatic oils.
      This manufacturing technique mainly uses synthetic fragrances and these are diluted with diethyl phthalate (DEP) “Agarbatti Oil” to make it cost-effective.
      Charcoal sticks are characteristically black and hard, although they may appear wet/oily.
      Those made from sawdust are often dyed in bright colours.
    • Resin incense sticks are a fairly young, special style; as far as I know, invented by Fred Soll (an American) with his “Resin-On-A-Stick®”. However, there are now many imitators, some from South America, who produce Copal sticks in that manner. But a few larger brands have also discovered the style already.
      The sticks are characterized by an extremely high resin content, which often means that the sticks are difficult to light or may go out on their own. They can be so resinous that they drip. They produce a lot of smoke, but burn very slowly.
  • Coreless incense sticks
    • Dhoop sticks are the Indian version and, as far as I know, the older form of incense there. They are relatively thick, although the diameter can vary greatly, from straw-thickness to almost thumb-thick cylinders. There are subcategories here as well.
      Wet Dhoop usually contains ghee (clarified butter) and is kneadable. Cheap Wet Dhoop may contain synthetic substitutes for the ghee. There is also
      Dry Dhoop, which can be like Dry Masala without a bamboo core, but also very cheaply produced, with high charcoal content.
    • Incense Logs I’ve seen almost exclusively on the American market, so far. They are thick cylindrical or square blocks made from coarsely ground woods such as Balsam Fir, Piñon Pine, Cedar, Juniper or Hickory. They all seem to give off a variation of aromatic campfire smell.
      I’ve also been seeing more and more Palo Santo logs lately, which probably have the advantage of burning more reliably than a raw piece of wood that has to be relit repeatedly.
    • Japanese (or Japanese-style) incense sticks are usually very thin and produce comparatively little smoke. There are also special “smokeless” versions that contain a relatively large amount of charcoal, which burns very cleanly and thus minimizes the emission of smoke. Unfortunately, this also means they burn hotter, which comes at the expense of the smell.
      Japanese incense sticks are often referred to as “quiet” because their scent profiles are usually much more delicate and subtle than the “loud”, very potent Indian sticks.
      Japan has a centuries-old incense (stick) tradition and the classic, traditional recipes usually focus on sandalwood or agarwood; cedar wood is also common, especially in the moderate price segment.
    • Tibetan, Nepalese and Bhutanese incense sticks are noticeably thicker than Japanese and have a very unique character. They are often described as “earthy”, “herbaceous”, “smoky”, or “medicinal”. They usually produce quite a lot of smoke. Authentic sticks of these types are very natural, and their recipes are not primarily aimed at pleasant smells, but rather at the effect and meaning of the used ingredients. They are used medicinally, among other things.
      In fact, as far as I know, the dough is even often fermented before being processed into sticks and dried.
      Each of these countries of origin gives their incense sticks a specific character and therefore represents a subcategory, which I will not go into further. They don’t really suit my taste and my experience with them is therefore very limited.
    • Rope incense comes from Tibet and Nepal. For this, powdered ingredients are twisted into a special paper (“Lokta”), which is then corded; The tips are dipped in wax or something similar to prevent them from opening again. They are often hung on its loop to burn, but there are also many other options.
    • Incense powder for trail burning is set on top of a special incense ash using a mould. The ash ensures that enough oxygen reaches the incense material. The grinding size and composition can be decisive for the burnability. This method comes from Japan.
    • Incense spirals are nothing more than spirally wound incense sticks (usually Japanese), to create a rather compact shape and allow extremely long burning times. There are some that burn for several days.
  • Incense cones are basically hard Dhoop. I read somewhere (perhaps from Carl F. Neil) that they were invented primarily for transport (export) because their shape represents a compromise between burnbility and sturdiness, and they can be easily packaged in bulk.
    They are often of poorer quality than their stick counterparts because the recipe often has to be adjusted to improve burnability. They burn faster than sticks (around 15 minutes on average) and produce a lot of smoke. There are lower-quality versions as well, such as dipped coal or scented sawdust – bright colours are a warning signal in my opinion.
    • Backflow cones are a very recent trend, and I refuse to call them “incense”. The most common scent description I come across is “burning furniture” or something equalling that. The flood of used backflow burners that you can find on eBay and Co. speaks for itself.
      It is said that substances are often added to these cones so that they produce as much heavy smoke as possible, and the cheapest raw materials are used.
      In addition to the terrible smell, they also leave very stubborn residues on the burner itself and often on the furniture it is placed on.
      Furthermore, for the effect to work well, there should be as little air movement as possible. This means that using it with open windows is not really possible.
      I strongly advise against buying (or gifting) something like this.
      There are people on Reddit who try to make their own backflow cones and are quite successful. However, it is also reported that the burning method alone makes them smell worse than regular cones, and they also leave behind a residue that smells quite unpleasant.
      I won’t delve any further into the topic.
  • Incense paper or Armenian Paper is more of a curiosity. They are strips of scented paper. According to the Wiki article, it goes back to a late 19th century pharmacist named Henri Rivier, who (inspired by the Armenians’ practice of fumigating their homes with benzoin) dissolved benzoin resin in alcohol, soaked paper in it, and let it dry again.
  • Incense matches are another curiosity. So far, I only know of two companies that produce them.


  • Loose incense can be powder or granules; chips, coarse herbal mixtures, through to whole chunks of resin, pieces of wood or bundles of herbs. Kneaded incense is often also counted as “loose incense”, I will list it separately here.
  • Kneaded incense
    • Neri Koh style
      Neri Koh comes from the Japanese incense tradition.
      To make it, finely ground incense ingredients are mixed with prunes (or other dry fruits) and/or honey to make a dough, which is then formed into pearls about the size of a pea.
      Traditionally, the dough appears to have been fermented or at least aged.
      I read that the dough was put into a sealed clay pot and then buried near a river for a while. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any more detailed information about this yet. In her book “Botschaften an den Himmel” (p. 211, “Nachtlaub” recipe), Susanne Fischer-Rizzi talks about letting the pearls rest in a sealed ceramic container in the cellar for at least a week. I have achieved good results with this so far. [This book is available in English by the name “The complete incense book” I don’t know what she calls the recipe in English, it might be “Night Leaves” or “Autumn Leaves” maybe.]
    • Kyphi (in a not entirely authentic, raw version) or “Kapet” is an ancient Egyptian temple incense. This is also rolled into small balls and then dried.
      However, truly authentic Kyphi is cooked and therefore has more in common with Bakhoor.
  • Pressed incense could as well be a subcategory of kneaded incense.
    The difference is that it is not rolled into pearls by hand, but pressed into a mould and can have creative shapes. This variant may not use dried fruit as a binding agent.
  • Cooked incense
    It sounds kinda absurd, but there are some cultures that actually make their incense by cooking it.
    • Kyphi (authentic) is, as already mentioned above, a temple incense from the time of the Pharaohs. There are several traditional recipes, none of which are complete and only one (namely the “Edfu Recipe”, a wall inscription in the Horus Temple at Edfu) contains instructions for making it. One of the problems is that when it comes to the listed ingredients, there is disagreement as to which plant is actually meant. There are translation difficulties, names that have been forgotten over the centuries, and some plants may even have become extinct.
      Depending on the recipe, Kyphi contains close to 20 ingredients, including sultanas (or probably dates), red wine and honey. The preparation takes several days. Since it was a religious incense, the production involved rituals and prayers. In one of the final steps, the mass is heated for several hours to reduce the moisture content. After it has cooled, it is shaped into balls and then has to be stored for several months to mature.
    • Bakhoor or Bukhoor is very common in the Arabic/Islamic world, and I suspect that it has its origins in Kyphi. I was hoping to find more information in the book “Die Königin von Saba” by Christian Rätsch. It’s well worth reading, but unfortunately disappointing in that regard. [Not available in English.]
      There are countless closely guarded family recipes for bakhoor, and it is surprisingly difficult to learn more about the exact production process. Most often it consists of wood chips like agarwood “Dehn al Oudh” (I have often heard that the spent wood from oudh distillation is used too) or other aromatic woods, which are boiled and thickened with resins and sugar and infused with essential or scent oils. The result is a crumbly, oily-moist, highly aromatic mass. Another variant that I only know from pictures is pressed bakhoor. The apparently quite dry mass is pressed into segmented bars that look somewhat like chocolate bars. This appears to be more of a mass-produced version of it. Mass-produced bakhoor can smell very perfumey and synthetic.
      In any case, it is very potent and certainly not to everyone’s taste.
    • Uunsi is something I barely know anything about. It apparently comes from African traditions and is very similar to bakhoor. Thiouraye appears to be another variant, originating from the Senegal.
  • Loban, block benzoin, benjoin, gum Benjamin, benzoin, sambrani can all be names for mixtures of different resins, which usually also contain actual benzoin resin (Siam Benzoin – Styrax tonkinensis / Sumatra Benzoin – Styrax binzoin). They are heated and cast into blocks. These mixtures can also be dyed or have fragrances added.
    Purchasing this, even from trusted sources, is a gamble. Due to the benzoin content, it usually smells very sweet and pleasant, but I have also caught one that smelled like a cupboard in which varnishes and paints had been stored for decades.
    The above-mentioned “Cup Sambrani” (or Sambrani Cups) is such a resin mixture filled into small cups (about the size of shot glasses or slightly larger) made of coal or cow dung. You ignite the upper edge of the cup, which then smoulders down on its own. So it’s basically loose incense that comes with the coal built in. It is often used in Indian Pooja (worship) ceremonies.

This list does not claim to be complete.
Furthermore, terms are often not clearly defined or have double meanings, which makes the whole topic confusing and prone to errors.
I am always open to suggestions for additions or corrections if an error has crept in.

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