Burning Revelations

New study shows incense burning may be detrimental to oral health.

Incense burning is an ancient practice common to Asian and Arabian Gulf countries, and is often used as part of religious ceremonies — aromatizing homes and public spaces. Within the UAE, burning incense is a common way to perfume houses and clothing and is reported to be used in at least 90 percent of households. But the practice could potentially be harmful to human health, a new study reveals.

NYU Abu Dhabi research reveals that incense burning could increase the probability of oral infections and systemic diseases by changing the composition of oral microbiota.

“For the first time we are showing an association between incense use and changes in microorganism composition that inhabit the oral cavity. Although this is a preliminary analysis, it is nonetheless an important finding with potential health implications,” the lead author of the study Yvonne Vallès commented.

Past research shows the practice of burning incense circulates air pollutants that increase the risks of cardiovascular and lung disease. Incense smoke contains high concentrations of pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitric oxide, both of which are also detected in tobacco smoke.  

Vallès, a former researcher at NYUAD, said it was particularly concerning that there are  no policies in place to regulate the use of incense, particularly in public spaces, considering the potential health risks.

Although more research needs to be done to conclude any definitive causality, the study was able to collect important intelligence using samples from over 300 Emirati adults as part of the UAE Healthy Future Study. It found that the diversity of oral microbiota in daily users was significantly higher when compared to those who never burn incense.

By comparing non-incense users to incense users, the study revealed that burning incense is associated to changes in the diversity, structure, and composition of the oral microbiota. Even low levels of exposure to incense can have adverse effects on health, the researchers said.  

This is an important finding, as the microbial community in the mouth plays an essential role in maintaining homeostasis, which is the body’s ability to maintain a stable internal environment despite changes in external conditions. 

“This is an important first step in understanding how incense may affect human health but to really understand how it may contribute to common chronic diseases amongst Emiratis - and we need to continue to study the UAE population over many years,” said Raghib Ali, director of the Public Health Research Center NYUAD.