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Incense is pretty magical. Not only does it give a place that certain mystical je ne sais quoi, it works for sympathetic magic, carries prayers and petitions away on its smoke, and clears away stagnant energy. It’s pretty awesome stuff.
… Unless you’re asthmatic. Or have migraines triggered by smells. Or live in a dorm. Or aren’t yet “out” as a witch. Or are one of any of the millions of other people who, for various reasons, can’t light up.
What do you do then?
I can get away with using incense sometimes. For other occasions, I’ve found a bunch of very effective incense alternatives that work in both a magical and a mundane sense.
Hydrosols are a “byproduct” of essential oil distillation. I put “byproduct” in quotes because, while they are certainly considered a byproduct if the oil is what you’re after (in much the same way that a rosebush would be considered a weed in a wheat field), they’re very useful on their own. I originally started using them as part of my skincare regimen — putting a couple of sprays on a cotton ball and using it as toner, or stashing a bottle in my bag to cool and freshen my skin throughout the day. After that, I began expanding my use to more metaphysical purposes.
Since hydrosols are derived from the same herbs used to make incense and essential oil, they carry the same properties. The only difference here is that they are closer to water, rather than the airy qualities of incense smoke. So, if you’re using incense to represent the air element on an altar or in a ritual, you may want to choose a hydrosol made of an air-aligned herb (like yarrow or peppermint), or add a feather or other airy representation to your work.
To use them, treat the spray like incense smoke. If you’d use incense to fume an object, space, or person, for example, give a spray of the hydrosol instead. I’m a big fan of those produced by Wildroot Botanicals.
2. Essential Oil Sprays
These are very similar to hydrosols, but a bit different in composition. While hydrosols are made up of the water-soluble portions of a plant, essential oil sprays are made up of water, a blend of oils, and something to keep the oils in solution (usually witch hazel or ethanol). Hydrosols are usually sold as the product of a single herb, while essential oil sprays are often a proprietary mix of oils, sometimes with crystals, gem elixirs, or flower essences added.
This makes essential oil sprays great for ritual purposes, because you can easily customize them to meet your needs. Need a fire elemental spray? Use oils from fire-aligned herbs, and add some water-safe red or orange crystals. Since a lot of the ready-made sprays have proprietary oil blends, however, they may not be the best choice for skincare applications like beauty magic.
To use them in a spell, treat them just like you would a hydrosol. Enchanted Botanicals has some really nice sprays — their Clearing spray is powerful stuff! I’ve used it for everything from cleansing spaces and tools, to helping to lift a bad mood.
3. Loose Herbs
You don’t always have to burn herbs to get the benefit of them. Burning has its place, but you can also add a dish of loose herbs to your spell, then release them to the wind when you’re done. Rather than waft incense smoke over an object, lay it on or cover it with the herbs. (If you add a few drops of essential oil, you can also pass the herbs off as potpourri.)
Harmony Hills Boutique has a very good selection of hard-to-find herbs at reasonable prices, and they ship quickly.
4. Tincture Paper
Tincture paper is fun if you absolutely need to be able to burn something, but incense still isn’t an option. It’s made by creating or taking a tincture of the herbs you’re working with, and adding a few drops to a piece of blotting paper. The paper will readily absorb the tincture, the alcohol will evaporate, and, once the paper’s dry, it’s ready for use.
These papers are nice because you can write petitions on them, create your own blend of tinctures to add to them, and they’ll burn quite a bit faster than incense. So, if you can handle limited amounts of smoke, or just don’t want to wait for incense to finish burning, try them.
Incense is treated as de rigueur in a lot of spells, but isn’t always an option for everyone. If you’re one of the many people who can’t use incense, try hydrosols, essential oil sprays, loose herbs, or tincture paper instead — you may find that you actually prefer them to dealing with smoke!