If you are here reading this article, I am going to assume that you do not need me to explain to you why you should be using alternatives to white sage, unless you are a part of one of the traditions where the practice of smudging originated.
If you are unsure why you should make this shift, I highly recommend reading Smudge and the Cultural Appropriation Issue, Language Has Power: On Smudging And Appropriation, and What is Going on with White Sage? The reasons stem from the oppression of native people, ignorance or disregard of native customs, and unsustainable environmental pillage.
The most commercially popular alternative to white sage, palo santo, is problematic for very similar reasons, and should also generally be avoided. Personally, I don’t understand why people have flocked to commercially unsustainable, culturally insensitive options, when there are so many wonderful and responsible options easily available to suit any purpose.
What is Smoke Cleansing?
Using smoke for cleansing is a part of innumerable traditions from around the world, stretching back to before written history. If you are practicing an established tradition, odds are it has its own specific smoke cleansing practice, and maybe even its own term to define it. Even though “smudging” is a word that originates with Old English, when referring to smoke cleansing it overwhelmingly refers to Native American practices, and most often specifically the use of white sage. If you are not part of one of those tribes, or trained in their tradition, you are not “smudging” when you do smoke cleansing, so please be more accurate (and culturally respectful) and use a different term.
The way smoke cleansing is practiced by most people in the New Age community, spirit-beauty aficionados, and many witches and pagans, it is using smoke as the focus and means of generally clearing and cleansing the energy in an area. It is intended to clear negativity and foster peace and wellbeing. Literally any kind of smoke which is pleasant will work for this purpose. It does not need to be white sage or palo santo!
If you associate your reason for cleansing with particular herbs or plants which are safe to burn, that association can add to the power of the smoke cleansing. For example, if you are looking for peace and tranquility, lavender or a lavender blend may be an ideal choice. If you need to aggressively clear sticky and detrimental energy from an area, cedar may work very well.
Reasons a person may want to smoke cleanse include purification before ritual, fostering peace and tranquility, removing detrimental or damaging energy, preparing for trance or other alternate mental states, taking ownership of a new space like a home or apartment or vehicle, protection and shielding, elevating energy levels, supporting sleep or meditation, and so, so many more.
It is not fair to the varied practice of smoke cleansing, or to the huge varieties of reasons for doing it, to place all that weight on one single plant and one single style of working. One size fits all may do the job, but it is unlikely to be ideal for all situations and individuals.
The Issue of Allergies
People have allergies. Smoke travels, so if you insist on using a particular herb in communal settings, you are potentially going to force someone with allergies to leave. No, it isn’t funny, and it doesn’t prove that “they were holding negative energy.”
Allergies cannot be helped, and allergy medication is not sufficient for all people and all situations. Even if allergy medication was sufficient for all people, it is beyond rude to be so callous to a member of your own community and their medical needs. My partner is so allergic to white sage smoke that it poses a genuine risk of sending her to the hospital with a severe asthma attack. I do take it as a hostile act when people dismiss her medical issue out of some pretentious need to use white sage no matter what.
Regardless of which method of smoke cleansing you choose, or which herbs you prefer, if you are going to smoke cleanse in a public area around other people, be sure to have at least one alternative. Ask those present if they are allergic to the ingredients in you first choice, and move on to the other choices if anyone present has allergies. There are always an assortment of herbs applicable to any purpose, or you can just go with something you find pleasant, so it should be easy to find multiple options.
Using Incense for Smoke Cleansing
This is my preferred method of smoke cleansing, and the one I use the vast majority of the time. I do not have the ability to maintain a garden of herbs to make my own bundles, so for that reason and more, this is my most reasonable option. I have a particular fondness for Japanese low-smoke incenses, as they are very high quality and consistent, but I have also used a variety of hand crafted and responsibly sourced stick incenses, cone incenses, powdered incenses, and resin incenses.
The benefits of using incense for smoke cleansing:
- You can make your own incense if you are so inclined.
- You can purchase single ingredient and blend incenses in seemingly boundless varieties.
- The option of using essential oils means you can include ingredients which are impractical for bundles, like citrus or cinnamon.
- It is usually inexpensive and easy to obtain.
- It stores extremely well for extended periods of time with no loss of quality.
- It is easy to support individual crafters, or companies which are creating ethically sourced products.
- If you want more smoke, you can just light more sticks of incense at once.
- It is not going to set off fire alarms (unless you light that many sticks).
- The lower amount of smoke means it is less irritating to people with respiratory conditions, like asthmatics and some survivors of COVID.
- You do not have to deal with extinguishing the embers when you are done.
- When you have finished doing your rounds, you can set the remainder of the incense on your altar or in the middle of the space so the smoke and scent may continue to gently permeate the area.
The only significant drawback I see is that you must be careful that the incense you purchase is not made with chemical perfumes. However, if you are using incense for any part of your practice, you should be careful of this anyway. Also be wary of any blended incenses which do not give a specific ingredient list, even if they are locally crafted. Surprise ingredients can cause allergy problems or have unexpected energetic effects.
You may feel it is better to have something specific just for smoke cleansing, to differentiate it from the incense you use for ritual, offerings, or other purposes. If that is the case, there are ways to do this. Just pick a particular ingredient to only use for smoke cleansing, or a particular brand, or a particular style of incense (resin, stick with core, cone, stick without core, etc.).
Bundles Using Other Herbs and Plants
Most non-poisonous herbs can be dried and bundled just like white sage, and used for cleansing in much the same way. This includes other varieties of sage which are not endangered, like cooking sage.
If you are inclined to grow an herb garden, it may be worth your while to grow herbs you want to use to make your own bundles. Many herbs, like rosemary and thyme, can even do double-duty for cooking, smoke cleansing, and other assorted magical uses.
Making the bundles is simple. You just gather the herbs and plants you want to use, and tie them into a tight bundle using cotton, hemp, or linen string or twine. Do not use synthetic string, or it will melt and give off noxious smoke you do not want to breath. Dry it out by setting your bundle somewhere warm and dry, putting it in your dehydrator if you have one, or popping it in your oven on low for a day or so. When it has dried completely, it is ready to use.
If you do not want to make your own, bundles using alternate plants have become easier to find in recent years. Many occult shops, online sellers, and even organic grocery stores will carry some options other than white sage. Truly ethical shops not associated with a native tribe will only sell alternatives to white sage. You can also look for local or online independent crafters who are making and selling bundles from their own gardens.
Your smoke cleanse does not need to come in the form of a bundle. You can simply dry out your herb(s) of choice and set it on fire to create your smoke. But…. AND THIS IS A BIG BUT!
Be extremely wary of fire danger!
The tight bundling of herbs prevents them from keeping an active flame, making them far less likely to set anything on fire, and ensuring they generate as much smoke as possible. If you light up a rosemary branch, and you don’t take great care to keep it over or in something which is fire-proof, you could accidentally light something else on fire, including yourself. It also might extinguish and stop giving off smoke before you are finished.
If you want to use loose herbs, I STRONGLY recommend doing so only at your altar over a fire-proof vessel, or in a safe and contained fire. Let the smoke fill the area naturally, instead of walking the smoke around the area.
You can use finely chopped herbs on charcoal, like you would with resin incense. Use very small amounts, and be prepared to add more when it burns out. Most herbs will burn significantly faster than resin incense. If they are chopped tiny, be sure to use dried herbs, not fresh ones. The moisture in fresh herbs can cause them to “pop” when the water hits the boiling point, and the small pieces can go flying (yes, I have done this, and yes, it did burn scar my working area).
You can drop your whole herbs directly into a fire. This will tend to burn your herbs rather quickly, so plan on adding more as needed for your purposes to keep the smoke going, and expect to use a great deal more plant than you would need for bundles. Fresh herbs will take slightly longer to burn than dried ones, but because they are whole you don’t have the danger of flying bits when the moisture pops (at least, not any more danger than exists with any wood based fire). This will also probably create A LOT of smoke, especially if you are using fresh herbs, so be prepared.
If you want to drop your source of smoke into a large fire, another alternative to white sage is smoking chips or pellets for barbecuing. The advantages here are the ability to use various woods, and they are designed such that they will produce a predictable amount of smoke for a longer period of time than most herbs or plant trimmings.
Alternatives to Smoke Cleansing
There are innumerable alternatives to using smoke for cleansing and clearing an area. If you do not want to use smoke, or burning things is inconvenient or problematic, you do have other options which are just as effective!
These are just some of the possible alternatives.
- Sprinkle salt water you have consecrated.
- Spritz all-natural air freshener which you have consecrated.
- Use a purifying salt bowl.
- Ring a bell, use a singing bowl, or play any instrument with intent.
- Sing with your own voice, or just make tonal sounds that resonate for you.
- Use a hand fan or broom to sweep unwanted or unneeded energy out of the space.
- Physically thoroughly clean the area with intent.
- Make prayers at key locations, or while walking the space.
- Dance through the area with intent.
- Firmly demand that things “get out” (cuss words optional), while ushering them out the door or window.
- Place appropriate wards, sigils, or charms in key locations, especially over doors, windows, or other openings.
- Draw wards or sigils on the ground at the edge of the space.
- Walk the area with cleansing crystals, or set crystals in key locations.
- Walk the area with your wand or athame pointed out of the space, with intent.
- Bury cleansing or protective stones or crystals at key locations around the area.
- Bury cleansing or protective jar spells, sigils, or wards at key locations around the area.
- Place healing or protective spirit or deity statues, objects that represent deities, or meaningful art pieces at key locations around the area.
- Write down what you want to banish or cleanse on a piece of paper and burn it or carry it outside the space to throw it away.
- Write down what you want to banish or cleanse on a piece of toilet paper, use the toilet, and flush it.
- Take a cleansing ritual bath or shower.
- Have a ritual tea service, with ingredients to suit your purpose.