One of the simplest pleasures in life is coming home from a stressful day of work and lighting an aromatherapy candle with a special scent intended to make you feel calm and relaxed. Unfortunately, that seemingly harmless candle could be filling the air in your home with carcinogenic soot and lead emissions.
That news might make you tempted to clutch your candles to your chest and declare that someone will take them away from you when they pry them out of your stressed-out, soot-stained hands. Fortunately, the solution to the candle pollution problem doesn’t have to be that extreme. Alternatives to toxic aromatherapy candles abound. With very little effort, you can fill your home with soothing scents without filling it with toxins.
What's Wrong With My Candles?
The biggest issue with candles are toxic wax and, in the case of older candles, toxic wicks.
Look out for aromatherapy candles made of paraffin—a petroleum byproduct—which releases carcinogenic soot when burned. The soot can also cause respiratory problems and will aggravate the conditions of those who already have asthma, lung, or heart problems.
“Burning an aromatherapy candle made of paraffin is similar to preparing a healthy drink of fresh-squeezed juice and adding a shot of gasoline,” says Eric Johnson of Candleworks, an Iowa City, Iowa-based company that specializes in wholesaling nontoxic aromatherapy candles.
Besides endangering your health and that of your family, soot from paraffin wax can cause significant damage to the inside of your house, plus your computers, electrical appliances, and ductwork.
“Some families have reported so much soot damage that they have filed insurance claims, only to find such damages aren’t covered in their policies,” says natural living expert Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Home Safe Home and six other books about safe and nontoxic products.[EG1]
And if that weren’t enough, aromatherapy candles that are scented with synthetic oils release microscopic particles that can cause cancer and other health problems when inhaled.
Once upon a time, many scented candles on the market contained lead-core wicks. Fragrance oils soften the wax, so the manufacturers used lead to make the wicks stand firm.
Fortunately, unless you have candles more than a decade old, they probably don’t have a lead-core wick, because those were banned in 2003. A candle with a lead-core wick releases five times the amount of lead considered hazardous for children and exceeds EPA pollution standards for outdoor air, says the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Exposure to high amounts of lead has been linked to hormone disruption, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and numerous health problems. If you think you may still have lead-wicked candles in your home, see the box for a simple test.
Natural Candle Alternatives
There are no rules or bans in the works for paraffin candles and those scented with synthetic oils. In the meantime, you don’t have to give up candles altogether.
- Buy 100 percent beeswax candles with cotton wicks, which are free of toxins. Beeswax can cost as much as six times the price of paraffin, so many candle manufacturers blend paraffin with their beeswax to cut costs. Be sure your candles say 100 percent beeswax on the label.
- Buy candles made from 100 percent vegetable-based waxes, which are also nontoxic. For example, Way Out Wax in Morrisville, Vermont, makes its candles with a combination of vegetable wax and hemp oil wax.
- To reduce soot, no matter what kind of wicks are in your candles, trim wicks to 1/8 inch, and do not burn candles in a drafty area.
If you can’t find the right nontoxic aromatherapy candle to get rid of tension headaches or rejuvenate your tired body, you may want to try using pure essential oils. Pure, organic oils can give you the same aromatherapy benefits as scented candles, and you can choose and blend your own scents.
Essential oils, while nontoxic, are very potent. Always know the best way to use the oils you’re working with, as well as any precautions that should be taken with them. (Pregnant women should be particularly cautious when using essential oils.) Consult a qualified aromatherapist or a good reference book first.
Once you’ve chosen your favorite oils blends, there are a few ways to release the scents in your home:
- Use a diffuser. These are simple containers—most often made of glass, marble, or ceramic—which release the scent from essential oils when heated either with electricity or a small tea light candle. Usually, six to ten drops of essential oil in a diffuser is all it takes to scent a room.
- Use a ring burner. These metal rings have a reservoir that holds a few drops of essential oil and will fit around a lightbulb, using the heat to disperse the oil’s scent.
- Take a bath. Add five to ten drops of essential oils to a warm bath. Close the bathroom door and soak for 15 minutes. Remember, essential oils can mark plastic bathtubs, so be sure to clean the tub when you’re finished.
- Make a spray. Blend ten drops of essential oil in seven tablespoons of water. Shake well before filling the sprayer.
Updated September 2016, originally published in issue MARCH/APRIL 2001