Are Your Candles Toxic?

Image: lit and unlit nontoxic candles beeswax candles

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 harmful pollution and supporting the fossil fuels industry.   

Alternatives to toxic aromatherapy candles abound. For example, beeswax candles and soy candles are safer, greener options. With very little effort, you can fill your home with soothing scents without filling it with toxic gases. 

Is Something Wrong with My Candles?

The biggest issues with candles are petroleum-based wax and air pollution. 

Burning Oil, Now Inside Your Home

Avoid aromatherapy candles made of paraffin or gel, both petroleum byproducts. In all things, avoiding the fossil fuel industry when you can makes sense for living a green life. Just like if you don’t have to drive a car to get to your destination, don’t; if you don’t have to burn a petroleum-based candle, don’t.  

Vegetable-based waxes are becoming more and more common and are a great substitute for paraffin or gel wax. Because being greener is a selling point for many customers, it will usually be labeled—soy, vegetable, coconut are common labels you’ll see. Beeswax candles are also natural and renewable, and often smell great even without added scents. If the label says blend without noting what has been blended, or is unlabeled as to what type of wax, skip it, as it’s likely paraffin. Plant-based waxes burn at a lower temperature, meaning they will last longer and come from renewable sources.   

Polluting Indoor Air

One often-cited 2014 study concluded that “under normal conditions of use, scented candles do not pose known health risks to the consumer,” and even that carcinogenic chemicals that were released by burning the candles, including benzene and formaldehyde, were still less than half the recommended limits set by the World Health Organization. That study was peer-reviewed, but it was carried out by scientists who had affiliations with candle manufacturers, including SCI Johnson & Son, and Procter & Gamble.  

A 2015 study by university-affiliated researchers in South Korea found that scented candles release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) both before being lit and while lit, concluding that scented candles “should act as potent sources of VOC emission in indoor environments.” 

Exposure to VOCs can cause headaches or irritation to eyes, nose or throat, nausea, and even damage to the liver, kidneys, or central nervous system. Some VOCs are suspected or proven carcinogens. That means if you do choose to light candles in your home, be sure to vent the space after with a fan and/or open window, as you would for other VOC-emitting items, like a freshly painted room or gas stove.  

Besides endangering your health, soot from candles can cause damage to your walls, appliances, ductwork and even your personal “ductwork.” Soot can look like a black film around the top of the jar, on your walls, or even inside your nose if you have the candle lit too long and fall asleep, for example.  

Experts recommend trimming the wick of your candle to 1/8 or ¼ inch before every use, not using petroleum-based candles (which create more soot than natural wax candles), and not burning the candle for longer than recommended on the label—usually 3 hours. 

Do Scents Make Sense?

Many people are sensitive to synthetic scents—if that’s you, either skip candles altogether or go with unscented or naturally good-smelling, like beeswax, candles.  

In the New York Times, odor perception and irritation researcher Dr. Pamela Dalton says that human noses are more sensitive than we might think, and candles use concentration levels of fragrance chemicals in the equivalent ratio of a teaspoon of chemicals for an Olympic-sized swimming pool.  

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What About the Wick?

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. 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. 

Lead wicks were banned by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2003, but by 1974, the National Candle Association members had all voluntarily agreed to stop using lead wicks, including major brands like Yankee Candle.  

If you do have a candle from before 2003 in your home, you can still test for a lead wick by rubbing the tip of the wick of an un-burnt candle on a piece of paper. If it leaves a gray mark, like a pencil, the wick contains a lead core. If you have already burned a candle you suspect might have a lead wick, toss it out.  

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Candle-Free Aromatherapy

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 are derived from plants and have been used for hundreds of years. That does not mean they are completely safe—some can be poisonous when absorbed through the skin or if aspirated. 

Many people love using essential oils in their homes for the scents they provide. They should be stored away from children and pets and used with caution around those family members and by pregnant people. 

Be sure to consult a reliable website, reference book, or qualified aromatherapist when bringing essential oils into your home. 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. 

Whether you choose to go candle-free or opt for a nontoxic candle like 100% beeswax candles, you can relax knowing that these healthier alternatives will be easier on your lungs and the air in your home. 

In summary, to safely use scents at home:

  • Skip oil-based paraffin and gel waxes and burn plant-based and beeswax candles only 
  • Trim the wick to 1/8 or ¼ inch before every use 
  • Don’t burn the candle longer than recommended 
  • Diffuse essential oils at home for aromatherapy without the air pollution 
  • Read up on essential oils’ safe use before bringing them home 

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