Any time of year seems to be the perfect time to burn a candle, but the holidays especially so. Something about watching a flame burning while the leaves, or snow, are falling outside, is a very comforting feeling.
But what if I were to tell you that this comforting habit has a bad side to it?
If you’ve been following me for long enough, you’ve probably read an article or two on the nightmare that is all things fragrance. This might naturally lead you to wonder – are scented candles toxic?
The answer is yes. Your beloved apple pie and pumpkin spice candles aren’t doing your body any good.
But it isn’t just the fragrance that’s the problem. It’s also the stuff that the candles are physically made out of.
Are Scented Candles Toxic?
People have been using scented candles for years trying to mask unpleasant odours in their homes. They’re a go-to when trying to relax and unwind after a long day’s work.
Though they may seem safe, regular scented candles are actually a major source of indoor air pollution. Poor indoor air quality can contribute to acute conditions like cancer and asthma (1).
According to Anne Steinemann, an environmental pollutants expert, certain candles may emit numerous types of potentially hazardous chemicals, like benzene and toluene (2). They can disrupt the nervous system, cause damage to the brain and lungs, as well as cause developmental problems.
“I have heard from numerous people who have asthma that they can’t even go into a store if the store sells scented candles, even if they aren’t being burned,” Steinemann said. “They emit so much fragrance that they can trigger asthma attacks and even migraines.”
So if you’re wondering, ‘are scented candles toxic?’ you can mark that question with a big fat yes.
Why Are Scented Candles Dangerous?
You’d think that the only danger of burning a scented candle would be the risk of a fire. While it’s a valid reason, more immediate dangers include:
- Inhaling candle smoke
- Inhaling fragrance fumes from melting candle wax
- Inhaling fumes that make up the bulk of the candle as it melts
A study led by scientists at Copenhagen University conducted on mice found that exposure to particles from burning candles causes greater damage than the same dose of diesel exhaust fumes. Inhaling the candle smoke led to health effects like lung inflammation and toxicity, arteriosclerosis and aging effects on chromosomes in the lungs and spleen.
Burning candles in the house leads to an increase in indoor air pollution, with scented candles posing an even greater risk. In Denmark (where burning a candle is as common as eating a meal), research has shown that 60 percent of ultra-fine particles come from burning candles.
While candle smoke is harmful to the lungs, it is exacerbated even more when fragrances are added. The structural makeup of candles (whether it is made from paraffin or some other type of wax) will also determine its toxicity levels.
One study conducted by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Hanyang University examined whether the amount of toxins varied with fragrance, based on six different scents (3). Scented candles, lit or not, contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can be incredibly toxic when inhaled.
They found that when a candle was lit, formaldehyde was in the highest concentration out of any VOC emitted. As we know, formaldehyde is listed as a hazardous compound, and its vapors are considered highly toxic (4).
The scents that emitted the highest concentrations of formaldehyde were as follows (ppb = parts per billion):
- Strawberry: 2098 ppb
- Clean Cotton: 1022 ppb
- Plain: 925 ppb
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that “acute and chronic health effects of formaldehyde vary depending on the individual. The typical threshold for the development of acute symptoms due to inhaled formaldehyde is 800 ppb; however, sensitive individuals have reported symptoms at formaldehyde levels around 100 ppb (5).”
Another study conducted by researchers at South Carolina State University (6) tested both petroleum-based paraffin wax candles and vegetable-based candles that were non-scented, non-pigmented and free of dyes.
The vegetable-based candles didn’t produce any harmful pollutants, however, the paraffin candles “released unwanted chemicals into the air…for a person who lights a candle every day for years or just uses them frequently, inhalation of these dangerous pollutants drifting in the air could contribute to the development of health risks like cancer, common allergies, and even asthma,” professor Ruhollah Massoudi said.
Furthermore, a study released by the EPA in 2001 found that candles with more fragrance in them produce more soot. The agency suggests choosing unscented candles to reduce this leftover debris.
The CDC has warnings and recommendations for formaldehyde exposure in the home. Homeowners are urged to stop exposure, especially when there are individuals with asthma, elders, or young children present in the household.
Short-term exposure to formaldehyde released from candles results in the following symptoms:
– Watery and burning eyes
– Burning in throat and nose
– Nausea and/or vomiting
– Wheezing and/or coughing
– Burning skin and/or irritation
Long-term exposure to chemicals found in candles may also cause cancer within the nasal passages, and even worse, leukemia (6). Consistently breathing in chemicals found in candles can also lead to cognitive impairment and certain types of dementia.
Are All Candles Toxic?
Thankfully, not all candles are toxic. In fact, there are many great alternatives that don’t involve the use of harmful petroleum products.
I remember when I used to use scented paraffin candles and I would always sneeze around them and get nasty headaches. Of course, I never made the connection, and still used them.
The biggest issue with candles is toxic wax and the fragrance used in their formulation.
Scented candles made of paraffin – a petroleum byproduct – release 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.
Older candles also used to be constructed with wicks made from lead.
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.
If you’re still worried, however, there is an easy way to test if the wick contains lead. Simply rub the wick of an un-burnt candle on white paper. If the wick leaves a gray pencil-like mark there’s lead in it. If there’s no gray, you’re good to go.
These requirements leave you with candles either made from soy wax or some other vegetable-based wax, or beeswax. Unfortunately, many run-of-the-mill candles are made from paraffin wax because it’s cheaper than other types of wax. Paraffin also creates a stronger-smelling fragrance than natural waxes.
But if you really want a candle that lasts long and smells amazing, go with beeswax! I could probably sniff a natural beeswax candle for hours and never get sick of the smell. It is incredibly relaxing and unique on its own.
While you might need to do a little more searching, and pay a little more money for a natural beeswax candle, the benefits are so worth it!
Natural Candle Alternatives
If you love burning candles and the warm light they emit, opt for candles made of pure beeswax. They do not drip, and have a light honey scent that’s to die for! They also produce a clean, beautiful flame, and naturally produce negative ions, which reduces allergens in the environment.
Pure beeswax candles also have a longer burn time than standard paraffin candles. These natural beeswax candles burn for over 12 hours, and that’s just the start. This beeswax candle burns for over 25 hours! Longer burn times make beeswax candles the perfect candle in case of power outages.
Generally, the larger the beeswax candle, the longer the burn time.
You can also keep these candles on hand for when the power goes out, or for any other occasion:
Soy candles are another alternative, but I tend to stay away from them as soy crops are not the best for our planet. If you want to purchase a soy wax candle, go for one made out of organic soy.
Aira soy candles are 100% organic and also made with essential oils!
Whenever you’re buying a natural candle made from soy wax or beeswax, just make sure no fragrances have been added. Fragrance is still common in some soy candles, but not so much in beeswax.
If you want a scented candle, make sure it has been scented with essential oils only.
The last thing I wanted to say on candle burning is that when you go to blow out the candle, make sure you have a damp cloth or water spritzer nearby. If you water the wick as soon as you burn out the candle, the amount of soot that is released will be minimal. This isn’t as important to do with natural beeswax/soy candles, but it’s something to keep in mind.
If you burn candles more for the smell than the aesthetic of a warm flame, then you have options!
1. Herbal Smudges
Burning different herbs like rosemary, cedar, and sweetgrass are great natural alternatives to clear your space. Try to avoid palo santo and sage, however, as these plants are starting to dwindle in numbers from their high popularity.
Burning herbs is also useful for reducing airborne bacteria. One study found that over 94% of bacterial populations were diminished when the medicinal herb of choice was burned for 1 hour in a closed room (7).
2. Essential Oils
I love diffusing essential oils. If I want to relax, I’ll usually diffuse some lavender or chamomile, and if I need to focus, I turn to things like vetiver or citrus.
You can use water-based diffusers or nebulizing diffusers that deliver a more concentrated version of the oil to the air. Nebulizing diffusers are especially great when you want a quick immune system boost in times of a cold or flu. Diffusing peppermint, rosemary or eucalyptus can help open up airways and reduce sinus pressure.
You can also add some essential oils to a fine mist sprayer to use around the home as you would a can of air freshener. Simply add 10 drops of an organic essential oil to 4 ounces of water, shake, and spray.
While essential oils are non-toxic, they can be very potent. Always research any precautions on the oils you choose to utilize in your home.
Many essential oils are also toxic to pets. I’ll link some lists below so that you know what not to use around your pet:
– Essential oils toxic to cats
– Essential oils toxic to cats & dogs
– Essential oils toxic to birds
With that being said, a lot of the fragrance in candles, air fresheners, cleaning products and perfumes are equally as harmful to pets.
How to Improve Indoor Air Quality
If you’ve been burning scented candles your whole life, and you want to improve the quality of the air inside your home, I would highly suggest investing in an indoor air purifier.
I started using an Intellipure just over two years ago, and it’s been a real gamechanger.
As someone who is very sensitive to chemical smells, I’ve used it in a variety of real-life scenarios:
- When my new oven smelled like burning chemicals during the “break-in” phase. The Intellipure eliminated the smells within minutes.
- When plumbers, electricians, and other workers came in smelling like they dropped a cologne bottle, or rolled in a pile of dryer sheets before walking through the door.
- When my neighbor sprayed their lawn without warning me, and the downstairs window was open. The Intellipure eliminated the toxic herbicide fumes from the air in no time.
- When the chemical warfare of fragranced laundry sheets fills the air outdoors, I trust in my Intellipure units to cleanse the air inside my home. Since I love fresh air and open windows, sometimes I forget to close them during what I call, “neighborhood laundry hour”.
No matter the scenario, Intellipure is there for you to give you peace of mind that the air you’re breathing is clean. And for something as precious as the air we require to live, I think that’s a pretty good reason.
You might see other air purifiers out there that claim their HEPA air filtration is state-of-the-art. Don’t fall for it! HEPA filters have the tendency to harbor bacteria and spew it back out into the air you breathe.
Intellipure’s revolutionary DFS technology reduces bio-burden and inhibits microorganism growth passing into the system through Microbiostasis condition. The DFS technology in this machine protects you from the possibility of the breed through effect common in HEPA filters.
This same technology also captures 99.99% of all particles down to 0.007 microns in size! That’s 40x better than standard HEPA filtration.
The Intellipure is truly one-of-a-kind. You won’t find this technology elsewhere (I mean, aside from hospitals and government buildings).
I trust and believe in the Intellipure so much, that I partnered up with them to make it easier for you to try the same air purifiers I’ve been using for years.