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by Vanessa Graham

For many people, there is nothing quite like winding down after a long day with a hot drink and a few scented candles. Scented candles are also beloved as ornamental flourishes for the home, especially during the holiday season. But you may also be wondering if scented candles are bad for you. Your curiosity may have started after seeing the ingredients list on your candles or wondering about the effect burning candles have on indoor air quality. These are all valid concerns and we’ll be addressing these and more in our article below.

Why burning scented candles can be harmful

Candles work when you light the wick, which is the string sticking out of the end of the candle. When you light a candle by holding a flame to the wick, heat melts the wax at the top of the candle. Now in liquid form, the wax seeps into the wick and begins to burn on its own. As the wax burns, the flame on the wick continually melts the candle and draws fresh liquid wax into its fibers. The wax, as fuel for the flame, combusts and becomes smoke, carbon dioxide, water, and a few other substances in the air.

Anything that releases smoke decreases the air quality around it, whether it be a coal plant, a burnt piece of toast or a scented candle. The main culprits behind the health risks in scented candle smoke are particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and lead. Lead is a lesser concern since it was banned by the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) in 2000.

As with nearly anything that burns, candles release particulate matter. Scented candles, because of all of the extra ingredients added to give them their smell, release higher rates of particulate matter. The highest amount of particulate matter is released once the candle is blown out and visible smoke is rising from the wick. Particulate matter is so small that the particles can get deep into your lungs and cause respiratory problems and even contribute to lung cancer.

Additionally, burning scented candles create a wide variety of volatile organic compounds, which are a family of chemicals which include things like formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. While some scents can have aromatherapeutic benefits, many of the scents contained within candles are artificial organic compounds and not always healthy. Some scented candles release amounts of volatile organic compounds which are far above safe limits and don’t even need to be lit to release these compounds. On one side of the health effects, volatile organic compounds can cause irritation and allergic reactions. On the more serious side, volatile organic compounds have been linked to damage to vital organs, including the liver, kidney and central nervous system.

The biggest health risk associated with scented candles is the lead contained in the wicks of some brands. Lead was routinely used in the manufacture of candle wicks for decades. It helped the wick stay upright as it burned. Once the risks of lead became apparent, the candle industry voluntarily agreed to remove lead from its wicks. Despite this, studies have found 8 percent of brands still include lead in the manufacturing of their candles. Some scholars contend that no level of lead is safe and even tiny amounts of lead exposure are dangerous. To ensure that you are getting lead-free candles, make sure to check for labels indicating that the wick is 100% cotton and that you are purchasing your candles from a source you trust.

Particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and lead are especially troublesome for small children and pets. The respiratory and nervous systems of these smaller beings are especially sensitive to external toxins. Lead is especially dangerous, as it is known to cause severe developmental problems in children.

Types of scented candles

There are three major materials that makeup candles today. Most scented candles are made of paraffin wax, but there is a burgeoning market for alternative candles made of vegetable or beeswax.

  • Paraffin candles: Derived from petroleum, paraffin wax makes for cheap and effective candles. The downside is that paraffin releases highly toxic volatile organic compounds when burned, including the known carcinogens, benzene, and toluene. The toxins released from paraffin candles are the same as those found in diesel fuel fumes.
  • Vegetable wax candles: These candles are made from soy, palm, or another vegetable oil, and are often chemical-free. Since vegetable oils can be renewable crops they are generally seen as a more eco-friendly candle alternative. However, be careful of the source of your vegetable wax as some areas do not harvest soy or palm oils using sustainable or organic practices.
  • Beeswax candles: These candles are made from the same wax that bees produce to make their beehives. They naturally smell like honey, so even ‘unscented’ beeswax candles smell nice.

Let’s take a look at a few popular scented candle brands and assess their health risk potential. First on the list is Bath and Body Works candles. Bath and Body Works is a huge chain and has become well-known for its three wick scented candles. They have a large selection of soy-based candles scented with essential oils and these can be better than paraffin and artificially scented candles, but you’ll need to make your selection carefully as Bath and Body Works sells paraffin candles as well.

Another popular brand of scented candles is Yankee Candles. All of these candles are made of paraffin, which may not contain the most ideal candle ingredient available as referenced above.

Beeswax candles, due to the fact that they are more expensive and difficult to make, have not caught onto the same level of popularity as conventional or soy wax candles. Many companies that make beeswax candles are smaller, independently run shops such as Cheeky Bee. You can also try your luck at farmer’s markets to find beeswax candles from local makers, or even consider making your own at home with beeswax candle making kits that can easily be found online or local hobby shops.

One important point to remember: while beeswax and soy candles release fewer volatile organic compounds than paraffin candles, burning them still releases particulate matter. Because of this, you should still keep in mind that they aren’t completely free from impacting your indoor air.

What to burn instead of scented candles

If you’re concerned with having the best possible indoor air quality environment in your home, burning candles can pose some challenges to this mission. Scented candles are of particular concern since, as we mentioned earlier, they release potentially toxic volatile organic compounds without even being burnt. Here are some alternatives to consider instead of burning scented candles.

For those that want to recreate the ambiance of a candle glow, many electric candles can appear very realistic and offer similar lighting. As for adding smells to your home, there is also an electric solution in the form of electric room diffusers. You can get more creative as well, such as using things like potpourri, fresh flowers, and boiling citrus peels in water. If you’re using scented candles to mask other smells, consider deodorizing your home with baking soda instead. Placing a few jars half full of baking soda throughout your home can improve the smell of your indoor air.

If you love scented candles too much to discard them completely, you can take some actions to limit scented candles impact to your indoor air. First, you should consider beeswax based scented candles, which burn “cleaner” than alternatives and release a lower amount of pollutants. Second of all, make sure that your home is properly ventilated during and after burning the scented candles. Ensure that you are circulating air by opening windows and maintaining your ventilation system at all times. You can also consider using an air purifier such as Molekule, which can destroy harmful chemicals and filter particulate matter.

Finding a middle ground on scented candles

Scented candles are popular and can often be a part of home decor and even your daily routines. But for people that can be sensitive to their byproducts, scented candles may not be right for your household. If you must use scented candles for special occasions and holiday parties, you should consider improving your indoor air ventilation and filtration. At the end of the day, you will need to make a balance between using scented candles and the potential occupants that may occupy that space.

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