Are Scented Candles Toxic and Is There a Healthier Alternative?

Candle burning with small candle next to it.

At a Glance

  • Many people use scented candles to infuse their homes with a warm glow and fragrant scent.
  • Scented candles can contain substances in the wax, the wick and in the colors and scents added to them.
  • Beeswax or soy wax candles with cotton or paper wicks don’t give off any toxic substances, and there are a variety of other non-toxic ways to fragrance your home.

I have to admit that scented candles are a little bit of a mystery to me. I love them—don’t get me wrong—I mean, I just adore the gentle little pools of light glistening around my home, and I enjoy the aroma of the wax that fills the shops.

However, when it comes to actually burning the scented candle in your home, it never quite recreates the same pre-purchase, still in the shop scent—but maybe that’s just me!

So what are scented candles, and how are they made? And is there a more serious question to ask here? Could they actually be harmful to our health? If so, is there a better, and healthier way of getting those lovely fragrances wafting around our homes?

Let’s explore and see what we can find out…

What Are Scented Candles?

It might seem pretty self-explanatory, but just for the record, scented candles are regular candles to which some fragrant oils have been added.

They’re made using the same method used for all candles; a wick with some kind of stabilizing weight at the base, which is then treated in one of two different ways.

The dipping method involves quickly dropping all but the very end of the wick into a liquid solution of wax repeatedly. The layers are built up gradually to produce the desired width of candle.

The second method is to suspend the wick in some form of container into which the liquid wax is poured and left to harden around the wick.

Watch it for yourself here:

How Could Scented Candles Be Toxic?

Candles may seem to be completely harmless, but in actual fact they can be toxic in several different ways. We’ve broken down the specific elements of a scented candle to highlight where the dangers are:

The Wax

The first thing to consider is the wax that’s used to make the candle. According to the National Candle Association, paraffin wax is most commonly used to make candles.

Paraffin is a petroleum-based waste product which has to be chemically treated to be cleansed, bleached and deodorized before it can be used to make candles.

When paraffin wax burns, it gives off carcinogen-related gases benzene, toluene and other harmful gases—the same as those found in diesel fuel emissions

The Scented Oils

In addition to the dangers presented by the paraffin wax, another potential source of danger is the substances used to give scented candles their aroma and color.

The best scented candles should use good-quality, pure essential oils to produce their aroma. Even in this case we should be cautious about using scented candles. Dr David Stewart, author of The Chemistry of Essential Oils points out that essential oils can be mixed with things like alcohols which can make them flammable and potentially toxic when burned.

Dr Stewart also highlights potential problems with lower quality and therefore usually less expensive scented candles. To maintain a low price manufacturers often choose to use artificial scents and colors. These inferior-quality ingredients not only make for a poor-quality candle and scent, but may also give off harmful chemicals when burned.

What About the Wicks?

It’s important to consider what’s in your wick as well as what’s in the wax you’re burning in your home. Traditionally, candle wicks were made with a certain amount of a heavy metal, such as lead in them, to make the wick stand straight.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned the use of lead in candle wicks in 2003, and guidelines state that candle wicks should be made of cotton or paper.

However, some studies indicate as many as 30 percent of candles still contain heavy metals in their wicks. Although there may be only a small amount of heavy metal in each wick, it can still have a serious effect on health.

In their research, the CPSC discovered that candles with lead core wicks can release enough lead as to contravene the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) pollution standards for outdoor air. So if you’re burning any candles with heavy metals in their wicks, in some ways it’s a bit like having a diesel engine releasing harmful fumes into your home.

Over time heavy metals can build up in the body and have an accumulative effect. High amounts of heavy metals have been linked to significant health problems including behavioural problems, learning disabilities, disruption of the hormonal system and skin irritations.

As we can see the potential harmful effects of lead core candle wicks has only been addressed in relatively recent times. It’s important to be particularly vigilant about candles that you’ve had hanging around in your home for a while.

That candle discovered at the back of the cupboard since a friend gave it to you for your birthday however many years ago is going to be more likely to have heavy metal in its wick than a new, recently purchased candle. It could be better placed in the trash than in your living room for the sake of your health.

Burning It up Safely

If you still like the idea of using candles in your home but you want to avoid the potential negative effects on health here are our top tips to help you buy the safest candles and use them in the safest possible way.

Decoration

Don’t buy candles that are heavily decorated with lots of intense colors if you intend to burn them. These kind of candles are fine for decorative purposes, but may include different types of resins which can produce harmful toxins when burned (source)

Go Organic

In respect of making good health decisions, the best options are fragrance-free organic candles. If you really can’t stand the thought of going without your favourite fragranced candle, the next best option is an organic candle that’s made with pure essential oils

Cost

In general, the more you spend on your candles the better quality they will be and the less harmful substances they’re likely to contain. However, the best plan of action is to check the ingredients of the candles you buy, and if you have any doubts, contact the manufacturer to ask specifically if their candles are organic, free of harmful and toxic substances and use pure essential oils only.

Thank the Bees

Candles produced from beeswax and using 100 percent cotton or paper wicks are generally the safest to use. Research indicates that beeswax candles don’t produce the harmful gases produced by paraffin wax, burn more slowly and may actually help to reduce indoor air pollution

Soy Wax

A relatively new alternative to paraffin wax is hydrogenated soybean oil, also known as soy wax. Candles made from soy wax have been shown in research to produce little or no soot compared to paraffin candles and also burn at a significantly slower rate.

Person's hands touching lavender flowers.

Alternatives That Make Scents!

Ok…so having established that aside from the risk of burning down the house, using candles in the home can also present some serious risks related to toxic fumes, what alternatives do we have if we still want our homes to smell nice?

Here are a few suggestions for you to explore:

Essential Oils Spray

Make your own air freshener spray with essential oils. I like this option because I can buy several different good-quality essential oils and blend them to my specific tastes.

All that’s needed is a small sprayer bottle to which I add about a cup of water and around t20 to 30 drops of essential oils to makeup my blend. You’ll find that the oil and water separate when left to sit, so the whole thing needs a good shake before every use

Essential Oils Bath

Add around 10 drops of your favourite essential oils to a warm bath for a relaxing fragrance which lasts well beyond bath time, helping the fragrance of the bathroom for the rest of the day!

Don’t forget that some essential oils can leave marks, particularly on the plastic bathtubs, so always remember to clean your bath well after using.

Aromatherapy Oil Diffuser

These are simple containers which hold the oil in one compartment. The aroma is gently released as the compartment holding the oil is gently heated either by a small candle (we recommend a good quality beeswax one, of course!) or electricity.

Ring Burners

Another option worth considering, these are heat-proof ceramic or metal rings—like a donut shape—which hold small amounts of essential oils. They fit around a light bulb and use the heat from the lightbulb to disperse the aroma of the oil.

Homemade Potpourri

Make your own potpourri easily and cheaply by collecting stray leaves, blossoms, flower heads and small pine cones. They can be left to dry naturally or put in the microwave, oven or dehumidifier and stored in an airtight container.

As required, put a little of the potpourri mixture into a well ventilated decorative basket or bowl and mix in the required amount of whatever essential oil you prefer. The aroma can last for quite a long time and can be refreshed with a little top up of essential oils as necessary.

Fruity Homemade Candle

These can be produced with a little effort and creativity. Carefully peel any citrus fruit so that one half of the peel forms a bowl shape. Be sure to leave the central white pith intact—this will be the wick.

Slice just enough of the end off for the bowl and wick to stand upright, fill with some natural organic oil and voila, light the wick and you have your own ready-made organic candle which will gently infuse your room with the natural essential oils in the skin of the citrus fruit.

Conclusion

Although it may be surprising for many, scented candles, as well as any other kind of candles, could be a source of harm to you and your family. The vast majority of candles are made using paraffin wax, which when burned, produces toxic fumes.

Potential risks also come from the wick, which unless it’s pure cotton or paper may contain heavy metals. These, as well as some essential oils and synthetic scents and colors which are often added to scent and color candles, can also produce toxic fumes and dangerously high levels of heavy metals, which are associated with many health conditions.

If you really don’t want to do without candles in your home but you don’t like the idea of potential toxins, the best candles to buy are fragrance-free candles made from either beeswax or soy wax. These have been proven to burn for longer than paraffin candles, and don’t produce toxic chemicals.

There are lots of different options for creating some lovely fragrances in your home without using candles. These include making your own organic candles, using a fragrance diffuser or ring burner and making your very own bespoke air freshener spray or potpourri mix.

Whatever you decide, as nice as candles are, it’s so important to take care of you and your family’s health. For me, I think the best option is to invest in some good quality beeswax candles for indoors, use them sparingly and save the other candles for burning outside on the terrace at family gatherings or on romantic evenings.

Right now, though, I think I’ll treat myself to some new essential oils, collect some leaves, twigs and pine cones and make a great big basket of yummy smelling potpourri…I’m thinking cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg…or do they go in the hot chocolate? Decisions, decisions!

Related Posts

Leave a comment

Leave a Comment

Send this to a friend