Are Candles Toxic? Sniffing Out Scented Chemicals and Health Risks

Are candles safe to use? Even unscented candles can increase air pollution in your home. Learn your least toxic options and other ways to improve the aromas in your living areas.

Create a cozy and inviting atmosphere in your home without the use of harmful chemicals.

For millions of people, the gentle flicker and soothing scents of candles often become our go-to solution for neutralizing odors or setting a vibe. We understand the allure of a beautifully fragranced home. However, beneath the warm glow and delightful aromas, there might be hidden health risks lurking within our favorite candles. From the wax they're made of to the scents that fill the air, many candles contain harmful chemicals such as phthalates, heavy metals, and petroleum. So, are candles harmful to us? Let’s take a closer look! 

Harmful Chemicals in Candles

Fresh scents made from toxic chemicals stink! Candles are a popular choice for eliminating unwanted odors and infusing our living spaces with pleasant aromas. However, in doing so, we may unknowingly introduce harmful chemicals into the air we breathe. Let's break down the components of a candle and the risks they may carry.

The Candle Itself - Paraffin Wax

Candles have a way of making us feel cozy and comforted. However, these warm feelings could be caused at the expense of your health. That’s because the primary ingredient in most candles is paraffin wax. 

Paraffin wax is a byproduct of petroleum refining. When lit, these candles release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into our homes, including substances like toluene and benzene, which are known to be harmful [1].

Inhaling even small amounts of VOCs from paraffin wax may result in headaches and respiratory issues [2]. However, repeated exposures could lead to more threatening concerns. If you must use candles, consider options from cleaner sources, such as soy and beeswax. However, as we’re about to discuss, even these options can have their drawbacks. 

The Wick

Ever been mesmerized by a flame dancing on a candle? The wick is the unsung hero in this waltz.

The wick directly contacts the flame of your lighter, which then heats up the wax, causing it to melt and releasing any fragrances into the air. Therefore, the wick plays a significant role in releasing harmful chemicals into the household.

Wicks used to be made of lead and zinc at their metal core [3]. Therefore, you may want to be cautious when lighting old candles. While the use of lead in wicks has been significantly reduced, some candles, especially those imported or not complying with safety standards, may still contain toxic metals in their wicks. 

Choose candles that have wicks made with pure cotton or wood (yes, wood!) to reduce the risk of harmful chemicals polluting your air. 

The Fragrance

Many of us turn to scented candles to fill our homes with comforting fragrances to offset odors, make the houses festive during seasons, or create certain vibes. However, it's essential to be mindful of the ingredients that make these scents linger. 

Oftentimes, phthalates are added to fragrances. Phthalates are plasticizers that prolong the life of scents. They are used in personal care products, cleaning products, candles, and many more items. 

These chemicals have a tendency to remain in household dust and are known to be endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDCs. EDCs mimic hormones, which can throw off hormonal balance in the body. Exposure to EDCs can contribute to developmental issues in children, fertility challenges in adults, and a higher risk of certain cancers [4].

The frequent use of phthalates in fragranced products exposes us to continuous risk, especially for children who are naturally more prone to dust contact due to their activities and behaviors.

Dust and mop regularly to reduce phthalate chemicals in your home. If the weather is cooperating, open the windows for at least 15 minutes daily to help freshen up your living spaces naturally. 

Also, instead of candles, consider using a simmer pot to sweeten up your home. Check out our recipes down below! 

The Dyes - Heavy Metals

The allure of brightly colored candles can add warmth and ambiance to any room, transforming a mundane space into a vibrant abode. Unfortunately, to achieve their rich hues, candles are often dyed with chemical compounds, some of which may contain heavy metals. 

When candles containing these chemical dyes are burned, they do not just produce light and warmth; they also release microscopic particles and chemical gases into the air [5]. These emissions can degrade indoor air quality and expose occupants to pollutants that may lead to or exacerbate respiratory issues, such as asthma or allergies, and even longer-term health conditions like heart disease or cancer.

Opt for non-toxic candle dyes that are derived from plants, fruits, and vegetables. These dyes might include extracts and powders from sources like beetroot, spirulina, turmeric, and annatto seeds.

Essential Oils

These natural extracts have been celebrated for centuries for supporting health benefits. From lavender's calming essence to peppermint's invigorating aroma, today, essential oils are integrated into many people's daily routines, seeking to enhance well-being through their use in aromatherapy, skincare, and even household products like candles. 

First off, it’s important to note that fragrance oil and essential oils aren’t the same thing. Essential oils are a subset of fragrance oils that are naturally derived from plants. Other fragrance oils are synthetic chemicals and may contain phthalates. 

However, it's important to approach the use of essential oils with a measure of caution…especially when it comes to candles.

The journey from plant to bottle is complex and nuanced. The quality of essential oils is influenced by numerous factors, including the methods of cultivation, harvesting, and extraction, as well as how they are subsequently processed and stored. This process leaves ample room for variation and potential contamination. 

For example, pesticides used on plants or heavy metals and plasticizers used during the processing could contaminate the final oil product. Such inconsistencies could diminish the potential benefits of the oils. They could also pose risks to users, especially when these oils are diffused into the air through candles.

When shopping for or making your own scented candles, look for organic essential oils to minimize your exposure to harmful contaminants. 

Are Soy Candles Safe?

Soy candles have gained popularity as a healthier, more environmentally friendly option than their paraffin counterparts. Many candle enthusiasts prefer soy wax because it burns cleaner, producing significantly less soot and fewer airborne toxic chemicals. 

However, the focus on the benefits of soy wax often overshadows the potential human toxicity concerns associated with other candle components. You must still consider the wicks, dyes, and fragrances. 

In addition, no matter what type of materials are in the candle, it will still release VOCs into the air. Unfortunately, VOCs and other EDCs can have adverse impacts on the body, even in small doses. 

So, while soy wax may cause fewer contaminants to pollute your indoor air than paraffin wax will, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be any safer to inhale these chemicals frequently. 

Are Beeswax Candles Safe?

Beeswax candles are often considered a safer alternative to paraffin wax candles in terms of human toxicity. This is because beeswax is a natural substance that releases fewer harmful chemicals than other options.

Much like other waxes, burning beeswax will still release VOCs into the atmosphere. We highly recommend limiting your candle use to special occasions, rituals, or celebrations. We also recommend opening windows during or after candle use. 

Are White Candles Safe?

As we’ve mentioned, the act of burning candles inherently involves some increased health risks. Even if beeswax or soy candles burn cleaner than paraffin wax, smoke is still released into the air. 

White candles made from soy or beeswax and free from added fragrances and dyes are considered the least toxic option available. However, the act of burning any material still releases VOCs into the air. If you choose to use candles, incorporating an air purifier or ventilating your space can help mitigate some of the risks associated with VOCs.

Can I Make My Own Candles?

Taking the initiative to craft your own candles can be an empowering journey towards creating a healthier living environment. By hand-selecting the ingredients, you have the unique opportunity to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals commonly found in commercial candles. 

This mindful approach benefits your well-being and reflects a commitment to nurturing a safer space for your loved ones. However, it's important to acknowledge the challenges associated with ensuring the purity and safety of all the components of your hand made candles. This includes wax, wicks, and any natural dyes and essential oils you choose to use.

Contamination of these ingredients is a real concern, as we describe above. Even if you buy a pure product, the risk of contamination increases once you open it in your home. Now, these ingredients are at risk of contamination from the chemicals in your environment.  

Also, remember, despite our best efforts, the very nature of burning candles means that VOCs can still be released into your home environment.

In light of these considerations, exploring non-combustion methods for scenting your home presents a promising pathway to maintaining a fragrant healthy living space. Embracing alternatives not only empowers you to take control of your environmental health but also invites creativity and personalization into the way you enhance your home's atmosphere! 

Ways to Make a House Smell Fresh Without Candles

Walk into your home and enjoy a delightful scent that uplifts your mood without the worry of toxic chemicals lingering in the air. Here are some innovative and health-conscious alternatives to keep your home smelling fresh without relying on scented candles.

Simmer Pots

Get the camera ready because this tip not only smells great but looks beautiful too. Simmer pots, often referred to as stovetop potpourri, are a charming and natural method for infusing your home with aromatic fragrances. 

This technique involves simmering water in a pot and adding a variety of natural ingredients such as fruits, spices, and herbs. The heat gently releases the scents from these ingredients, filling your space with a comforting and inviting aroma. 

Simply add your favorite ingredients to a pot of water, let it boil, and then reduce the heat to a simmer. You can do this on your stovetop. To avoid the risk of cooking the pot dry, purchase a low-cost, electric ceramic simmer pot. 

To elevate this experience and ensure the purity of the scents you're introducing into your home, only include ingredients that are USDA-certified organic. 

Also, using filtered water can help avoid any impurities or chlorine commonly found in tap water. This ensures that only the purest scents permeate your living space.

Get into the spirit of things with these seasonal simmer pot recipes to enjoy throughout the year:

  • Spring: To capture the essence of spring, combine slices of one organic lemon, a handful of fresh mint leaves, and organic lavender petals in a pot of filtered water. This blend offers a refreshing and uplifting scent that perfectly encapsulates the rejuvenating spirit of the season.
  • Summer: For a zesty and tropical aroma, mix slices of one organic lime, half a cup of diced pineapple (fresh or frozen), and a teaspoon of organic vanilla extract in your simmer pot. This concoction brings the vibrant and sunny vibes of summer indoors.
  • Fall: Embrace the cozy aromas of autumn by simmering slices of one organic apple, three cinnamon sticks, a teaspoon of whole cloves, and a dash of nutmeg. This warm and spicy scent is ideal for chilly fall days, creating a snug and welcoming atmosphere.
  • Winter: To evoke the festive spirit of winter, use slices of one organic orange, a handful of cranberries, a few sprigs of rosemary, and two cinnamon sticks. This combination offers a heartwarming and invigorating fragrance that complements the holiday season beautifully.

Put the Potpourri On Display

Crafting potpourri is a wonderful way to preserve the beauty and aroma of your garden's bounty, transforming it into a natural air freshener that can brighten up any room. The first step in making potpourri is to gather a selection of flowers, herbs, and leaves known for their delightful fragrances. 

Roses, lavender, chamomile, and mint are popular choices. They offer a range of scents that can evoke calm, freshness, or warmth. 

Once you've collected your botanicals, hang them or spread them out to dry in a cool, dark place. Depending on the moisture content of your plant materials, this can take a few days to a couple of weeks. You can also use a dehydrator. Ensure they are completely dry to prevent mold growth in your potpourri.

After drying, gently crumble the plant material into smaller pieces, mixing them together in a bowl. At this stage, you can add natural fixatives like dried citrus peels, cinnamon sticks, or vanilla beans, which can help anchor the fragrance of your potpourri and add a beautiful complexity to its aroma. 

Open Windows

Opening your windows is one of the simplest yet most effective strategies for maintaining an odor-free household. Letting the outside air in plays a crucial role in ventilating your living space, ensuring that the air within your home doesn't become stagnant. 

If you live in a high-pollution area, you will have to judge the benefits and risks of exchanging indoor air for outdoor air. With that said, many studies have shown that in many places, indoor air has two to five times more pollution than outdoor air [6].

Fresh air circulating through your home helps to dilute the concentration of indoor pollutants, including VOCs, which can emanate from a variety of sources like cleaning agents, paints, furniture, and more. 

By regularly opening your windows, you're not just inviting a breeze inside; you're actively participating in a process that sweeps away unwanted odors and contributes to a fresher, healthier indoor environment.

Also, airing out your home can significantly enhance indoor air quality by reducing the levels of indoor pollutants. This is particularly beneficial for those sensitive to allergens or suffering from respiratory issues, as it can help to clear out dust, pet dander, and pollen that might have found its way indoors [7]. 

Additionally, the influx of fresh air can mitigate the buildup of moisture. Moisture is a breeding ground for mold growth, which is often a source of musty odors. 

Air Purification System

The biggest support system you can have for an odor-free home is an air purifier. Air purifiers work by utilizing a fan to draw in air from the indoor environment and then pass it through one or more filters before recirculating the purified air back into the room. These devices are particularly adept at removing a variety of airborne contaminants, such as chemicals, dust, pollen, smoke, and pet dander, which can significantly improve the overall air quality. 

Two of the most effective types of filters are carbon filters and HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters. Many high-quality air purification systems allow for HEPA and carbon filters. These options have become increasingly affordable over the years and should be considered as a long-term investment in your preventive health plan. 

Carbon filters excel at removing odors and gases through a process called adsorption, where pollutant molecules in the air are trapped inside the pore structure of the carbon filter. This makes them exceptionally good at neutralizing smells from cooking, pets, and smoke, contributing to a more pleasant living environment. 

On the other hand, HEPA filters are designed to capture particulate matter with a remarkable efficiency of 99.97% for particles as small as 0.3 microns. This includes common allergens like pollen, mold spores, and pet dander, making HEPA-equipped air purifiers a powerful ally for those suffering from allergies or respiratory issues.

In addition to air purifiers, maintaining your HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) system is crucial, especially for pet owners. Pets can contribute significantly to the indoor air pollution load with their dander, fur, and dust they bring in from outside. 

Regularly changing the filters in your HVAC system can help ensure that it operates efficiently, further enhancing the air quality in your home by removing pet hair and dander effectively. 

Keep Up with Dusting, Vacuuming, and Mopping

Dirt, dust, and other pollutants not only contribute to a visually unappealing space but also harbor harmful chemicals and act as breeding grounds for smells that can permeate your living area. Engaging in routine cleaning practices, such as vacuuming, dusting, and wiping down surfaces, helps to remove these odor-causing particles before they become a problem. This proactive approach ensures that odors are not merely masked but are prevented from arising in the first place.

Additionally, addressing water damage promptly is critical in preventing the development of musty odors. Moist environments are ideal for mold and mildew growth, which are common culprits behind persistent unpleasant smells. By quickly repairing leaks and drying out affected areas, you can thwart the growth of these fungi and keep your home smelling fresh. Regularly inspecting areas prone to moisture, such as bathrooms, kitchens, and basements, can help you catch and address potential issues early on. 

Get Tested for Phthalates and Other Harmful Chemicals

Understanding your exposures to harmful EDCs, such as phthalates, is crucial for maintaining optimal health and wellness. In addition to candles, these chemicals are commonly found in everyday products such as household cleaners to personal care items. 

EDCs can have profound effects on our health, including hormonal imbalances, reproductive issues, and increased risk of certain cancers. By identifying your personal exposure levels, you can take informed steps toward minimizing your contact with these substances.

Million Marker’s Detect & Detox Test Kit is a mail-in urine test that provides you with a personalized plan to avoid harmful chemicals you come into contact with daily. Determine your level of exposures to harmful chemicals and the products that are causing your highest exposures.

Discover healthier alternatives to products that you use, and uncover practical tips for creating a low-tox living space!