Who here LOVES candles???
Take a moment to think about what prompts you to bring a new one into your home.
Perhaps it's the fragrance that calls to you? Will it make your room feel cozy, comfortable, or relaxing? Or maybe it has a fresh, clean scent? Or a spicy aroma that’s perfect for the winter holidays? The scent of a candle can absolutely add to the ambiance of a space!
Or maybe you are compelled by a candle’s aesthetic appeal. Does the color or design fit perfectly with a particular room’s décor?
Or maybe you found some on super sale? Those clearance tags can be hard to resist! 😊
Regardless of why you’re drawn to them, candles are can be found virtually everywhere. You can easily pick one up almost anywhere you go, from grocery, big box, home goods, and department stores to local garden centers and boutiques. Plus, there are literally thousands of options available online.
According to the National Candle Association, the “ease of purchase as well as the availability of various type of candles on multiple distribution channels is prompting more and more people to purchase” them.  In fact, candles are used in a whopping 70 percent of American households!  And this doesn’t include homes that are using wax warmers or incense, which are also substantial market segments in their own right.
Candles are a big, highly lucrative, and quickly expanding business. In 2016, the U.S. and global candles markets were valued at $3.2 and $7.6 billion, respectively, excluding accessories. The global market is expected to reach $11.7 billion by 2025. [2, 3]
With most of the world’s population using candles and the desire for them continuing to rise, it should prompt us to consider whether they are beneficial for our homes. Unfortunately, the answer in most cases is no.
Enjoying the aroma and ambiance of a candle can damage your indoor air quality (IAQ) and your family’s health. The more I learned about the potential risks, the more concerned I became about my husband’s frequent burning of them in our living room and bedroom (he loves candles!).
So, I thought I’d share with you the reasons behind why I went through my house with a trash bag a few years ago and removed no fewer than 50 candles. And yes, I threw them in the garbage, as I couldn’t in good conscience give them to anyone else to use.
THE HIDDEN DANGER HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
Most candles negatively impact indoor air quality (IAQ) — even when unlit. From the wax to the wick to the fragrance, candles can release harmful chemicals into the air. According to Diane Walsh Astry, Executive Director of the Health House Project (affiliated with the American Lung Association), "Candles are fast becoming one of the most common unrecognized causes of poor indoor air quality." 
Here’s the low down on the main points of concern.
Dating back thousands of years, candles (just like skincare products) were made out of animal tallow, plants, and insects. Over time, however, the ingredients used evolved. Today, most candles are made from paraffin, which is more economical to produce than other potential candle fuels. Paraffin wax was introduced in the 1850's, after chemists learned how to efficiently separate this waxy substance from petroleum and bleach and deodorize it. 
Research has demonstrated that paraffin candles produce smoke laced with almost as many toxins as those produced by cigarettes.  When burned, paraffin wax releases toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air, such as benzene, toluene, and acetone, which are known carcinogens. These are the same chemicals found in diesel fuel exhaust! And that’s something I definitely don’t want to be voluntarily pumping into my house!
Other toxic chemicals that may be present in paraffin and released into the air through burning include trichlorofluoromethane, carbon disulfide, 2-butanone, trichloroethane, trichloroethene, carbon tetrachloride, tetrachloroethene, styrene, xylene, phenol, cresol, and cyclopentene. 
Once VOCs are released into the air, they react with sunlight and other chemicals in the atmosphere to create air pollution. Chronic exposure to these terrible triplets contributes to allergies, asthma, headaches, nausea, eczema, other skin irritations, and damage to brain, liver, kidney, and the central nervous system. They also increase the risk of cancer. [7-10]
I was even more surprised to find a study by the University of South Florida showing that candles made of paraffin wax emit low levels of benzene even when they are not lit.  So, even if I exclusively used my candles for decoration, they could still be emitting toxic chemicals into my home.
In addition to releasing toxic chemicals, burning paraffin wax produces soot with ultrafine particles that can remain suspended in the air for hours. They penetrate deeply into the lungs and are absorbed into the blood stream. Ultrafine particles are associated with allergies, asthma, and other respiratory diseases, as well as heart attacks, strokes, and cancer. 
According to the National Candle Association, fragrance is the most important characteristic impacting candle purchases, with three-fourths of candle buyers saying it is “extremely important” or “very important” in their selection of a candle. It is estimated that more than 10,000 different candle scents are available to U.S. consumers. 
Most scented candles contain synthetic fragrances – lab-made engineered scents that may contain any combination of 3,000+ stock chemical ingredients – that give off dangerous VOCs, as does paraffin, even at room temperature. Fragrance formulas are protected under federal law’s classification of trade secrets and, therefore, do not need to be disclosed on product labels.
Ruminate on this for a moment: up to 95 percent of the chemicals in synthetic fragrances are derived from petrochemicals (petroleum-based products).  These include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, phthalates, formaldehyde, and other toxic chemicals that are known to cause cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption, nervous system disorders, headaches, respiratory irritation, sneezing, watery eyes, and allergies.
The second largest component in synthetic fragrance is phthalates. Phthalates (DBP, DEHP, DEP, and others) are used to make products more pliable or to help fragrances stick to the skin or stay in the air longer. Environmental Working Group (EWG) researchers found more than 75 percent of products listing the ingredient “fragrance” contained phthalates, which have been shown to disrupt hormone activity, reduce sperm counts, bring on early puberty in girls, and cause reproductive malformation. Phthalates have also been linked to liver and breast cancer, diabetes, and obesity. [12, 13]
Additionally, studies published by a number of U.S.-based universities link fetal exposure to phthalates with autism, ADHD, decreased fetal growth, lower birthweight, reduced IQ, anxiety, depression, early puberty in girls, and neurological disorders. 
I personally have chosen to avoid any product, including candles, that lists “fragrance” as an ingredient, as I have no way of knowing what the contents may be.
Cored Wicks, Lead, & Heavy Metals
Many candles have cored wicks made from cotton that is wrapped around a metal support. This helps keeps the wick from falling over as the surrounding wax begins to melt. This is especially true for scented candles, as the fragrance oils soften the wax, causing non-cored wicks to go limp. [11, 15]
In the past, lead was commonly used in cored candlewicks, which have been shown to contaminate indoor air with lead in concentrations five times above EPA-recommended thresholds. Exposure to high amounts of lead has been linked to hormone disruption, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, damage to internal organs, and numerous health problems. Besides breathing lead fumes, children can be exposed to additional lead that is deposited on the floor, furniture, and walls because they often put their hands in their mouths. These health concerns caused the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban the manufacture of candles with lead-core wicks in the United States in 2003. [11, 15-17]
Now, zinc and tin are generally used instead of lead. However, all metal-core wicks release trace amounts of heavy metals into the air when they are burned. And wicks with zinc and tin cores can still release small amounts of lead particles. [11, 15] Beware, though, that lead wicks may still be present in imported candles (some of the ones made in China, for example).
That’s a lot of potential badness! Can we ever use candles again?
WHAT TO USE INSTEAD OF TOXIN-FILLED CANDLES
Thankfully, there are great alternatives on the market today. Beeswax and soy candles are considerably safer, so long as they do not contain artificial fragrances or colors. Be sure, however, to verify that the soy used is non-GMO.
By far, my preference is for beeswax. In addition to being beautiful and toxin-free, beeswax candles help clean indoor air by releasing negative ions, which bind and remove toxins from the air. They can also remove common allergens, such as dust and dander, from the air.
Beware, however, that some candles may mention just one ingredient, such as soy, but may be blended with paraffin or other ingredients. As with most things in life, it is important to find a manufacturer that you can trust to disclose all the ingredients they use.
Here’s what to look for when buying new candles:
- Wax: Choose 100% pure beeswax or non-GMO soy with no artificial colors.
- Wick: Choose 100% cotton, with no lead, zinc, or tin cores.
- Fragrance: Choose fragrance-free candles or ones containing 100% pure essential oils. I personally stay away from any product, including candles, that contains “fragrance oils,” which are often synthetic aroma compounds that are diluted with a carrier such as propylene glycol, vegetable oil, or mineral oil. I neither want synthetics nor propylene glycol or mineral oil in my life!
- Buy candles made in the U.S. And ideally support the work of local candle makers that you can get to know and trust.
If you prefer the ease of having products delivered directly to your door, here are some good options from Amazon:
This post contains affiliate links, which give me the opportunity to share products I truly use, love, and recommend. Affiliate links do not cost you anything, but I may receive a commission from purchases made through these links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
OTHER SAFE AROMATIC ALTERNATIVES
- Use essential oils to freshen the air and create a pleasant atmosphere. Essential oils can be placed in a diffuser, DIY room spray, linen spray, bath water, or on cotton balls or dryer balls to create a wonderful aroma. New to essential oils? Learn more about how to use them!
- Simmer spices. Place spices, such as cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, cardamom, or nutmeg in a pot of water. Simmer on the stove to scent your kitchen.
- Make your own potpourri. Dried plant material -- flowers, berries, fruit rinds, wood chips, or spices -- can be placed in bowls or fabric bags and set around your home.
Do you have a favorite non-toxic candle? If so, share it with me below! Given my husband's love of candles, I'm always looking for fun options to add to our collection! 😊