When you think of candles, you probably think of warm, flickering flames and the delightful scents they emit. But did you know that the scents you enjoy in most candles are completely artificial?
For the most part, candles are made of paraffin wax, a petroleum-based product that does not burn cleanly.
At best, a candle can emit 20 percent of its scent out the wick; the remaining 80 percent ends up in the wax, which is ultimately coated in a fine layer of soot.
Scented candles can sometimes do more harm than good and may contain potentially harmful ingredients, so consider the following before bringing another candle home.
3 Hidden Risks Of Scented Candles
Scented candles are a popular way to create a pleasant ambiance at home. Scents such as lavender, jasmine, and sandalwood can be relaxing and invigorating.
And during the holidays, many people find the warm glow and aroma of pine, gingerbread or cinnamon makes a room more festive. Unfortunately, most mass-produced scented candles can have a negative impact on Indoor Air Quality (IAQ).
From the wax to the wick to the fragrance itself, the average scented candle can release harmful chemicals into the air — even when unlit.
So while you and your family enjoy the fragrance of scented candles in your home, they may be damaging your health.
1. Paraffin wax
Most candles are made from paraffin, a petroleum byproduct. To create paraffin, petroleum waste is chemically bleached, deodorized and made into wax.
When burned, paraffin wax can release toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air including acetone, benzene and toluene, which are known carcinogens.
These are the same chemicals found in diesel fuel emissions and are known to cause allergies, asthma attacks and skin problems.
A study by the University of South Florida showed that candles made of paraffin wax emit low levels of benzene even when they are not lit.
In addition to releasing toxic chemicals, burning paraffin wax produces soot with particles that can remain suspended in the air for hours.
The University of South Florida study showed that these ultrafine soot particles are similar to diesel exhaust in both their size and composition.
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 even cancer.
And a study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that soot emissions from candles containing fragrances are significantly higher than those from non-scented candles.
2. Chemical fragrances
Another problem with scented candles is that the chemicals they use to create a pleasing aroma are generally far from wholesome.
Most scented candles use synthetic fragrances and dyes that give off dangerous VOCs even at room temperature.
Commonly emitted VOCs related to the scent in candles include formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, limonene, alcohol and esters.
These harmful chemicals can cause health problems ranging from headaches, dizziness and allergy symptoms to asthma attacks, respiratory tract infections and even cancer.
3. Cored wicks
Many candles have cored wicks made from cotton that is wrapped around a metal support. The design helps keep the wick from falling over into the wax.
This is especially useful for scented candles, because the fragrance oils soften the wax and allow non-cored wicks to go limp.
In the past, lead was commonly used in cored candlewicks — especially in candles imported from overseas.
However, after determining that these wicks could present a lead poisoning hazard to young children, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the manufacture and sale of all candles with lead-core wicks in 2003.
Now, zinc and tin are generally used instead. 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.
The fragrances used in scented candles are extremely hazardous to human health.
OK, so the wick is fine, and the wax is harmless, but what about the fragrance in scented candles? There’s no way that apple-pie and fresh vanilla ice cream scent doesn’t contain carcinogens right?
Well, again, wrong. Yes it’s true that the fragrances which make candles so enticing are made with chemicals (it’s not surprising you can’t pack a pine tree forest into some wax) but all of these fragrances typically conform to safety standards established by the International Fragrance Association, which ensures that chemicals used are non-toxic and safe for human use.
The caveat with scented candles is that while the fragrance itself may be safe, it can cause problems for certain populations.
According to Janice Nolen, the Assistant Vice President of National Policy at the American Lung Association, “just the scents alone, for people with asthma for example, can cause problems with breathing.”
Nolen recommends skipping scented products altogether (yes, air freshners and oil diffusers included) but urges that extreme only with particularly vulnerable populations like young kids, asthmatics, and adults over 65 definitely stay away).
The Major Issue With Scented Candles
Scented candles are one of the easiest and most effective ways to mask unpleasant odors in your home. They’re a go-to when creating a relaxing ambiance to unwind after a long work day or while taking a warm bubble bath.
But one of the main problems with scented candles is the scent itself.
According to Anne Steinemann, an environmental pollutants expert who is a professor of civil engineering and the chair of sustainable cities at the University of Melbourne, certain candles may emit numerous types of potentially hazardous chemicals, such as benzene and toluene.
They can cause damage to the brain, lung and central nervous system, as well as cause developmental difficulties.
“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 added.
“They emit so much fragrance that they can trigger asthma attacks and even migraines.”
Researchers at South Carolina State University tested both petroleum-based paraffin wax candles and vegetable-based candles that were non-scented, non-pigmented and free of dyes.
Their 2009 report concluded that while the vegetable-based candles didn’t produce any potentially harmful pollutants, the paraffin candles “released unwanted chemicals into the air,” said chemistry professor Ruhullah Massoudi in a statement.
“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,” Massoudi said.
The National Candle Association refutes these claims, stating in a comment to The Huffington Post: “The safety of scented candles is backed by decades of research, fragrance testing and a history of safe use. The fragrances approved for candle usage — whether synthesized or ‘natural’ — do not release toxic chemicals.
Health and safety studies are conducted for fragrance materials used in candles, including toxicological and dermatological tests.”
It may be shocking to think that your favorite candles could potentially be bad for you, and made worse by added fragrances.
Steinemann said for some people, the effects are “immediate, acute and severe,” while others may not realize they are being effected until they gradually develop health issues.
Though the risk to you may be small, there are alternatives. Steinemann suggests going the unscented route, avoiding “even those with essential oils, as they can potentially have hazardous chemicals,” she said.
“It’s almost like air fresheners with the fragrance just sitting there … permeating surfaces in the room.”
If you still crave the pleasant ambiance and aroma of scented candles, don’t despair. There are safer ways to scent the air. Here are some suggestions:
For Scent, Use Essential Oils.
Essential oils can be placed in a diffuser or in bathwater to create a wonderful aroma.
Place spices such as cinnamon sticks, cloves and nutmeg in a pot of water and let it simmer on the stove.
Dried items such as flowers, berries, fruit rinds, wood chips, and spices can be placed in bowls or fabric bags and placed around your home.