If you’re like most people, candles are part of your daily or weekly routine. They can soften and beautify any room, and they can be a relaxing way to unwind after work or school.
One of the most popular uses for candles is to create a themed ambiance, and the options are seemingly endless: peppermint, pumpkin pie, lavender, chocolate, apple, ocean breeze, and so on.
Candles are also a popular gift choice, and when you’re buying candles for others, you might want to pay special attention to the scent.
Some scents can trigger respiratory problems, allergies, or even migraines, so it’s important to know which scents are the safest.
Are Your Favorite Candles Gradually Poisoning You?
In my recent searching through the web I came across an article made me stop my scrolling and actually pay attention, “Are Your Candles Toxic?” read the headline.
I was aghast, never in my wildest dreams did I even imagine that my beloved Anthropologie candles could be poisoning me while they filled my home with lovely hints of vanilla and peaches.
I read the article, and then another, and another—all warning me that my candles were ruining my life.
But here’s the thing, upon closer inspection I found that the majority of these articles didn’t have any studies or hard facts to back them up.
So I decided that before I threw out all my lovely (and expensive) candles I should do some proper investigating to address all the internet claims that claim candles are a silent killer.
Claim 1: Candle wicks have a lead core.
One of the main hazards that bloggers cite when talking about candles are the wicks—lead wicks to be exact.
According to these writers many of the candles that people purchase are made with wicks made of lead that when lit can release seriously harmful (and carcinogenic) chemicals into your home. That, however is not quite true.
“Lead wicks have been banned in the United States for almost two decades.
But we constantly hear that candles have lead wicks and we want people to understand that that is not the case, it hasn’t been for years and years,” Rob Harrington, Ph.D., a toxicologist with the National Candle Association.
While in the past, wicks were made with lead in order to make the wick stiffer, lead wicks were officially outlawed by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2003.
If you have candles in your attic from before 2003 and you’re worried those could have lead in them, they probably don’t given that National Candle Association members voluntarily agreed to not use lead wicks in 1974 (and yes, Yankee Candle is a member).
At this point one of the few ways you could end up with a lead-core wick candle is if you imported one that wasn’t governed by these regulations but even then the chances are slim as there are National Candle Association (NCA) equivalents worldwide ensuring the safety of candles.
But if you’re if you’re still not convinced that you can light your candles, there’s a simple way to see if they’re safe.
Rub white paper on the wick of an un-burnt candle, if the wick leaves a gray pencil-like mark there’s lead in it, if there’s no gray you’re good to go.
Claim 2: Candle wax contains hazardous substances that are released when burnt.
OK, so the wick is fine, but what about the big chunk of wax that is the actual candle? Well it turns out that’s not as bad as some writers would have you believe either.
To give you some background, candles are usually made from paraffin wax or soy wax, both of which are solids that act as the fuel for candle flame.
Writers often cite a 2009 study by South Carolina State University researchers that claimed that paraffin wax releases harmful chemicals such as toluene.
However, this study has been called into question by the NCA particularly because it was never published in a journal and peer reviewed.
Upon closer inspection, the NCA also found that the researcher who conducted the study never verified that the candles he looked at were actually paraffin or soy candles and that one of the harmful chemicals the researcher claimed to have found in paraffin candles (trichloroethylene) could not have been produced in combustion given that paraffin doesn’t contain the elements necessary to produce it.
It turns out that the one bad study everyone is relying on to make their case is not particularly trust-worthy, “It’s not bad science it’s non-science,” said Harrington.
So OK, one study was not reliable, that doesn’t mean wax is in the clear right? Well, nothing else has really come up to make us think otherwise.
According to Harrington (and my research) there’s no scientific basis for these claims that paraffin, or soy, or any other sort of wax could be harmful when burned.
In fact, to fight this notion that wax is harmful in any way, the NCA in conjunction with other international candle associations sponsored a study of paraffin wax, soy wax, palm wax and beeswax candles to see what sort of chemicals they emit when lit.
The independently conducted study found that “ all the major waxes burned in a very similar manner and all waxes produced virtually identical combustion products…all waxes were shown to be safe when used in candles,” said Harrington.
As this other study by European researchers found, when candles burn they produce mostly carbon dioxide, water, and fragrance (if you’re burning a scented candle) and any other chemicals that are produced when burning are found in such low concentrations that they don’t pose any serious risk to health.
Claim 3: 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 fresheners and oil diffusers included) but urges that extreme only with particularly vulnerable populations like young kids, asthmatics, and adults over 65 definitely stay away).
Claim 4: Candles emit particulate matter and volatile organic compounds.
Another point of contention when it comes to candles and their effects on health is whether or not they release harmful particulate matter into the air—and this is where Nolen definitely feels that candles can be harmful.
“Candles are something that people perceive as being benign and it’s important to realize that they are not benign,” she said.
If it’s been a while since you took an environmental science class, let me break particulate matter (PM) down for you.
PM refers to solid and liquid particles that are in the air we breathe, the smallest of which can go past our bodies natural defense systems and into our lungs.
When these little tiny particles get into our lungs they can cause everything from coughing and wheezing to acute health issues like heart attacks or stroke.
According to Nolen these candles emit the type of particle pollution that could contribute to these dangerous side effects.
However, it’s not that candles are the only source of particle pollution in your home but rather that they can become an added source that isn’t essential for your everyday life.
“I’m not saying don’t put candles on your kids birthday cake, but don’t think of them as a benign thing if you’re having them burning for hours on end in your home,” she said.
Another point that Nolen brings up is the fact that candles emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), chemicals that may be harmful on their own or interact with other chemicals in the air to produce harmful compounds.
Rob agrees, yes candles do release particulate matter, and yes they do release VOCs but there’s no indication that the PM and VOCs coming from candles are any worse than what you would find just taking a stroll outside.
“There’s no question that a candle does produce these but they produce very very small amounts compared to the air that you’re breathing,” he said.
So yes, candles do produce PM and VOCs, both of which have been found to be harmful to health, but as Nolen pointed out, the issue may not lie in the burning of candles themselves but rather in how long you’re burning them.
So the big deal about candles is particulate matter, so what if I really want to burn candles?
If you’re finding yourself inclined to reduce the amount of particulate matter in your environment but can’t seem to put the candles away the best thing you can do is reduce the amount of time you burn them.
There’s no hard and fast rule for how long it’s safe to burn a candle before it starts causing any trouble (the research just isn’t there) but in Nolen’s opinion, “the longer they burn the more they’re producing pollution,” so try to not to burn them all day long.
Additionally, it’s a good idea to make sure you properly ventilate whenever you do burn candles. It won’t pull all the pollutants out, but it’s better than doing nothing.
So unless you are concerned about the PM or VOCs in your home you’re good to let them burn. And if you are concerned, Nolen recommends electric candles for ambiance.