We often associate the burning of candles with relaxation. At the end of the day, they can help us to unwind, and when guests are over, they offer an inviting scent to bring warmth to our homes. However, there is nothing relaxing about the indoor air pollution associated with candles, and nothing homey about putting the ones we love in contact with the toxic substances that can be found in these household favorites. But don’t worry, your home can smell great without compromising your health.
The Health Concerns
Indoor Air Pollution in a Confined Space: When we burn candles containing toxic components, we create a confined space in which pollutants can accumulate. Without outdoor air diluting the particles emitted, these toxins can build up in our homes. Indoor air pollution from candles can include substances such as particulate matter, which can enter the lungs when of small enough size.
Another critical aspect of candles is how scent or fragrance contributes to indoor air quality. Fragrances emit substantial amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including those classified as toxic or hazardous by federal law. The toxic substances these fragrances emit are not only harmful on their own, but in the confined spaces of our homes, can react with ozone in the air and form harmful secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde.
Fragrance: With scented candles, the ingredient list typically provides little to no explanation of what’s inside a scent or where it comes from. Instead, the scent will be listed as “fragrance” or “parfum,” which provides no information to the conscious shopper. While listed as a single entity on product labels, “fragrance” can be comprised of many different undisclosed natural substances or synthetic chemicals. Some chemicals behind these vague terms have been linked to developmental and reproductive harm, endocrine disruption and allergens.
Phthalates: Among the many ingredients that fragrance is comprised of, phthalates are especially harmful. Phthalates have been linked to endocrine disruption, including lower sperm count in males. Phthalates can also cause damage to the female reproductive system and have been known to cause a variety of birth defects and reproductive impairments.
Carcinogenic Components: Conventional candles can release toxic chemicals including formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen, acetaldehyde, which is a probable human carcinogen, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s), some of which are known or suspected human carcinogens.
Paraffins: Paraffin wax makes up the wax portion of candles and is derived from petroleum. Like most petroleum products, paraffin is not clean-burning nor biodegradable in our environment.
Candles made from paraffin are suspected to release toxic chemicals including toluene and benzene. Benzene is a known carcinogen and toluene is linked to developmental and reproductive toxicity. The chemicals released from paraffin wax over an extended period of time could contribute to the development of cancer, allergies and asthma.
Lead Wicks: Although a common concern among consumers, you can take a deep breath knowing that lead core wicks have been banned from being manufactured, sold, or imported into the United States since 2003. However, not all countries have this ban, so be wary of products purchased outside of the U.S., unless that country has a similar restriction.
Tips for Safer Candles and Fragrance
- Unscented candles may not contain harmful fragrance chemicals, but they are often still paraffin-based. Instead, look for 100% soy, coconut or beeswax-based candles. Make sure it’s not a mixture, as paraffin can be added to keep prices down.
- Look for 100% cotton wicks.
- Find candles made with 100% pure essential oils rather than mystery “fragrance.” (Remember, avoid any essential oils to which you are allergic or sensitive.)
- Skip the colored candles. Pigments used in candles can be toxic to humans and the environment.
- Use alternative methods to keep your home smelling great! This can include a DIY essential oil spray or simmer pots using fruit, herbs and spices. Check out these DIY recipes for inspiration:
Looking for more ideas for keeping your home odor-free without the toxic chemicals? Click here for tips from Women’s Voices for the Earth.