Toxins in Candles: Sad, But True

There’s nothing like the gentle flicker of a candle flame, and a warm, sweet scent filling your home to evoke feelings of peace and wellness.

Except when that candle is actually filling your home with toxic chemicals and contributing to indoor air pollution

I know. I hear that sigh, and have sighed myself many times. It can be discouraging. We work so hard to eat healthy, stay fit, and rid our homes and bodies of toxins, only to find that something as simple and innocent as a pretty candle on our mantle or kitchen windowsill is actually a culprit in the war against our health and wellbeing.

Sometimes I want to stop bringing these bits of information to the surface, to take a break from being such a party pooper all the time. I want to tell you, “Go on. Enjoy that scented candle. Don’t even give it a second thought”. But I can’t.

Party pooper or not, I have such a burden to keep on sharing, and educating, and working my buns off to get the knowledge out there that all of these regular, everyday products we fill our homes and lives and bodies with are just not good for us.

I’m going to tell you why I think you need to reconsider your use of candles, but then I’m also going to share some encouraging ways to bring back those pretty scents, oh yes, and even some healthy candle options as well. Non-toxic living does NOT mean boring, un-enjoyable, avoid-everything-pleasant living, so hang with me a little while longer, won’t you, friend?

Image by orange acid

What Makes Candles So Bad

  • Paraffin is the major ingredient in most conventional candles and is a sludge waste product from the petroleum industry. It releases carcinogenic chemicals when burned. The soot/fumes are similar to that released from a diesel engine and can be as dangerous as second-hand cigarette smoke. This can contribute to serious respiratory issues like asthma.
  • Scented candles may have lead or lead cores in the wick, which releases dangerous amounts of lead into your home through the candle soot. Candle wicks are supposed to be made from pure paper or cotton, but a University of Michigan study in the late 1999 found that 30% of candles in the USA still released lead into the air, in amounts higher than is considered safe by the EPA (and personally, I’m not sure that I would consider there to be a “safe” level). Legislation was passed in the USA to ban lead in wicks in 2003, but it is still present in some candles which make their way onto store shelves, particularly those that are imported (made in China or Taiwan, for example). For my fellow Canadians, there has not yet been a Canadian ban on lead in candle wicks.
  • Two particularly toxic chemicals, benzene and toluene, are found in the sooty residue from burning candles. Benzene is cancer-causing and toluene affects the central nervous system.
  • Artificial scents and colors may be irritants to some people and/or trigger allergic reactions.
  • Other toxic chemicals that may be present in the paraffin mixture and released through burning include: Acetone, Trichlorofluoromethane, Carbon Disulfide, 2-Butanone, Trichloroethane, Trichloroethene, Carbon Tetrachloride, Tetrachloroethene, Chlorobenzene, Ethylbenzene, Styrene, Xylene, Phenol, Cresol, Cyclopentene. Some of the toxins are found in other products such as paint, laquer and varnish removers– that’s potent and powerful stuff!

Image by igloo white

Tips for Avoiding the Worst Offenders

Even among conventional candles, there are some that are better (or worse) than others. Here are some tips for what to look for and what to avoid.

Avoid

  • Dollar store or super-cheap candles
  • Imported candles (stick with ones that are made in North America)
  • Any candle that appears to have a metal-core wick (learn how to spot them)
  • Scented candles (unless they are naturally scented- more on this below)
  • Gel candles
  • Cheap “aromatherapy” candles, from brands like Febreeze and Glade. There is actually nothing truly therapeutic about the scents in these candles and much that is harmful.

Somewhat Better

  • Higher-end candles from reputable stores. These are more likely to have safe wicks and are less likely to use synthetic fragrances (although some still do). IKEA candles are apparently all lead-free.
  • Taper candles, as opposed to candles like tea lights and pillar candles that melt into puddles. They are less likely to contain lead.
  • Anytime you burn a regular candle, do it in an open space (ie. not a teeny tiny bathroom), with a window cracked open to allow fumes to be released.
  • If you must stick to cheaper candles and you really don’t want to stop using them entirely, keep your use very minimal, once a week at most, or preferably even less.

toxins in candles

Image by joost-ijmuiden

The Very Best Options for Candles

Beeswax

I ever so sadly cut out 95% of my candle use several years ago when I realized that they were toxic. Although I still find beeswax candles pricey enough that I buy and use them infrequently, they are definitely my top choice for a healthy candle option. They are absolutely pure and burn clean.

Beeswax is about as natural a product as you can find. It is simply a natural wax that is made by bees and collected from the hives by beekeepers. It has a light scent of honey, which I find extremely beautiful and soothing. They can also sometimes be found with essential oils for added scent, although they are just lovely au naturel.

Color options range between off-white, yellow (most common) and light browns (like these beauties) for un-dyed beeswax candles, but you can also find brilliantly hued candles made with non-toxic dyes. Make sure to look for 100% beeswax, as some companies will use only a portion of beeswax mixed with regular paraffin, and then label them as “beeswax candles”. This isn’t what you want. Go for the truly pure stuff.

One option that beeswax allows is the ability to easily make your own. You can purchase sheets of beeswax to roll into various types of taper and pillar candles. You can also easily melt beeswax granules into glass jars to make your own.

Soy

While I don’t recommend soy for most eating purposes, I do think that soy candles are another great option. They also burn clean, with no harmful fumes, and have very long burn times as well. 

I have a bit of a conundrum about whether I like supporting soy farming, which is the only thing that holds me back from giving soy candles my full support. Almost all soy in North America is genetically-modified, either on purpose or because it has become contaminated by nearby farms that are using GMO seed. I also wonder if a vote “yes” for soy is a bit of a vote for Monsanto, whose evils I will refrain from ranting about for the purposes of this post. All that said, I don’t think that there is any physical harm from using soy candles made from GMO soy, but I would generally prefer to put my money into supporting local beekeepers above soy farming.

As with beeswax candles, these come in a wide variety of colors and natural scents, and you do need to look for the 100% soy label as well, to avoid candles made with part soy, part paraffin. Though I haven’t tried it, you can also buy soy wax and make your own gorgeous soy and beeswax jar candles.

Image by anniehp

Other Ways to Make Your Home Smell Beautiful

If it’s more about the scents than it is about burning candles for you, there are plenty of other ways to safely enjoy natural fragrances:

Do you enjoy burning candles? What type of alternative options have you found?

Top image by askthepixel
Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links.

About Stephanie Langford

Stephanie Langford has a passion for sharing ideas and information for homemakers who want to make healthy changes in their homes, and carefully steward all that they've been given. She has written three books geared to helping families live more naturally and eat real, whole foods, without being overwhelmed, without going broke and with simple meal planning. She is the creator of Keeper of the Home.

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Comments

  1. Erica Smith says:

    Honest Company has baby-safe and home-safe scented candles.

  2. Hi, I read your article and started searching for Jo Malone candle information. I couldn’t find any. Do you know if they are safe? However, I stumbled upon this link from candles.org which basically says that everything you and other bloggers are saying about the hazards of certain candles is not true. I’m shocked. http://www.candles.org/about_faq.html I believe some candles are toxic but I thought candles.org would know better. :)

  3. Olive Oil Lamps from Lehmans.com are perfect solutions to having a clean bright flame. They are very inexpensive too with all kinds of options including using your own lamp container, and 2 ozs burn for hours, so it is actually less expensive to burn olive oil than candles. As for scents, buy essential oils and ad to your olive oil.
    Check it all our or google Merry Corliss Lamps and read the many established Blogs. Jim

  4. Kat Alexander says:

    I’m pregnant and candles have been part of my evening relaxation rituals. A friend sent me to this site and I’m kind of saddened by what I’ve read. Right now, we have Yankee candles and White Barn candles from Bath and Body Works. BBW said they have the highest concentration of the richest fragrance oils, a blend of vegetable wax, and lead free wicks. There’s nothing helpful on the bottom of my Yankee candles. Do you guys know if those two brands are bad???

    • see my post about olive oil lamps

    • I have nothing but Bath and Body Works candles. I’ve noticed that with continuous use of these candles the filter has become very black and Sooty over a short period of time. Also my ceiling fans seem to get besides normal dust an abundance of black something… What I’m guessing is also soot.
      I love the scent of my candles, but I can only imagine what these candles are doing for the rest of my home but more importantly my Lungs!!
      Any suggestions on a different company that has really good scented candles.?

  5. Pink Zebra is 100% American Made Soy candles, and was sprinkles that can be used in any flame-less melting/simmer pot. Pink Zebra Home was also recently voted as one of the fastest growing companies in 2013.

  6. Riley's Mom says:

    I just had my A/C check up and was just told the devastating news about scented candles and why there is black on my A/C vents with shades of gray around the ceiling. I am heartbroken as I LOVE candles, but my (our) health is much more important and as a newly-diagnosed asthmatic, I appreciate the honesty. I can’t handle products like inscents or room deoderizing sprays, so I guess I will look for other options like oils/diffusers.

  7. Thankyou for this,youve inspired me to try and free my house frm toxins. Xx

  8. I just recently found out about how toxic candles are when I was contacted by a NATURAL indie candle brand, KISS ME CANDLES to review her product . It’s scary to think of all the candles I’ve been around in my lifetime and all the toxins I’ve been subjected to. But I’m glad to know that my kids (when I have them) will never be subjected to them now that I know. I know it seems like “everything causes cancer or is bad for your health…when do you stop worrying and start living…” But honestly, knowledge is power and there is SO MUCH more going on in our world these days — we need to know what to NOT make a part of our lifestyle. So THANK YOU for sharing!

    Here is a link to my review of KISS ME CANDLES soy candles if you are interested. :)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nx-NM14fO-U

  9. Thanks for sharing.It was a big help.It took more than a week ,but I finally got rid of all my candles and made my own!

  10. Ava Anderson has wonderful non-toxic candels made organic from Coconut wax. Check them out plus all her other wonderful non-toxic products. They have changed my life for the better.

  11. Food grade parafin is much better some candle companies use parafin mix, which contains animal fat/lard. PartyLite is a candle company that pushes safety. Though Canada and the US do not have serious candle guidelines, Europe does. PartyLite is one candle company the meets those guidelines.

  12. Just a note on Beeswax candles. My nephew is asthmatic and his pulmonologist (lung doctor) banned beeswax candles because the beeswax is horrible for your lungs. It leaves little particles in your lungs that your body can’t get rid of. It also burns very hot and dirty with black smoke. They’re great for outside, but don’t burn them in the house. :)

  13. What about scented wax warmers such as scentsy are they toxic too?

  14. You are so right about the toxins in candles. As one of the only candle manufactures (as far as I know) we actually tested our natural soy candle at Eurofins Product Testing in Denmark (we are located in Denmark). And we came out with a “no additive” result. However, our competitors are full of benzene etc. and it looks like the higher price, the more chemicals. Very surprising and very much opposite what we thought.
    Also we tested our soy candle up against a paraffin candle in a sophisticated particle scanner and found our candle to have 10x fewer particles.
    Now we have initiated a rather large scale test program of soy, paraffin, stearin, beeswax and others at the University of Copenhagen to get hard evidence for the quantity of particles, the shape of the particles and the quantity of nano size particles. This should bring the discussion of “which candle material is the best” to an end. Results follow in April (maybe May). Join us on facebook (ByRansborg) for more info. We will post it in English when we have the results. It should be very interesting.

  15. Unfortunately, IKEA candles are made with PALM OIL. The palm oil industry is directly linked to the DEFORESTATION of Indonesia. The deforestation is spreading at an incredible speed, killing plants and wildlife. The orangutan is one of the animals that is being slautered. The number of orangutans left in the wild? A mere 2000. They are in danger of extinction. As well, without the rainforest to help control global climate through photosynthesis, the global temperature is rapidly rising. I think IKEA should be boycotted. Do not buy candles there. The consumer needs to be held accountable. Soy, olive oil and other types of candles are the way to go.

  16. Nancy Wood says:

    THANK YOU! for all your hard work and great information.

  17. There is a safe alternative. Scentsy offers wickless wax burners. They plug in to the wall, and with the use of a small watt light bulb they melt wax that releases a pleasant frangrance with even more concentration than a candle. They are completely safe to be on 24/7 there’s no flame, soot, chemicals, or lead. In fact, the wax is produced by food grade petroleum, and if it were to be consumed it would be completely safe. As the mother of a curious toddler that likes to climb and put everything in her mouth. I wouldn’t have anything buy Scentsy in my home. I am a Scentsy independent consultant and you can check out my websites or feel free to contact me with questions.
    nicolehartle.scentsy.us
    facebook.com/scentsynicolehartle

    • Nicole- You stated that Scentsy is completely safe and the there are no chemicals. As far as I know the Scentsy has chemical fragrance, not essential oils. Are you saying that chemical fragrance is safe?

      • I agree with Becky!! Nicole, HOW can there be NO chemicals in Scentsy??? There is no such thing as “Cookie Dough” oil ?? and the oils Scentsy uses are not 100% pure-food grade!! Gives me an instant headache!!

  18. Susan Dietrich Schneider says:

    We use beeswax candles only, until I discovered “floating water candles” sold on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Water-Candles-Romantic-Floating-Invisible/dp/B001OFC6AM/ref=sr_1_1?s=home-garden&ie=UTF8&qid=1362187143&sr=1-1 It consists of a clear plastic wick holder which floats on a base of water topped with vegetable oil. You can burn any kind of vegetable oil (I’ll use soy from now on because of what you said about soy candles being safe to breathe), and it burns for 10 – 12 hours! My stained glass candle holder is stunningly beautiful lit up from within with a floating candle!

  19. Do you know about food-grade petroleum wax? how safe is it? I believe “Scentsy” uses this AND soy… :) Thanks!

  20. I got rid of all my candles recently (even my fancy ones) because they all were paraffin. Anyways, I found some locally made, hand poured soy candles that are all soy, and say “100% natural ingredients” but the squares they sell are highly fragrant. The candles are, too, but the wax chunks you can melt are super fragrant. There are no ingredients listed so I emailed the company today asking. If they use essential oils (I hope) then I just don’t see them being so crazy fragrant. What else would they be using? I do make my own air fresheners and also have a cool mist ultrasonic nebulizer for essential oils, but was wanting to use these, too. I’m mainly concerned about my pet and the fumes being let off. I’m hoping these locally made candles and wax bars are safe, but no ingredients concerns me.

    • We use medical grade essential oils for scents. Then it’s therapeutic and non toxic. If we are sick we put on ones for immunity. If its bed time, calming ones, etc. I don’t use any kind of candle/wax things for scents. Petroleum is not natural. My scents don’t contain allergens as the proteins aren’t in the oils (except citrus oils).
      If you have ailments you can see if oils will address them. We have helped with lots. Feel free to contact me with questions. http://www.yllifestyle.com my email is on the site :) Worldwide available.

      • Yes!! Leah, Young Living Essential Oils are 100 % pure! I use them. Scentsy DOESN’T use them because of the cost! NO candles in my home :)

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