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!
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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.
- 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.
- 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.
Image by joost-ijmuiden
The Very Best Options for Candles
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.
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:
- Add essential oils to your bath. Lavender is particularly relaxing.
- Simmer homemade potpourri on your stove.
- Use a nebulizer to enjoy both the scent and the health benefits of essential oils.
- Make your own homemade air freshener, complete with essential oils for a light lingering fragrance.