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.

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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. I’ve been thinking about his lately, so thanks for the info. I don’t burn candles often, but I still would like them to burn cleanly especially with two people with allergies. What should we look for when buying essential oils? I’m hoping to find an evergreen scented one. :)

  2. I make my own using 100% soy with a combination of cotton and paper wicks. They burn so much nicer than other candles. Thanks for the GREAT article!! http://www.4thstreetcandleco.etsy.com

  3. We had been using essentials oils with a diffuser to scent our home but have stopped since someone pointed out that they can be toxic to our family cat. http://essentialoilworld.com/essentialoilreviews/pet-health/essential-oil-safety-with-cats

    Hyrdosols are ok to us with cats in the home, but are harder to come by than essential oils. Just posting this as a precaution to those who live with feline friends.

    Love beeswax candles but they are pretty expensive so we save them for special times only.

  4. I stopped burning candles a long time ago because I developed a sensitivity to fragrances. Now I have kids and I’m afraid to burn even natural candles. I have a bunch of fake battery operated candles that actually look pretty nice. They have a realistic flicker and are made of wax, like regular candles, but nothing is actually burning. There is something really beautiful about real flames though.

  5. I stopped burning candles a long time ago because I developed a sensitivity to fragrances as I got older. Now I have kids and I’m be afraid to burn even natural candles. I love the look of candles though. I have a bunch of the fake battery operated candles. They actually look really nice and flicker somewhat realistically. They have a slight vanilla scent when you smell them up close, but not enough to really offgas into the air.

  6. Thanks so much for this article. I assumed popular candles were bad since they contain synthetic fragrances but this was just the information I was looking for about better alternatives. Natural beeswax candles sound awesome! I, too, would prefer them over soy for the reasons you gave.

    I don’t trust Scentsy and I can’t stand their smells. The fragrances just smell artificial like other candles, and they look like they are filled with artificial dyes, too. I can’t find any list of their ingredients anywhere.

  7. I gave away or donated my whole candle collection. Let me just say that I had WAY too much. Worked at a craft store for 10 yrs so you can only imagine.
    After Christmas I hit up my local natural stores and bought as much beeswax, soy and coconut oil candles as I could afford. I also find them in thrift shops for cheap. Now I use them only when needed (once a week or so). I live in a old home with a fireplace so it smells old n stuff at times.
    I have noticed my allergies are not as bad anymore! Great post!

  8. kristen marie says:

    what are your thoughts about wickless candles ( in know they sell at walmart and thru companies like scentsy…e tc….. do they follow the same guidelines?

  9. I looked at candles today at Shop Rite. One candle said fragranced with essential oils and a soy wax blend. The other candle I considered said 100% soy wax but didn’t comment about the fragrance they used. No candle lists the ingredients.

  10. We really rarely burn candles…I don’t really know why…I just don’t think about it except around the holidays. Then, we have some Yankee candles, and I’m betting they are bad! Will be sticking to your suggestions for all future purchases!

    I do love using essential oils to create pretty smells. We’ve actually been using homemade thieves oil spray this week b/c we STILL can’t seem to kick this bug out of our house….and I think it smells lovely! (AND it’s non-toxic!!)

  11. Mary Richards says:

    Since I’ve gotten rid of my candles I use my essential oil diffuser. I use only 100% Theraputic grade essential oils and it distributes the oil into the air, acting as an air freshener and also giving you the health benefit of inhaling the different oils. You can order them from http://www.abundanthealth4u.com/. As always, thank you for the great articles!

  12. What about incense, are those toxic too?

  13. Stephanie L says:

    Thanks for this article! I threw out all my candles a few months ago for these reasons. And I LOVED candles. I bought a Scentsy burner and wax because they say they are safer – but I cannot find any info on if they really are. They don’t post their ingredients. Do you know if they are OK?

  14. I have been making my own soy candles for a couple of years. Well, I have been trying…LOL! Soy is a really hard wax to work with. Sometimes the wick burns out. I love burning candles in my fireplace..just for the glow. But, I have to say your post has been very informative about toxic scents.

    Thanks for sharing!!!
    Susan

  15. How about oil lamps?

  16. What about Scentsy? Do you know if they are harmful? My mother-in-law gave me a couple, and I absolutely LOVE them!

  17. Isabella says:

    How interesting! What about diy orange wick candles?

  18. Thank you so much for this article. I have heard people talk about how great soy candles are but never knew why. I just started buying soy candles from someone I know in the last year or so. I was very impressed with how great they worked and how long lasting they were. I didn’t know the other reasons they were so much better. I am wondering about Yankee Candles too now. :-)

  19. I love candles too. I have been buying and burning the Aroma Naturals brand for years. They only use soy or natural vegetable wax and only essential oils for the scents. I definitely notice a difference when we buy and burn something else. Just can’t tolerate the unnatural candle for very long. We belong to a food buying club that orders from Frontier. I frequently buy their candles when they are on sale, they are affordable and make great gifts.

  20. I LOVE LOVE LOVE beeswax candles. I can’t say enough good things about them. They a very light scent – nothing overpowering like some candles have. I stopped burning “regular” candles a while ago because of what was presented above. I also found a local company that makes fantastic soy candles that smell amazing. Thanks for getting this information out there!

  21. we like the ones by way out wax, only essential oils are used for scent.

  22. Candles are very sneaky toxic things. For me I ditches the candles and I use Scentsy. They dont put chemicals in the air nor do they leave nasty residue on walls, carpets,or your lungs… plus they heat by a light bulb…

    Thanks for all the awesome info…
    —Rachael
    http://Www.dontgoscentless.scentsy.us

    • Actualy, I’v found that Scentsy does leave a reside. It coats everything with a perfumy-oily film that’s nearly impossible to get rid of. I can’t get the smell of it out of my apartment. It’s worse than cigaret smoke. The chemicals in the perfume are also toxic.

      • Thats simply not true about the perfume and the chemicals, no more than scents in any of the 100% soy or beeswax. I have 5 warmers throughout my home and they have never ever left any kind of residue. You should probably look for an alterate cause. I would never use them if that was the case. Instead, having done my research, found these to be one of the least harmful if not harmless products out there for scenting a home.

  23. I’m actually not surprised by this, although I never knew the specific toxins in the candles. I always thought it was the fragrance infused in them more than anything. My husband has bad headaches within minutes of a candle being lit, and I realized after we were married and I couldn’t burn candles that my constant sinus infections seemed to improve. Prior to our marriage I was a candle fanatic burning them daily in my bedroom at my parents house.

  24. I love this post. However, on the sidebar is an advertisement for Yankee candles. Does that mean they are safe?

  25. I have to say that when I was ridding my house of all the “junk”, it never once occurred to me that candles were “junk.” Wow. I’m still in shock.
    I will be vigilant now and make sure to buy the best….and yard sale the ones I’m given that probably aren’t so hot. :-)

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