Everyone wants a home that smells good, which is why scented candles are so popular. But, says toxic-exposure expert Sophia Gushée, that wax and wick could pose health risks if you’re not careful. Here, the Well+Good Council member explains why you may want to take a closer look at candles before lighting up.
Candles have been a part of our rituals and celebrations for more than 5,000 years. So how could something so engrained in our day-to-day actually pose a health risk?
Surprisingly, it’s because the ingredients used to create candles have evolved. Early civilizations made candles out of animal tallow, plants, and insects. Today, candles are often made from paraffin, which is a petroleum byproduct. And petroleum is the repeat offender among the toxic chemicals I encountered during my eight years of research for my book A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Our Toxic Exposures.
Aside from accidental fires, the process of burning anything always runs the risk of emitting unhealthy fumes or particles. Therefore, the ingredients in the candles you burn is the key determinant to the health risks involved. According to a 2001 report prepared for the EPA, one study showed that concentrations of concerning chemicals (like lead and formaldehyde) from candle emissions exceeded EPA-recommended thresholds.
Keep scrolling for three key strategies to choose healthier candles.
1. Examine the wax ingredients
Wax candles are often made from the petroleum byproduct paraffin, vegetables (think soy or coconut), animals, and/or insects. Beware that some candles may mention just one ingredient, like soy, but may be blended with other ingredients such as petroleum. Additional ingredients are often added for color, fragrance, stability, or to modify the burning characteristics.
Take note: Burning anything indoors will probably pollute your indoor air. But burning petroleum-based candles is more likely to emit toxic fumes such benzene and toluene. Chronic exposure can contribute to damaging the brain, lungs and, central nervous system; it can also lead to developmental difficulties such as cancer, allergies, and asthma.
Healthier options exist! Vegetable-based candles that are non-scented, non-pigmented, and free of dyes were found to not emit harmful pollutants.
2. Inspect candle wicks
Candle wicks are often made of metal, cotton, or a blend of both. Metal candle wicks help keep the wick standing straight when the surrounding wax begins to melt. Sometimes wicks consist of several thinner wicks that are braided together. While the U.S. candle manufacturing industry agreed to discontinue using lead in wicks by 1974, some candle wicks still contain lead. They have been shown to sometimes contaminate indoor air with lead in concentrations above EPA-recommended thresholds.
3. Avoid fragrance
When I shop or D-Tox (i.e., edit my stuff), “fragrance” is a red flag. The concern is that most scents can be concocted from any combination of thousands of chemicals that companies can use, as I wrote in A to Z of D-Toxing. Most ingredients are not disclosed, not proven safe, and made of petrochemicals. Of the relatively few ingredients studied, the test results raise concern.
Your healthy candle checklist
While it’s ideal to avoid burning candles, when the joy it brings outweighs your concerns, keep the below list in mind to choose healthier candles.
- Wax: Choose 100% pure beeswax with no artificial colors.
- Wick: Choose 100% cotton.
- Fragrance: Choose fragrance-free (best choice) or 100% pure essential oils.
- Buy candles made in the USA. Even better, support local businesses and buy from local candlemakers that you know and trust.
Sophia Gushee is a sought-after toxic exposures expert, author of A to Z of D-Toxing, and founder of Practical Nontoxic Living, a multimedia company that produces podcasts and is incubating the D-Tox Academy, an online portal to make practical nontoxic living simple and accessible.
What should Sophia write about next? Send your questions and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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