Candles appeal to our senses and offer a soothing alternative to harsh electric lighting. And scented candles can evoke a certain mood or pleasant memory (like Grandma’s cookies baking in the oven). But as popular as candles are, there are a few things to be aware of before choosing one for yourself or someone you love.
The problem with paraffin
Of four of the most popular types of candles, paraffin-based varieties are less expensive than the other three (palm oil, soy and beeswax). However, paraffin is a petroleum byproduct created when crude oil is refined into gasoline—and the soot from paraffin candles has been shown to increase indoor air pollution.
In fact, messy black paraffin soot releases carcinogens, neurotoxins and reproductive toxins, which can easily be inhaled. In addition, soot particles can travel deep into the lungs, where they are especially aggravating for people with asthma, lung or heart disease. As if that weren’t bad enough, soot can also damage valuable computers, electrical appliances and even ductwork in your home.
Candles sourced from palm fruit oil and soybean oil are a little more expensive, but they typically don’t produce as much soot. They’re also more environmentally sustainable and they burn longer. Palm oil candles produce a brighter flame than other waxes, and they’re virtually smoke-free and almost sootless with a cotton wick. However, deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, where a large percentage of the palms are grown, makes these types of candles environmentally controversial.
Renewably sourced soybean oil-based candles typically burn up to 50% longer than paraffin wax candles, making them more economical. However, watch out for “soy blend” candles—they could be mixed with other waxes, including petroleum-based paraffin. Look for “100% soy” on the label. Another factor to consider with soy-based candles is the type of soybean crop used in their production. Non-organically grown crops could be subject to heavy pesticide use.
Fans of 100% beeswax candles love their long, clean, almost dripless burn plus the fact that the sweet, honey aroma means no additional scent is necessary. They also appreciate that, unlike paraffin candles, those made from 100% beeswax aren’t sourced from petroleum products. Nor do they require the sole use of large areas of agricultural land, like with soy or palm oil candles. In addition beeswax is hypo-allergenic, and using it supports crop pollination and helps protect beehives as well as the fields that bees visit to gather their pollen. They’re usually more expensive than other types of candles, however.
A word about wicks
In 2003 the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lead wicks because they release up to five times the amount of lead considered hazardous for children and they exceed EPA pollution standards for outdoor air. Lead accumulates in the body, and exposure to high amounts has been linked to many health and behavioral problems, hormone disruption and learning disabilities.Safer alternatives include synthetic fibers, cotton and paper. No matter what kind of wicks your candles have, be sure to trim them to a quarter inch (half a centimeter) and don’t burn them near a draft. This will help keep any soot to a minimum.
What’s in a scent?
Candles scented with essential oils may be safer for your family than those containing synthetic “fragrance oils.” Most fragrance oils are petroleum-based synthetics, and candles scented with them may emit even more chemicals like phthalates into the air you’re breathing.
Your best bet?
Look for unscented, petroleum-free candles with no-wire wicks. If you prefer a scent, you may want to consider using a diffuser with an essential oil.