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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Care2: The Best Type of Candle?
Care2: Which Candles Emit Carcinogens?
Care2: The Brilliant Beeswax Candle: Natural Air Purifiers and More
Ebay: What are the Different Candle Wax Types?
Care2: Candle Soot: An Air Quality Issue
The Economist: The other oil spill
ABC News: Can burning candles make you sick? University studies scrutinize possible release of toxic fumes.
Daily Mail: Why air fresheners and scented candles can wreck your health
NYR Natural News: Are your candles hiding a toxic secret?
US Consumer Product Safety Commission: CPSC Bans Candles With Lead-Cored Wicks
Yes , candles are awesome if you have the right one… Devine Ambience are awesome all Made by hand ( good materials) personal purchases , branded candles for business , range of gift ware, shop on line available … Jules Walters
I use Sun Leaf Natural candles (sunleafnaturals.com). They are made by hand right here in Minnesota. They use all natural plant & beeswax for the candle, essential oils for scent and all natural hemp for the wick. I love them and they burn beautifully!!
Great article. Two things I would add: soy is also an unsustainable crop – the world wildlife find said a little while ago that it was the biggest contributor to deforestation – and essential oils should not be burnt. They are great in an infuser, as you say, but I wouldn’t by a candle scented with essential oils any more than ‘fragrance’ oils, as they can still emit noxious fumes while being burned.
I have been buying beeswax candles from a local producer. They are more expensive but I feel it is worth it.
I’ve been experimenting with putting EOs on cotton balls and placing them around my home to add a light fragrance. I’d love to try a beeswax candle!
I’ve always loved candles for their ambiance and their air freshening effect (compared to canned air fresheners). Then I discovered essential oil and diffusers. I like diffused pure essential oils for their scent and their therapeutic effects and the light -up, color -changing diffusers create the ambiance.
I have stopped burning candles altogether. All of them give us headaches. Have not tried beeswax ones.
I literally felt light headed and nauseous after a home party because the host had so many wax burners and candles going. It was very eye opening to think of the effects those chemicals can have on our bodies!
Okay, I’m really bummed out about this one, as I love to light up candles in my home. Does anyone know if the wax from scented warmers contain the same petroleum by product, especially those made from the leading direct selling company?
This one kinda bums me out. I need to read the lables of all my scented wax for my wax warmers. I’m glad for the eye opener. I didn’t know how much they were affecting my family.
In my wax warmer I put water and a few drops of essential oil. I just have to check the water levels but it still hasn’t hurt anything if it gets dry.
Also in the little warmers that come with a new crockpot, I put water and botanicals such as cinnamon pieces, cloves, orange or lemon peel or lavender.
I’ve gotten into incense. I love the smell. Any extra information on whether incense is good or bad?
Thanks for your post, Kelsey, and that is a good question. A quick search online reveals that while incense can help calm us down or help set a certain mood in the home, the smoke from burning it can be irritating to the eyes and lungs and may even carry particles that can be easily inhaled. Hope this helps!
I will not need to worry about this. I have never been a fan of candles. I worry about fire.
I’ve never been big on candles! Scary to think how many candles are in peoples homes, and that they don’t even know how harmful they can be!
SO HAPPY to see you blog about this!!! I have blogged extensively on this topic on my own personal “mon blog”! Check it out:
I make my own candles. That way I know they are safe and sustainable. For a beautiful scent, I use pure essential oils in a diffuser.