Are candles toxic? The simple answer is yes, many candles on the market are harmful to our health, and this article will review the numerous health risks associated with candles including increased risks of cancer, respiratory problems and more.
Are Candles Toxic?
We have known for quite some time that candles can be harmful to our health. In fact, in 2001, the EPA commissioned studies that determined that candle use is a public health issue and studies done in the 1990’s showed that they can be harmful (please see the references at the end of this article for all the articles and papers). The EPA report from 2001 was very clear, stating that “burning several candles exceeded the EPA’s 10-6 increased risk for cancer for acetaldehyde and formaldehyde, and exceeded the RfC for acrolein.” In other words: these candle are harmful to our health and they releases chemicals that are known to cause cancer as well as other health problems. The other issue is that you don’t even have to burn the candles for them to be harmful, studies have shown that even before burning candles can emit health harming substances.
But the candle industry is a big industry. In fact, the estimated total sales of candles in 1999 in the US varied between $968 million and $2.3 billion, while imports were $486 million. And as of 2018 the global candle market was valued at USD $3.45 billion. It is clear that people love their candles and because of this, these companies don’t want you to realize the potential health risks of their products because it will significantly impact their bottom line if you stop buying them. What makes matters worse is that manufacturers of scented products, including candles, are not required to disclose all the ingredients used in their products.
It has been shown that more than 90% of the ingredients used in scented products are not declared because of inadequate industry oversight.
So even if you are trying to find products that are safe to use, it can be very difficult to know what you are really buying. Additionally, there are no laws to require manufacturers to prove the safety of their products. As a consequence these chemical substances are outside the jurisdiction of public health institutions. So even if a brand sells you a product that is harmful to your health, legally there is nothing that can be done about it.
When it comes to candles, there are so many issues and harmful ingredients that can be used including lead, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, acrolein, naphthalene, alkanes, wax esters, alkanoic and alkenoic acids, alkenes, and black soot deposition (BSD). To make all of this easier to understand I am going to breakdown the ingredients used in candles and the potential issues with each one.
Are Candles Toxic? The Wax Used
The base of any candle is the wax. And this is where the health problems and harmful ingredients can start. The most popular choices are paraffin wax, soy wax, coconut wax, beeswax, and palm wax. Paraffin wax is the most harmful option. And unfortunately, is also the most commonly used wax in the United States and Canada.
Paraffin wax is a by-product of crude oil refinement. So not only is it not the most environmentally friendly wax option, it’s also quite harmful to our health. It’s toxic to our indoor air quality and to humans when inhaled.
Numerous studies (please see the reference list at the end of this post for all the studies) have shown that burning paraffin wax is harmful to our health. The health risks include:
Health Risk Number One:
The majority of emissions from paraffin wax candles consist of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including alkanes, wax esters, alkanoic and alkenoic acids, alkenes and and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Volatile organic compounds have many known negative health effects including eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination/ balance, nausea, damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system, and some VOCs can cause cancer in animals and humans.
Health Risk Number Two:
It is also well established that bladder cancer can be caused by chronic exposure to aromatic hydrocarbons, and the identification of this correlation led to an improvement of safety measures in the chemical industry and a gradual decrease of bladder cancer cases among workers, however, what has not yet been addressed is the chronic exposure to aromatic hydrocarbons from other sources. A recent paper reviews the possible link between using scented candles and the risk of bladder cancer development. It is known that burning scented candles releases many of the substances that are associated with bladder cancer. And because scented candles are so widely available on the market, with limited regulations and unspecified raw materials being used, this can lead to a number of dangerous substances being emitted during burning.
Health Risk Number Three:
Another study showed that paraffin scented candles emitted toxic chemicals like toluene and benzene into the air. And that frequently lighting many candles in an unventilated space could lead to health problems. Including aggravating asthma, causing allergy-like symptoms, or irritating the respiratory tract.
Health Risk Number Four:
A Polish study showed that found the air quality around paraffin candles is similar to air quality around a combustion engine. And I’m pretty sure you’d never consider running a combustion engine in your home!
Health Risk Number Five:
The 2001 EPA report found that burning several candles exceeded the EPA’s 10-6 increased risk for cancer for both acetaldehyde and formaldehyde. It also exceeded the RfC for acrolein (meaning it exceeded the level that is safe for health).
Fortunately, when it comes to our health, soy wax in candles is generally safe. Burning soy wax candles does not impact air quality. However, the one thing to be aware of is that most soy on the market is genetically modified. So when looking at soy candles, check whether it’s non-GMO soy. As you want to try and stay away from it due to the toxic pesticides used in its production.
Beeswax is a great option that is not only environmentally friendly, but is also great for our health. It’s naturally infused with honey. Making it naturally sweet as a fragrance. The strength of the fragrance depends on the flowers or plants the bees were feeding on. Another benefit of beeswax is that it has a longer burn time when compared to paraffin wax. So the candles will last longer. But just be aware, that to be labelled as a beeswax candle in the US, current labeling laws only require a candle to be 51% beeswax. So make sure you are purchasing 100% beeswax candles.
Coconut oil is considered a carrier oil for use in making candles. It cannot be used alone when making candles. But is often combined with beeswax, or soy wax. When it comes to our health, coconut wax is a great option because it’s safe. Coconut wax also has a slower burn than soy wax and paraffin wax. So using coconut wax helps these candles last longer.
From a health perspective, palm wax is a great choice. Palm wax is produced by hydrogenating palm oils and is similar to soy wax in that it is made from natural oil. Palm wax is often blended with soy wax to make it harder. But just be aware that the production of palm oil is devastating rain forests and endangered animals. So if you are purchasing candles made with palm wax, be sure to look for brands that use sustainable palm oil.
Are candles toxic? The wick:
Classically the core of wicks were made out of lead because it kept the wick standing straight when the surrounding wax began to melt and prevented it from falling over. As I am sure you are aware, lead is quite toxic. Especially to young children. Fortunately, in 1974 the candle industry decided to voluntarily ban lead wicks. However, not all brands followed that rule. So in 2003, lead was officially banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. However, you’ll still find lead in wicks that are coming from overseas from places like Mexico & China. So always check where your candles are produced. In most cases, lead has now been replaced with zinc or tin. Instead, I recommend looking for 100% cotton wicks or wood wicks instead to ensure they are safe for your health.
Are candles toxic? The colouring:
Yes I know, coloured candles look pretty. But sadly that colouring is not good for your health. Most times candles are coloured using petroleum by-products. Which are a problem because when you burn fossil fuels, it releases harmful chemicals into the air, similar to what you would find in the emissions from a combustion engine. You would never consider running a combustion engine in your home. So just avoid those fancy colored candles altogether.
I should note that a it is possible to colour candles with natural colorants like kelp, annatto seeds, orange peel, paprika or rosehips, so if you are looking for a coloured candle, be sure to ask what the candles have been coloured with.
Are candles toxic? The fragrances and scents:
If you have followed me for a while you have seen and heard me talk about the dangers of fragrances before. The problem with fragrances is that they are considered to be trade secrets (this applies to fragrances used in any industry – whether it be perfume, shampoo, body wash, deodorant etc). This means that a company doesn’t have to disclose any of the ingredients used to make that fragrance. Hidden within that term could be hundreds of chemicals or ingredients that are harmful to your health. And you don’t get to know what any of them are. There are over 3000 different ingredients that a company can use to make a fragrance, and ingredients in fragrances can be carcinogens, hormone disruptors, allergens, airway irritants, neurological-toxins and ingredients linked to infertility.
When it comes to candles, the biggest issues with the synthetic fragrances used are the phthalates and musks.
Phthalates are hormone disruptors that are linked to infertility, weight gain, lowering the IQ of children, and cancers. Additionally, having synthetic fragrances inside of wax can make air quality worse, exposing us to particulate matter and VOC’s from those chemical reactions.
As well, according to the Environmental Working Group, 95% of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum and include benzene derivatives, such as toluene, which is known to cause urothelial/bladder cancer. Phthalates in fragrances have also been linked to bladder cancer.
Instead of synthetic fragrance oils, I recommend looking for candles scented with pure, highly quality essential oils instead. These are much safer, although even these are not perfect. Especially if you have kids or pets in the home. There are certain essential oils that are harmful for children and pets to breathe in or come into contact with.
Essential oils to avoid around children:
- Clove Bud, Clove Leaf, Clove Stem
- Fennel (sweet or bitter)
- Verbena (Lemon)
As well, when it comes to cats and dogs, certain essential oils can also be harmful or toxic to them. Please note that I am not a veterinarian so always double check with your own vet before using essential oils around your pets.
Essential oils that are harmful to cats:
Oils that are harmful to cats include, but are not limited to:
- Sweet birch
- Citrus (d-limonene)
- Ylang ylang
- Tea tree (melaleuca)
Essential oils that are harmful to dogs:
Oils that are harmful to dogs include, but are not limited to:
- Citrus (d-limonene)
- Sweet birch
- Tea tree (melaleuca)
- Ylang ylang
Are candles toxic? The soot and particulate matter:
According to the EPA, the stronger smelling your candle, the more soot it produces. This soot is referred to as Black Soot Deposits (BSD) and can destroy your home. The worst offenders when it comes to soot are candles that are soft to the touch or marketed as “super scented.” One of the problems with soot is that it easily builds up in your home. It settles on surfaces and tends to collect in vulnerable areas such as in vents, on and around televisions etc. Soot is especially harmful to the respiratory tract and can cause or trigger asthma attacks. The best way to limit the soot coming from your candles is to keep the wicks cut short.
How to choose safe candles:
Note that no candle will be 100% safe for your health as all candles will produce a certain amount of soot and VOCs, but you can significantly decrease the toxicity of candles by choosing ones made with beeswax, soy wax, palm wax or coconut wax and that are scented with pure essential oils. These are still not 100% safe but will release much less VOCs into your home.
My favourite brands of safer candles:
- Fontana Candle Company
- Milk Jar essential oil candles (note that not all of their candles use essential oils so just be aware of that when you are shopping)
If you know of other safe candle brands please let me know and I will review them and add to this list!
How to make burning candles safer:
No matter what type of candles you use, you can make them safer by ensuring that the room is well ventilated after burning the candle to eliminate the accumulated chemical substances generated during burning.
Another, and often safer alternative to burning candles is to switch to diffusing high-quality essential oils.
Frequently asked questions:
Based on this review I will say yes. They are made with paraffin wax, most use fragrances as well as other ingredients that are known to be harmful to our health. The nice thing is that Bath and Body works actually links the safety data for their candles on their website so you can read further if you like.
Yes! These candles are made with paraffin wax and scented with fragrances, all of which have been shown to be toxic and harmful to our health.
This really depends on the ingredients used to make them. Be sure to avoid candles made with paraffin wax, fragrances and lead wicks.
I hope you found this helpful! If you did be sure to share this post with your friends!
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- EPA report: Candles and incense as a potential source of indoor air pollution
- Initial Size Distributions and Hygroscopicity of Indoor Combustion Aerosol Particles
- Emission of air pollutants from burning candles with different composition in indoor environments
- The Impact of Candle Burning During All Saints’ Day Ceremonies on Ambient Alkyl-Substituted Benzene Concentrations
- Lead candle wick ban
- Epigenetic alterations induced by genotoxic occupational and environmental human chemical carcinogens: A systematic literature review.
- Fragrance: emerging health and environmental concerns.
- Environmental Determinants of Chronic Disease and Medical Approaches: Recognition, Avoidance, Supportive Therapy, and Detoxification.
- Inhibition of Polyisoprenylated Methylated Protein Methyl Esterase by Synthetic Musks Induces Cell Degeneration.
- Human exposure to nitro musks and the evaluation of their potential toxicity: an overview.
- Scented Candles as an Unrecognized Factor that Increases the Risk of Bladder Cancer; Is There Enough Evidence to Raise a Red Flag?
- Impact of room fragrance products on indoor air quality.
- Characterization of hazardous and odorous volatiles emitted from scented candles before lighting and when lit
- Human health risk evaluation of selected VOC, SVOC and particulate emissions from scented candles