Are Your Candles Poisoning You? How to Identify Toxic Candles at Home

Home, a space for relaxation and rejuvenation, often welcomes scented candles for their comforting fragrances. However, concerns linger about their safety and health impact. Are candles toxic, and how can we ensure their safe use? Explore alternative, non-toxic options for a healthier home ambiance.

Are candles toxic?

Candles can be toxic depending on the type of candle used and the method of its use. When certain candles burn they can release pollutants such as aerosol soot particles or black carbon, ultrafine particles (UFPs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and nitrogen oxides (NOx). The emission levels of these particles depend upon the duration of candle burning and flame disturbances due to light air or breeze.

These pollutants are associated with various health risks. When used indoors, pollutants emitted from candles may have a negative impact on respiratory health and cognition. Prolonged exposure to ultrafine particles may lead to the development of respiratory illnesses and compromised lung function.

Candles are often used as a room freshener or for their scents. However, we need to consider the health risks associated with candle burning in adults and children.

There is no consensus about the health risks associated with candle burning in adults. Previously, researchers have reported the following possible adverse health effects:

  • Reduced cognitive abilities
  • Reduced lung function
  • Altered heart rate variability
  • Increased risk of heart diseases
  • Increased risk of cancer

However, a large cohort study examined the association between cardiovascular and respiratory events and excessive use of candles (more than four times per week). The study did not report any statistical association between candle burning and various diseases in adults. This suggests that further research is necessary to understand the health effects of candle burning.

In children, however, research has highlighted the health and safety hazards associated with candles.

  • Asthma. Indoor candle burning has a proposed link with the risk of asthma. Additionally, when children with asthma are exposed to candle emissions, their lung functions may be potentially reduced.
  • Sore throat. Extensive exposure to indoor pollution is associated with respiratory symptoms such as sore throat or cough.
  • Cancer. Candle emissions may contain carcinogenic compounds, which may increase the risk of cancer.
  • Burns. The risk of burns increases when children are playing around burning candles.

Which type of candles are the most toxic ones?

Broadly speaking, research has shown that scented candles can generate higher particle emissions compared to non-scented ones. However, the toxicity of a candle depends on the wax and wick materials used.

Scented candles

Scented candles have higher particle emissions as compared to non-scented candles. Among various fragrances, floral, fresh, and fruit generate higher pollutants than other fragrances such as oriental or spice. However, spiced candles also have high volatile organic compounds (aldehydes) and other fine particulate matter.

The German Committee for Indoor Guide Values (AIR) provides guidance about substance concentrations in indoor air. For scented candles, the committee has recommended level 2 precautions i.e., “increased ventilation is recommended.”

Different types of waxes

In the U.S., paraffin, palm, soy, and stearin are commonly used as candle waxes, sometimes blended to achieve optimal results. Paraffin, derived from petroleum, is a popular choice due to its cost-effectiveness. However, it is important to note that paraffin candles tend to emit higher levels of pollutants compared to alternatives.

Palm wax, sourced from palm oil, stands as a renewable and environmentally friendly option. Similarly, soy wax, derived from soybeans, presents another renewable alternative. Stearin, originating from animal fats or vegetable oils, offers a viable option as well. Notably, stearin candles typically emit lower levels of pollutants compared to other waxes.

Type of waxProperties
ParaffinHas highest particle emissions even in unscented candles
PalmHas lower emission of volatile organic chemicals
Soy waxBurns rapidly compared to other waxes
StearinBurns slowly compared to other waxes

Traditionally, candlemakers have also used beeswax for candlemaking. However, further research is necessary to understand its effects on health.

Wick materials

Wick materials can also emit toxic compounds during candle burning. Previously, candles included wicks with metal alloys such as lead in them. Toxic lead fumes can lead to psychiatric symptoms, neurological damage, and delayed physical development. Therefore, in 2003, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned using metal wicks in candles.

Today, we have safe alternatives such as cotton paper or zinc. Zinc is a safe metal that is not known to cause any toxic effects during candle burning. Check your candle labels carefully before you buy candles to avoid metal toxicity.

Homemade candles: healthier alternative?

Crafting homemade candles not only offers a budget-friendly option but also empowers individuals to utilize safer materials for candle burning. Candle kits, readily accessible at local craft stores or online marketplaces, often include natural waxes like soy or beeswax. However, it's crucial to scrutinize labels for various scents and color dyes. Opting for natural fragrances such as essential oils can significantly reduce candle toxicity, ensuring a safer and more enjoyable experience.

Here's a step-by-step list on how to make a homemade candle:

  1. Gather your materials. Glass jar, cotton wick with wick tab, and sticker, beeswax, essential oils (optional).
  2. Prepare the wick. Attach the wick to the wick tab and secure it to the bottom of the glass jar using the sticker.
  3. Melt the beeswax. Melt the beeswax until it is completely liquid.
  4. Add fragrance (optional). If desired, mix in essential oils like lavender. Stir well to ensure even distribution.
  5. Pour the wax. Carefully pour the melted beeswax into the glass jar, ensuring that the wick remains centered. Fill the jar to your desired level, leaving some space at the top.
  6. Trim the wick. Once the wax has set and cooled completely, trim the wick to an appropriate length, leaving about ¼ inch above the surface of the wax.

Recommendations on safe candle usage

Safely lighting candles indoors involves several considerations. First, ensure proper ventilation in the room before lighting candles to mitigate potential air quality issues. Opt for fragrances with lower emissions, such as oriental or spice varieties, to minimize exposure to pollutants. To reduce soot emissions, consider using an open glass cylinder to shield the flame from disturbances; however, note that this method may not reduce formaldehyde and NOx emissions.

In addition, limit candle usage when necessary and always keep them out of reach of children and pets to prevent accidents. Remember to extinguish candles before leaving the room or going to sleep to avoid fire hazards. It's worth noting that, currently, candle manufacturers aren't obligated to comply with international standards or regulations regarding emissions.

Moreover, research on candle emissions typically occurs under controlled conditions that may not fully reflect real-world scenarios, such as variations in air currents. Implementing regulatory oversight and testing candles in more realistic conditions can help minimize emissions and enhance safety standards in candle manufacturing.

Non-toxic alternatives

Nowadays, several non-toxic alternatives that spread fragrance and light are available in markets. Here are the top three choices:

  • Diffusers. These electric gadgets help in diffusing fragrant essential oils in the room.
  • Reed diffusers. Reed diffusers also diffuse essential oils but do not require electricity.
  • Flameless candles. For social occasions such as dinners, flameless candles can be used as a part of table centerpieces.

Ultimately, we need to take health and safety precautions while lighting candles. Candle emissions are linked to a potential deterioration in lung health in children. Read labels before you light the candle to ensure it does not have any toxic elements such as lead. When possible, use safer alternatives such as flameless candles, diffusers, or reed diffusers.

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