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Are Scented Candles Bad for You?

I remain fascinated by synthetic fragrance—both the science behind it and consumer lust for it. Perfume for the body aside, synthetic fragrance is ubiquitous in personal care products, cleaning products, air fresheners, scented candles, you name it. Apparently we can’t get enough whiffs of Fresh Breeze, Mountain Spring, and Lavender Field. If only they could do some Willy Wonka magic and really capture the scent of a fresh breeze, it most certainly wouldn’t smell like what we’re being taught to think!

The sense of smell is the strongest of senses, and the least understood. What’s clear is that we thrive on good smells and it seems to me like we have been subtly strong-armed into thinking that synthetic “fresh” smells are better than the natural smells of living. Maybe it would be more acceptable if synthetic scent wasn’t proven to be so flippin’ toxic.

A study performed by the EPA found that numerous potentially hazardous chemicals are commonly used in fragrance, including acetone, benzaldehyde, benzyl acetate, benzyl alcohol, camphor, ethanol, ethyl acetate, limonene, linalool, and methylene chloride. According to Material Data Safety Sheets, when inhaled, these chemicals can cause central nervous system disorders, dizziness, nausea, slurred speech, drowsiness, irritation to the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, and lungs, kidney damage, headache, respiratory failure, ataxia, and fatigue, among other things.

With scented candles, we have the extra harm caused by the soot emitted from many of these aromatherapy products. Breathing soot is a big no-no. Soot particles can travel deep into the lungs and are a particular health nuisance for those with asthma and lung or heart disease. To make matters worse, many scented and aromatherapy candles are made with paraffin, a byproduct of oil refining. The soot from these materials can contain carcinogens, neurotoxins, and reproductive toxins.

The American Lung Association of Minnesota says that burning candles can emit small amounts of toxins such as acetone, benzene, lead, and mercury into the air. Although they say that normal use of candles should not pose a health hazard, large quantities of these toxins may prove to be harmful. I’d say I’m a little more pessimistic than that.

Unscented, 100 percent beeswax candles with a cotton wick are the safest option—but aren’t suitable for vegan candle lovers who should opt for unscented soy candles.

The American Lung Association of Minnesota recommends the following tips to minimize candle soot pollution in your home:

  • Core: Because many scented and slow burning candles may contain metals, consumers should look to see if the core of the wick is shiny metal. If you see metal, do not burn, or check with the manufacturer.
  • Wick: When you do burn candles, keep the wicks cut short to one-quarter of an inch.  The longer the wick, the larger the flame, the brighter the candle, the more the soot.
  • Draft: Keep candles away from drafty places. Wind will blow soot and toxins into the air and cause inefficient burning, a cause of smoking or sooting.
  • Position: Don’t shake or tip candles because the candle can smoke and send soot into the air to land on walls, carpets and furniture.
  • Placement: Keep candles in places away from children and pets. Besides being a fire hazard, small children and animals may accidentally disturb a candle, causing it to smoke and release soot.  Further, avoid putting candles directly on carpet. Lead and other pollutants from candles are attracted to synthetic fibers often used in upholstery and carpeting.
  • Additives: Refrain from burning scented or slow-burning candles that have additives. Look for candles, such as beeswax, that do not contain high levels of pollutants.
  • Housekeeping: Vacuuming may just re-circulate particles unless you use high-performance vacuum bags that catch micro particles.  Also, use a good filtration system on your furnace that attracts micro particles. High performance furnace filters minimize the level of pollutants that circulate throughout your home. Changing filters more frequently will help reduce the amount of micro particles in the home.
  • Recalls: Be aware of candles that have been recalled by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
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