Are Your Candles Toxic?

Are Your Candles Toxic?

We show you what’s wrong with conventional candles, and point your toward less-toxic alternatives.

Sometimes, one of the simplest pleasures in life is coming home from a stressful day of work, filling the bathtub with warm water, and lighting an aromatherapy candle with a special scent that—as the label claims—will make you feel calm and relaxed. Unfortunately, that seemingly harmless candle could be filling the air in your home with carcinogenic soot and lead emissions. 

“Oh, no,” you say, clutching your Calming, Sensual, and Invigorating candles to your chest, “you’ll take these away from me when you pry them from my stressed out, soot-stained hands.” Fortunately, the solution to the candle pollution problem doesn’t have to be that extreme. Alternatives to toxic aromatherapy candles abound—from natural beeswax and vegetable wax candles to candle-free aromatherapy techniques. With very little effort, you can fill your home with soothing scents without filling it with toxins.

What’s Wrong With My Candles? 
Once upon a time, many scented candles on the market contained lead-core wicks. Fragrance oils soften the wax, so the manufacturers used lead to make the wicks firmer.

A candle with a lead-core wick releases five times the amount of lead considered hazardous for children and exceeds EPA pollution standards for outdoor air, says the CPSC, which is why theybanned lead wicks in 2003. Exposure to high amounts of lead has been linked to hormone disruption, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and numerous health problems. 

If you think you may still have lead-wicked candles in your home, see below for a simple test.

In addition, you’ll want to look out for aromatherapy candles made of paraffin—a petroleum by product—which release carcinogenic soot when burned. The soot can also cause respiratory problems and will aggravate the conditions of those who already have asthma, lung, or heart problems.

“Burning an aromatherapy candle made of paraffin is similar to preparing a healthy drink of fresh squeezed juice and adding a shot of gasoline,” says Eric Johnson of Candleworks, an Iowa City, Iowa based company that specializes in wholesaling nontoxic aromatherapy candles.

Besides endangering your health and that of your family, soot from paraffin wax can cause significant damage to the inside of your house, plus your computers, electrical appliances, and ductwork.

“Some families have reported so much soot damage that they have filed insurance claims, only to find such damages aren’t covered in their policies,” says natural living expert Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Home Safe Home.

And if that weren’t enough, aromatherapy candles that are scented with synthetic oils release microscopic particles that can cause cancer and other health problems when inhaled. 

Natural Candle Alternatives
There are no rules or bans in the works for paraffin candles and those scented with synthetic oils. In the meantime, you don’t have to give up candles altogether.

• Buy 100 percent beeswax candles with cotton wicks, which are free of toxins. Beeswax can cost as much as six times the price of paraffin, so many candle manufacturers blend paraffin with their beeswax to cut costs. Be sure your candles say 100 percent beeswax on the label.

• Buy candles made from 100 percent vegetable-based waxes, which are also nontoxic. For example, Way Out Wax in Morrisville, Vermont, makes their candles with a combination of vegetable wax and hemp oil wax.

• To reduce soot, no matter what kind of wicks are in your candles, trim wicks to 1¼4 inch, and do not burn candles near a draft.

Candle-Free Aromatherapy
If you can’t find just the right nontoxic aromatherapy candle to get rid of tension headaches or rejuvenate your tired body in the morning, you may want to try using pure essential oils. Pure, organic oils can give you the same aromatherapy benefits as scented candles, and you can choose and blend your own scents. 

Essential oils, while nontoxic, are very potent. Always know the best way to use the oils you’re working with, as well as any precautions that should be taken with them. Consult a qualified aromatherapist or a good reference book first.

Once you’ve chosen your favorite oils or oil blends, there are several methods you can use to release the scents in your home: 

• Use a diffuser. These are simple containers—most often made of glass, marble, or ceramic—which release the scent from essential oils when heated either with electricity or a small tea light candle. Usually, six to ten drops of essential oil in a diffuser is all it takes to scent a room.

• Use a ring burner. These metal rings have a reservoir that holds a few drops of essential oil and will fit around a lightbulb, using the heat to disperse the oil’s scent.

• Take a bath. Add five to ten drops of essential oils to a warm bath. Close the bathroom door and soak for 15 minutes. Remember, essential oils can mark plastic bathtubs, so be sure to clean the tub when you’re finished.

• Make a room spray. Blend ten drops of essential oil in seven tablespoons of water. Shake well before filling the sprayer. 

Tracy Fernandez Rysavy

(revised & updated February 2014)