Scented candles: a whiff of danger?

Une bougie allumée

Jasmine, bergamot, apple cinnamon, sandalwood, vanilla... Scented candles help create the warm, cozy mood you crave. Always pleasant and relaxing, sometimes invigorating, certain scents whisk you away on a sensorial journey. But is this decorative, therapeutic item also potentially bad for you? And, if so, what are some of the safer options out there?

Be aware of the risks

You decide to run yourself a bath. You light several candles to up your relaxation game. Are you potentially harming yourself by inhaling their fumes? Considering that you’ll be spending a good hour in the tub, could they even be toxic? And should we raise an alarm about scented candles in the first place? Let’s discover what some studies (This hyperlink will open in a new tab) say about this.

Between 1 and 4 hours straight burning

According to candle safety regulations, this is the maximum amount of time to keep a candle lit.

Beware the fumes and be wary of paraffin

A heart, unicorn, cactus... What gives candles their shape? It’s not an eco-friendly ingredient: it's paraffin. Paraffin is derived from petroleum and is used by manufacturers because it’s cheap.

While burning, the smoke that’s released in the air contains soot, fine particles, nitrogen dioxide and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

VOCs enter the bloodstream through alveoli in the lungs. Not to mention the ambient air pollution in the home, especially in the winter when you tend to keep the windows shut.

Some scented candles can trigger the following reactions:

  • skin irritation
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • allergic reactions similar to asthma

The wax, the wick, perfume oils, synthetic dyes are all to blame. Candles can trigger symptoms, lit or not, and can have an impact on indoor air quality when chemicals and heavy metals are used in their production.

10 minutes a day

You should spend this much time airing out your house because the air you breathe inside is way more polluted than outside. Why? Because our daily activities and other habits release toxins into our environment.

The dark side of perfume oils

The smell of gingerbread makes you think of the holidays, fir trees remind you of the woods... Candle scents (synthetic, natural and/or essential oil-based) can take you places without every leaving your home! Unfortunately, most perfume oils used in scented candles can release aldehydes (formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acrolein) into the air.

Those fine particles are extremely harmful for respiratory pathways. They may trigger various symptoms, including coughing, sneezing, runny nose, red eyes, watery eyes and asthma attacks.

Children, the elderly, asthmatics and even our pets can be especially affected.

You should know that some scents are reproduced with synthetic fragrances. Others such as those with citrus scents contain chemical compounds like limonene. They become toxic and irritate mucous membranes when heated.

Phthalates are the culprits

The industry uses phthalates to define a scent and extend the aromatic strength of the candle. This could be a health risk if there’s prolonged or repeated exposure to burning scented candles. Studies have found reduced fertility and malformations in animal fetuses.

How to figure out the real impact of candles

Not all studies on the potential risks of scented candles reach the same conclusion. In fact, an international study (This hyperlink will open in a new tab), conducted in 2014, concluded that scented candles had a moderate impact on air quality and are therefore not likely to pose health risks.

True or false, scented candles have an impact on health? To determine the answer, several factors need to be considered:

  • wax used
  • frequency of use
  • exposure time
  • number of candles used simultaneously
  • surface area of the room
  • air change rate
  • ventilation/aeration and burning rate (i.e., the ratio between mass of product burned and burning time).

It’s all about the dosage! The concentration of volatile pollutants in the air isn’t high enough to pose a serious health risk as long as you don’t overuse scented candles.

So, don’t go burning dozens of them at the same time in a poorly ventilated space! Studies show that health impacts tend to result from overuse. As with other consumer products, moderation is the name of the game.

Make safer choices

If you’re a scented candle junkie, pick one with healthy, eco-friendly ingredients. The most natural candle is the safest but be aware that it’ll still emit smoke and fumes.

All-natural wax

Paraffin candles are out. Candles made from 100% organic vegetable wax are in. Several kinds are available:

  • coconut wax
  • natural and biodegradable soy wax
  • rapeseed wax

What’s the buzz on beeswax – It's a wax with good burning qualities and excellent fragrance diffusion, but using it overexploits bees. As a matter of fact, 1 kg of honey is needed to produce 150 g of wax!

The right wick and natural fragrances

It’s recommended not to use metal-cored wicks. They can release small amounts of heavy metals like lead into the air while burning.

For safety reasons, Health Canada rightly bans the sale of lead wick candles in Canada. Beware of international websites that may not have to follow the same standards.

Pick natural spice and wood scents that don’t release as many fumes. No toxic synthetic compounds, CMR substances (carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic for reproduction) or phthalates. Caution: candles scented with essential oils can release CMR substances when heated.

How to make the air smell nice... safely?

Use essential oils. They infuse the desired smell into the room when dropped in a diffuser or bathwater. People with fragrance sensitivity, asthmatics and pregnant women may react to essential oils. Warning! Essential oils shouldn’t be heated.

Instead, simmer spices in water. Cinnamon sticks, cloves and nutmeg do the trick!

Create a pot-pourri by filling bowls or cloth bags with your choice of flowers, berries, fruit peels, wood chips and spices.

Incense as a replacement?

Incense is actually a major source of particle-related issues. The particles it releases are larger and that means its concentration levels are higher than scented candles. Avoid it!

It's on the label

The cost of a candle often depends on the ingredients used. However, bear in mind that handmade production is not a guarantee of quality either.

It’s important to carefully read the label and opt for natural and eco-friendly alternatives.

Talk to a health professional if you experience health issues when using scented candles in your home.