Environmental Hazards

Candle Conundrum

scented candles
Cheap scented candles may release harmful VOCs into the air.
Image: Shutterstock

How do you unwind at the end of a long day?  Do you enjoy a glass of wine? Maybe you light scented candles and drift off to Tahitian paradise.

You might want to reconsider that last thing.  Scented candles, while they smell delicious, are loaded with toxic chemicals as bad as some cigarettes.

With names like “Caramel Apple Cider” and “Tropical Mango,” you might think these were consumable.  The truth is that it’s all about advertising.  They try to lure you in with the promise of something tasty or relaxing.  They try to convince you that it will be just like lying on a beach in the sun.

Yet, candles which we believe are soothing us may actually be increasing health problems like asthma, eczema and other skin conditions.  Part of the problem is that candles are often lit in rooms with poor ventilation like bathrooms.  Or, they are lit at night when windows and doors are likely to be shut, increasing the accumulation of chemicals released.  You may end up breathing in phthalates, a type of chemical often found in scented candles and linked to reproductive problems.

beeswax honeycomb
Beeswax candles are much safer than those made with parrafin wax.
Image: Shutterstock

Not all candles are created equal.  The more expensive types are often made from safer beeswax and soy.  Yet, the cheaper varieties are usually made from paraffin wax, a by-product of the petroleum industry.

These have been shown to release an alarming range of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), substances that can be problematic to health.

A study was done in which researchers burned a range of candles in a lab.  Chemicals were released in harmful amounts and included human carcinogens and chemicals known to cause asthma attacks, such as toluene and benzene.

The study was conducted by Dr. Amid Hamidi of South Carolina University, and it showed that paraffin-based candles produced ‘clear sharp peaks’ for many chemicals.  It’s mainly because the flames don’t get hot enough to destroy the hazardous molecules the candles emit.

“An occasional paraffin candle…will probably not affect you,” he said. “But lighting many of them every day for years, or lighting them frequently in an unventilated bathroom…may cause problems.”


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