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Is Your Favorite Holiday Candle Toxic?

Burning candle decorated by wooden stars, hazelnuts and pine cones standing near window on wooden cut board

Scented holiday candles are everywhere this time of year, filling our homes with aromas of gingerbread, cinnamon, vanilla and evergreen, and plenty of nostalgia. You can even buy a candle called Grandma’s Kitchen.

Along with the many fragrances have come health concerns that scented candles release toxic chemicals and contribute to indoor air pollution.

It’s true that scented candles can release harmful particles. But some of the scary posts circulating online have overblown the dangers. The amount of unsafe chemicals released by scented candles is too small to pose a health threat under normal use, according to studies.

Burning your favorite candles can release what’s known as volatile organic compounds or particulate matter into the air. The main concern is paraffin wax, a common type of candle wax derived from petroleum. Researchers have found paraffin produces small amounts of some potentially cancer-causing chemicals, such as benzene and formaldehyde.

But there’s little evidence that burning paraffin candles causes harm to humans.

A 2014 study in the Journal of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology found scented paraffin candles pose no known health risks, and that emission levels fall well below World Health Organization exposure limits.

In fact, we have much more to worry about from industrial air pollution and vehicle emissions.

What About Soot?

Scented candles may produce more soot than unscented candles. The amount of soot is very small, however. Candle soot is a byproduct of incomplete combustion and is similar to soot emitted by toasters and cooking oils, according to the National Candle Association.

Soot can be minimized by trimming the wick to one-quarter inch before each use, placing the candle away from drafty areas to avoid flickering and keeping the wax pool free of debris, the association says.

Alternatives to Paraffin Wax

If you’re concerned about paraffin, candles made of soy, beeswax or stearin – which is derived from animal and plant materials – are environmentally friendly and generally release less chemicals and soot into the air compared to paraffin candles.

What About Lead Wicks?

In the past, lead was used as a stiffening agent for candle wicks. Particles were often released into the air and landed on indoor surfaces. Fortunately, lead wicks have been banned in the United States since 2003, and most manufacturers stopped using lead wicks in the 1970s due to concerns about lead exposure.

Despite the U.S. ban, there have been reports about lead wicks manufactured overseas and making their way into the United States. So, be aware.

How to Burn Candles Safely

  • Avoid direct inhalation of the smoke.
  • Burn candles in ventilated spaces.
  • Use a snuffer to extinguish the flame. Never use water.
  • Trim the wick before every use, which will also help maintain the appearance of your candle.

Alternatives to Scented Candles

  • Simmer water on the stovetop, add orange slices, cinnamon sticks or cloves.
  • Mix some of your favorite essential oils and add to a vapor diffuser.
  • Try essential oil wax melts and warmers.
  • Choose your favorite scent with a natural reed diffuser, which requires no flame.

A Word About Air Fresheners

Studies of air fresheners have found they release a range of hazardous chemicals. This includes spray air fresheners, plug-ins and any other product with fragrances.

Some chemicals in air fresheners, such as phthalates, are endocrine disruptors which disrupt the body's hormones and reproductive system. Other chemicals in air fresheners can cause allergies. They can also trigger asthma, wheezing, headaches, and contact dermatitis.

You may be better off using natural alternatives to put you in the holiday mood.