Last Updated on August 9, 2023
Do you like to set the mood in your home by lighting up a big scented candle? Well, I hate to be a buzzkill here… but your beloved candles may be releasing toxic fumes into your home! Yikes. Most traditional candles contain harmful chemicals, and I personally avoid using them. The good news is, there are many other options for safe, natural, and non-toxic candles. So, let’s talk about the problem with classic candles, healthier alternatives, and other ways to make your house smell amazing – even without candles!
As you read through this article, don’t panic! I don’t mean to cause alarm. I simply want to raise awareness about toxic candles so you can make an educated decision on what is best for your home and family. Also, don’t feel bad if you didn’t already know these things. I didn’t know any better either! In fact, I used to make candles to sell at the local farmer’s market back in college. Doing so, I spent countless hours with my face over a pot of melting paraffin wax on the stovetop, inhaling away… a thought that makes me cringe now.
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The Problem with Classic Candles
Paraffin wax and carcinogens
The majority of candles you’ll find on the market are made from paraffin wax. Did you know that paraffin is a petroleum byproduct? It’s inexpensive and burns quite well, making paraffin a seemingly ‘ideal’ choice for candle makers. Yet as paraffin wax burns and melts, it releases many of the same toxins found in combusting diesel gasoline fumes – including benzene and toluene, both of which are known carcinogens. In fact, benzene is considered a Class 1 carcinogen, among the worst of them!
Benzene and toluene are volatile organic compounds (VOCS) that readily turn from solid into gas at room temperature. This means they become airborne, travel through your home, and are easily inhaled. Currently, studies directly linking candle toxins to health hazards are lacking. While research absolutely confirms that candles contain and release VOCs, carcinogenic compounds, and other toxins, there aren’t many studies that outright say they do so at a dangerous level. But in this household, we like to practice the precautionary principle (and a bit of common sense) when it comes to things like this: better safe than sorry, right?
Health hazards of fragrance
Along with VOCs, candles often contain other chemical additives – such as color dyes, stabilizers, fixatives, and synthetic fragrance. While chemical fragrances are widely used and generally regarded as ‘safe’, they can cause health issues for some folks. People with asthma, allergies, or general fragrance sensitivities may experience respiratory irritation, allergic reactions, or other unpleasant symptoms around burning candles. For instance, scented candles give me a gnarly headache and also make me feel nauseous!
Furthermore, chemical fragrances often contain phthalates – added solvents to extend the aromatic properties of the candle. Phthalates are known endocrine (hormone) disruptors, and have been linked to reproductive and developmental toxicity. Thus, as candles burn and their scent travels through your home, a little dose of phthalates may come along for the ride. Not all synthetic fragrance oils contain phthalates.
Candles scented with natural essential oils are safer and generally better tolerated by scent-sensitive folks. Essential oils are also phthalate-free. Yet essential oils are more expensive and tricky to work with in candle making, and therefore not as commonly used as synthetic fragrance.
Soot and particulate matter
Another concern with toxic paraffin candles is soot. As any substance burns, including natural materials like wood, smoke and soot are produced. Soot is made up of tiny carbon particles that become airborne, and appears as black flaky residue on surfaces. These tiny particles (known as particulate matter) can settle deep into your lungs, cause respiratory issues, and even enter your bloodstream. The EPA considers burning candles a source of indoor air pollution. In addition to health risks, sticky soot from paraffin wax can build up and cause damage to the inside of your home, ductwork, or appliances.
Any type of candle will produce some soot as it burns, yet paraffin candle soot is especially nasty since other chemicals and toxins accompany the carbon particles. We use an air purifier in our home that helps to remove the lingering particulate matter or smoke emitted by our natural wax candles. Some candle soot comes from the wax itself, and some is from the burning wick.
Are candle wicks toxic?
The type of wick used in a candle also contributes to how safe or ‘clean’ it burns. Many candle wicks contain a metallic core to help them stand up straight. Thankfully, the super toxic lead-core candle wicks were banned in 2003. But if you have any old candles lying around that you suspect may be from pre-2003, get rid of them! According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, burning a candle with a lead-core wick releases five times the amount of lead considered hazardous for children. Lead wick emissions also exceed EPA pollution standards for outdoor air. Modern day candle wicks may still contain a metallic zinc or tin core, which pose lesser but similar concerns as lead-core wicks.
The safest candle wick options
The most clean-burning and non-toxic candle wicks are 100% cotton or hemp, including wax-coated cotton or hemp. Organic cotton or hemp is even better! Natural wood wicks are another great non-toxic and sustainable alternative. For natural wood or fiber wicks alike, keeping the wick nicely trimmed (to about ¼ inch) will help reduce excessive smoking. This also promotes a slow and even burn, prolonging the life of your candle. Candles burning in drafty areas will also produce more smoke.
Non-Toxic Candle Alternatives
If you’re looking for a healthy alternative to paraffin wax candles, opt for candles made out of natural ingredients. Great examples include 100% beeswax, coconut wax, soy wax, palm wax, or other vegetable wax candles. Beeswax candles produce the least soot, and are considered the most environmentally-friendly and safe overall.
In addition to going natural, look for candles that contain as few ingredients and additives possible. Read those labels! For example, some candles may be marketed as ‘beeswax candles’ or ‘soy candles’ but contain natural wax blended with a little paraffin wax too.
To bring it a feel-good step further, keep an eye out for candles made from sustainably-sourced, organic, and/or non-GMO wax. (I’m looking at you, soy and palm…) Soy cultivation is notorious for its intensive pesticide use and contributes to deforestation. Completely organic candles are darn hard to come by, but you may be able to find some that use certified organic essential oils at least! If I buy a scented candle, I personally avoid chemical fragrances and choose those spiked with plant-based essential oils only.
Truth be told, we most often burn completely unscented candles. Beeswax candles naturally produce a mild honey-like aroma, and coconut candles smell like… well, coconut! The warm flickering light from our non-toxic candles still set a cozy mood, and we invoke pleasing aromas in the house in other ways!
Other Ways to Make Your Home Smell Amazing – Naturally!
Candles aren’t the only way to create an inviting and uplifting aroma in your home! As urban homesteaders, I feel like we always have something brewing, drying, cooking, baking, simmering, or otherwise filling our home with pleasant smells. Consider these natural scent-bearing ideas as an alternative to burning toxic candles:
- Hang bundles of aromatic herbs to dry, such as rosemary, sage or lavender.
- Bring in a bouquet of fresh cut flowers.
- Put on a pot of simmering spices, also known as stovetop potpourri. This also works perfectly on top of a wood stove, and will both hydrate and scent the air.
- Create a pomander ball by sticking whole cloves into the peel of a whole fresh orange. Let it sit out and enjoy!
- Bake a fresh loaf of sourdough bread, a batch of sourdough cookies, or other yummy-smelling baked goods.
- Open your windows and let in some fresh air!
- Set out a bowl or sachet of natural potpourri.
- Bake or dehydrate citrus peels or slices – to use as decorations (garlands, ornaments, etc) or grind into delicious citrus seasoning powder. Drying other goodies in our dehydrator always fills our house with aroma – like cinnamon apple chips, dried basil, or fresh herb coated sun-dried tomatoes.
- Diffuse essential oils. As with candles, do practice some caution here too! I always choose 100% pure, certified organic essential oils to add to our diffuser. Also note that most essential oils are toxic to pets, including through inhalation. The few we have found considered ‘safe’ to diffuse around cats are lavender, frankincense, and rosemary. Even so, we only diffuse EOs sporadically, in low concentrations, and in well-ventilated areas. I plan to write a more thorough article on my views around essential oils soon!
- For the most safe and healthy home, avoid toxic candles made from paraffin wax.
- Instead, seek out 100% beeswax, soy wax, coconut wax, or other natural plant-based wax candles. Beeswax candles are considered the overall best for your health and the environment.
- Look for candles with 100% cotton, hemp, or wood wicks, and with as few ingredients possible.
- Unscented candles are the least hazardous. The next best choice are those scented with essential oils.
- Make your non-toxic candles last longer by following their instructions (such as placing votives in an appropriately-sized container).
- Keep candle wicks trimmed to 1/4 inch to reduce smoking.
- Consider using an air purifier to remove smoke and particulate matter that even natural wax candles may emit.
- Think about other creative ways to set the mood and create yummy aromas in your home!
Well, knowledge is power, right folks? I hope you found this article to be insightful and interesting! Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below, and pin or share this article to help spread the word. As always, I appreciate you taking your time to tune in here! Take care, and shine on. ✌️