Are candles harming your health?
You probably don’t think twice about lighting up your favorite candle. This time of year, there’s nothing cozier than curling up on the couch with a steaming beverage or sinking into a warm bubble bath as the light of a small flame flickers and dances across the room. Candles hold the power to transform our stuffy homes into aromatic bakeries, heady pine forests, and holiday wonderlands. But did you know that the majority of candles are toxic? There are exceptions, of course. If you invested in a candle crafted from soy or beeswax, for example, your lungs will reap the benefits. Still, most candles sold at major department stores actually reduce the quality of your air. Commonly made with petroleum-based wax, these candles release harmful particles like soot that mix with the air you breath and settle onto the surfaces in your home. Over time, these toxins accumulate in your body, taking a toll on your endocrine and respiratory systems.
How do I know if my candles are toxic?
The next time you’re out candle shopping, avoid paraffin candles. It’s unlikely that the label will contain a disclaimer boasting a skull and crossbones, so be prepared to read the fine print and even do some research before making a purchase. Considering paraffin wax is the most commonly used candle material in North America, don’t get discouraged if finding a “healthy” candle is trickier – and more expensive – than you expect. And whatever you do, don’t give up! Paraffin candles contain wax derived from fossil fuels… so they’re worth avoiding.
Don’t get discouraged if finding a “healthy” candle is trickier – and more expensive – than you expect.
Paraffin wax was discovered back in the 1830s. How? It was the substance leftover after crude oil was turned to products like gasoline and tar. No, we’re not kidding. For twenty years after its discovery, its use was restricted due to its toxic nature. Then, in the 1850s, chemists learned how to separate the waxy substance from this deadly sludge. They refined it, named it paraffin, and someone decided it was safe to use as the primary material in candles.
So what are the health effects, exactly?
Given the history of paraffin wax, it’s no surprise that the majority of candles are harmful to human health. In 2004, researchers found air pollution levels in a candle-heavy church to be worse than levels next to main roads. A more recent study presented at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) revealed that, when lighted occasionally, candles made from paraffin wax “will not likely affect you. But lighting many paraffin candles every day for years or lighting them frequently in an poorly ventilated bathroom around a tub, for example, may cause problems.“ The primary author of the study also suggested that those with allergies or other forms of respiratory irritation might be suffering as a direct result of the air pollutants from burning candles.
"Lighting many paraffin candles every day for years or lighting them frequently in an poorly ventilated bathroom around a tub, for example, may cause problems."
Still not ready to take a more natural route? Some candles are made with wicks that contain lead. When you burn them, the lead is released into the air and deposited on your furniture, flooring and exposed food along with all that yummy paraffin.
Shopping for alternatives
Don’t worry… you can still enjoy candles without sacrificing your wellbeing. There are plenty of natural waxes that burn cleaner than paraffin, such as 100% pure soy- and coconut-based waxes. Beeswax is another great option that actually acts to purify the air! Through a process called negative ionization, beeswax candles produce negative ions when burned, attach to positively charged particles in the air such as bacteria, dust, and pollen, and pull them to the floor so they can be easily vacuumed up. Magical, right?
When buying a beeswax candle, be sure to buy from a sustainable source. The honeybee is endangered, after all. Be wary of soy as well, as it’s often genetically modified or sprayed with toxic pesticides that are harmful to both the environment and your health. Many candles – even those made with beeswax – also contain certain levels of paraffin, or harmful dyes and fragrances.
When buying a beeswax candle, be sure to buy from a sustainable source.
At the end of the day, your best bet is to buy your candles from a local source, or find a trusted, ethical company like the ones listed below. Regardless of what you decide, contact the supplier and ask them where they source their ingredients. Inquire about the purity of their products, and check whether they use any chemical-based additives. Remember, it’s okay to be a bit picky when it comes to your health!