They may be nice to look at, but they're terrible for air quality.
Candle season is in full swing. Those little flickering flames in a jar are an antidote to the darkness that descends so early at this time of year and an invitation to curl up for a quiet evening at home. They also look great on social media and, for photo-happy Millennials and iGens, that's important.
The Business of Fashion (BoF) reports that candle sales have been soaring. UK retailer Cult Beauty has seen a 61 percent increase in 12 months. US brand Prestige Candles has seen sales rise by one-third in the past two years. Luxury brands such as Gucci, Dior, and Louis Vuitton are offering candles as a "more accessible entry point" for customers. Candles have suddenly become cool because social media influencers are telling us so. Cheryl Wischhover writes for BoF:
"Often consumers are buying candles to use as part of their beauty or wellness routines. Some brands' best advertising comes from beauty influencers demonstrating face masks with a fetching candle flickering nearby."
All this talk of candles might give you the warm fuzzies, but there's a dark truth beneath it all. Scented candles are not as innocuous as they seem. They're in fact quite toxic and not something you should be burning in your home. Here's why.
The majority of candles are made from paraffin wax, which is the final byproduct in the petroleum refining chain. It is described as "basically the bottom of the barrel, even after asphalt is extracted." When burned, its soot contains toluene and benzene, both known carcinogens. These are the same chemicals found in diesel exhaust and "can cause damage to the brain, lung and central nervous system, as well as cause developmental difficulties" (via HuffPo).
A study at South Carolina State University compared non-scented, non-pigmented, dye-free candles that were made from either a petroleum-based wax or a vegetable-based wax. They concluded that "the vegetable-based candles didn't produce any potentially harmful pollutants [but] the paraffin candles released unwanted chemicals into the air." Chemistry professor Ruhullah Massoudi stated,
"For a person who lights a candle every day for years or just uses them frequently, inhalation of these dangerous pollutants drifting in the air could contribute to the development of health risks like cancer, common allergies and even asthma."
Fragrance isn't safe, either. Eighty to 90 percent of fragrance ingredients are "synthesized from petroleum and some of the commonly found harmful chemicals in fragranced products include acetone, phenol, toluene, benzyl acetate, and limonene" (from 2009 study "Fragrance in the Workplace is the New Second-Hand Smoke", University of Maryland). Many of the chemicals commonly used in fragrance blends have been linked to hormone disruption, asthma, chronic lung disease, and allergic reactions; nevertheless, they are not required to be listed as ingredients because they're considered a proprietary secret.
In 2001 the Environmental Protection Agency issued a report stating that burning candles is a source of particulate matter and "may result in indoor air concentrations of lead above EPA-recommended thresholds." The lead comes from metal-core wicks, which are used by some candle-makers because the metal holds the wick upright, preventing it from falling over as a cotton wick would.
If you're a committed candle lover – or celebrating Hanukkah – the safest bet is to go with unscented organic soy or beeswax candles. An essential oil diffuser can provide the fragrance, if you're really missing it. The good news is, soy candles last 50 percent longer than paraffin ones, according to Sandrine Perez of Nourishing our Children. She writes, "They also burn slower and cooler (helping to better distribute fragrance), are non-toxic, less likely to trigger allergies, clean up with soap and water, and produce very little soot."
It may be hard to pass on the scented ones, as they do look stunning and smell tantalizing, but it's not worth sacrificing your health for the sake of an attractive light, especially when healthier options do exist.