Fall is finally here and winter is right around the corner. The chilly seasons welcome the traditional family gatherings, hosting both Thanksgiving and Christmas. And on those cozy nights, twinkling on the counter or over the fireplace is a fragrant candle. But as the flame wavers in a dimly lit room and the scent wafts through the house, a candle might actually be the source of a Christmas gift you don’t want. Candles have that classic feel of what every winter needs, including more than 10,000 different scents ranging from “Autumn Leaves” to “Gingerbread Cookies.” According to the National Candle Association, 35% of annual candle sales occur during the Christmas/holiday season and 9 out of 10 candle users state they burn candles to “make a room feel comfortable or cozy.” So it’s no doubt that candles are popular around this time of year. Their research also states that the most important factors affecting sales are scent, color, cost, and shape. But it’s quite interesting that those deal breaking factors don’t include what a candle is actually made of.
The most commonly used wax in candles today is paraffin wax, which is derived from petroleum, and speculations on the toxicity of the emissions from burning paraffin wax have steadily risen over the past couple of years. The American Chemical Society argues that paraffin candles are an “unrecognized source of exposure to indoor air pollution.” Breathing in the burning scents from candles is very similar to breathing in secondhand smoke from cigarettes. Researchers at South Carolina State University also found related evidence in 2009. Burning candles from different manufacturers in an 8 inches by 8 inches by 26 inches box for six hours, they discovered that paraffin-based candles emit carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene.
On the other hand, the same article rebutted that no wax has shown to be dangerous. From the National Candle Association, Barbara Miller defends that “all types of properly formulated candle wax have been shown to burn cleanly and safely.” She also referred back to a study on the analysis of emissions from five different kinds of candles, including paraffin, palm, stearin, soy, and beeswax. Conducted at the Bayreuth Institute of Environmental Research in Germany during 2007, they analyzed for 274 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) known or suspected of toxicity, health risks, or respiratory irritation. They even singled out benzene for separate analysis. Using a burn chamber made specifically for testing candles, they burned 9 candles of each material in a 2.75 inches by 3.5 inches container. The study discovered that both the benzene and total VOC emissions were detected in very, very low quantities, just above the detection levels.
Despite the fact that there is contradicting evidence on whether or not paraffin candles emit carcinogenic compounds, almost all articles and studies agree on maintaining proper ventilation when burning candles. Especially in bathrooms, although it might disturb the mood, keep the vent on! If you want to prevent soot (a carbon byproduct of incomplete combustion) to the maximum extent, ensure there is ventilation with no drafts and trim your candle wicks. Likewise, little to no soot byproduct was observed from soy candles when burned. I highly recommend reading the National Fire Protection Association’s “Candle Fire Safety” tips. Of course, always keep candles away from anything that can burn. 13% of candle users say they most frequently burn their candles in the bedroom, but 36% of home candle fires start in bedrooms – so don’t fall asleep while your candles are burning. But despite all of this, cheap candles made overseas may still contain toxins, even after the 2003 ban on lead-core candle wicks.
Gifting season is nearing and if you plan on buying a candle for yourself or as a gift, splurge a little more for those 100% beeswax or soy candles – and double check they’re 100%. They’re much healthier for those afflicted with asthma or respiratory sensitivities, and the natural beeswax fragrance is just as soothing.