By Sean Zucker –
Scented candles are one of the most common household items—and for good reason. They help establish a calming atmosphere, complement decor and mask any lingering smells. In fact, Travel + Leisure claims scented candles can even boost moods, reduce anxiety and improve memory. So, no risk of having one lit in every room then, right? Unfortunately, not all wicks are created equal. Some experts are even warning that many scented candles are actually toxic.
Much of the concern stems from an earlier study conducted by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Hanyang University in South Korea. The researchers found that lit scented candles release volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs, into the air. This led the team to conclude that candles are potent sources of VOC emission in indoor environments.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) specifically addresses the risk of VOC exposure, warning is not something to be ignored. It can cause a slew of negative health effects, including eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, imbalance, nausea and even liver, kidney and central nervous system damage. Some VOCs are even suspected of causing cancer.
WebMD notes that these concerns are often associated with candles featuring paraffin wax and synthetic fragrance chemicals as they come from petrochemicals, which are manufactured from crude oil and natural gas. Additionally, the site warns that these chemicals are known to cause allergic and asthmatic reactions in those who may be sensitive. This can result in a running and stuffy nose, watery eyes, sneezing, chest tightness and even hives or other skin rashes.
If all this wasn’t bad enough, Allure claims that chemicals from scented candles aren’t great for the environment either. The magazine, in fact, suggests a recent trend of “clean” candles is in response to this ecological impact. “Now candles are going the way of skincare,” Allure reported. “The same way people want to know what they’re putting on their skin—researching ingredient lists, reviews, and influencer tutorials—they want to know what they’re breathing in.”
These cleaner candles are typically made of soy without any unnatural chemicals to reduce harmful exposure. But why soy over any other organic ingredient? “It’s a renewable resource that has a little bit of a feel-good message for us,” said Kathy LaVanier, the former president of the National Candle Association and current CEO of Renegade Candle Company.
Thankfully, the harmful side effects of some scented candles can be easily minimized even without switching to soy-based products. The EPA recommends increasing ventilation when using candles that emit VOCs, as fresh air can combat exposure levels and keep them at a safer level. Allure also noted that some of the cited issues with scented candles may be overblown, suggesting that more research is needed.
“People see the world very much in black and white and they think everything natural is amazing and everything synthetic is nefarious and odious,” Andrew Goetz, co-founder of the beauty brand Malin + Goetz, told Allure. “Yes, we want to do things that are as environmentally responsible as possible, but the purpose of a candle is that it smells really, really good.”
While everyone debates this balance, it may still be a good idea to keep a window cracked for ventilation.