Are you a candle lover? If so, this post is for you. Let’s do a deep dive into the safety and health impacts. We’re going to look at three main facets:
- Regulations on candles in general 🕯
- The health impact of burning conventional candles (scientific studies and all)
- Are there any safe alternatives and how do you know which companies are truly safe?
This post is written by Meredith from Clean Living Mom blog.
Click to jump to a certain section:
- Current Candle Regulations
- What’s Wrong with Conventional Candles?
- Safer Candle Alternatives
- What to Look for When Choosing Clean Candles
- Are Essential Oils Safe in Candles?
- Meredith’s Candle Conclusions
Current Candle Regulations
There are six organizations and laws that relate to candle regulations:
- The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
- Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA)
- Fair Packaging & Labeling Act (FPLA)
- The International Fragrance Association (IFRA)
- The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM International)
- National Candle Association (NCA)
Almost all of these regulations on candles only relate to fire safety or legalities for labels regarding warnings and manufacturer information. There are no regulations pertaining to ingredients or how a company labels the ingredients in a candle. I’ve seen some other blogs claim “they can say 100% soy wax even if there’s only 50% soy” or “as little as 20%.” Well, let’s just set the record straight. There are not even regulations requiring that. They can pretty much put whatever they want in a candle and they don’t have to disclose every ingredient they use. Candles aren’t seen as a disruptive enough product to care about the ingredients inside them.
There is one regulation regarding an ingredient…lead. It’s pretty commonly claimed that back in 2003 lead was completely banned from metalcore wicks by the CPSC. Metal cores are pretty commonly used today in conventional candles to help keep the wick upright and for improved burn time. Lead was such a problem that studies were showing “a child would obtain some 85% to 127% of the provisional tolerable weekly Pb intake (PTWI)” from such exposure of only several hours once per week (CPSC).
However, when you actually look at their regulations, you’ll find it’s only limited to: “The metal core of each candlewick has a lead content (calculated as the metal) of not more than 0.06 percent of the total weight of the metalcore.” So it’s not totally banned but a company does have to put “Conforms to 16 CFR 1500.17(a)(13)” on the label of a candle that contains any lead…however it’s not required on the direct label that contains the candle so in many cases the consumer will never even see it.
I wasn’t able to find any study even testing for lead in candles since 2003, but no known reports exist for unsafe levels found since then.
What’s Wrong with Conventional Candles?
The main dangers and concerns are the emitted levels of:
- VOCs (volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, etc.)
- PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons)
- PM (particulate matter like soot)
- Undisclosed fragrance ingredients
What are the health risks?
VOCs cause “eyes, nose, and throat irritation, shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness and skin problems. Higher concentrations may cause irritation of the lungs, as well as damage to the liver, kidney, or central nervous system and cancer.” (EPA)
“Studies show that certain PAH metabolites interact with DNA and are genotoxic, causing malignancies and heritable genetic damage in humans….long term exposure to mixtures of PAHs entails a substantial risk of lung, skin, or bladder cancer.” (CDC)
Long-term exposure to PM includes “respiratory and cardiovascular morbidity, such as aggravation of asthma, respiratory symptoms and an increase in hospital admissions, mortality from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and from lung cancer.” (WHO)
Related blog post: “16+ Simple Ways to Greenify Your Home“
Many people in the clean living world oversimplify this by saying “candles are toxic” or “they release toxic chemicals.” Because “toxic” has no set definition, it’s become quite the catch-all greenwashing term that can mean literally anything or different things to different people. If you’re looking for an easy phrase to explain more specifically why they are harmful it can be summarized as:
Candles emit various chemicals that lower the indoor air quality.
The more advanced add-on: “…thus increasing your chances of hitting various toxicity thresholds that your body is able to be exposed to/withstand/or detox out. Many of these chemicals emitted don’t even have defined “safe thresholds” to begin with.”
So what does this mean?
Let’s break it down. It is a universally accepted fact that indoor air quality is vastly worse than outdoor air (even in a city). “Studies on indoor air quality suggest that, within the home, people are exposed to high levels of numerous pollutants. Of particular concern are the levels of PAH and VOCs because many of these are known carcinogens.” (Spaeth 2000)
Many factors go into increased indoor air pollution such as gas stoves, building materials (e.g. wallpaper, flooring types, paint, glues, particle board), dust and dirt, furniture (especially fabric ones like couches), and more! “VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands.” (EPA)
Now there are various organizations such as the WHO, OSHA, and the EPA that set what’s called a “toxicity threshold” for various chemicals that a human can safely be exposed to on a daily basis…but here’s the problem, many of the emitted chemicals don’t even have a recognized safe level OR the various standards differ drastically from each other OR they haven’t been updated in 30 years!
When a candle is burned, due to incomplete combustion (or not burning “cleanly”) it releases various chemicals and gases into the air, therefore, polluting it. One study found “68 reference compounds were detected in addition to our 24 target compounds by the ST–TD–GC/MS. These identified compounds include, but are not limited to, various aldehydes, hydrocarbons, and alcohols. A number of PAHs identified as carcinogens (e.g., naphthalene, anthracene, and pyrene) were also observed” (Jeong-Hyeon Ahn et al. 2015)
So what’s the real risk? What do studies show? Are candles actually bad for you?
It’s complicated. The “body of evidence” (the majority of what studies show) would say no, even though there are a vast amount of studies with mixed results or opposing ones.
“Among tested scented candles there was usually one in each report which emitted VOC exceeding legal values in terms of at least one pollutant (benzopyrene, chrysene, etc.).”
“It has been found that the BTEX and PAHs emission factors show large differences in similar candles without any clear correlations.” (M. Derudi et al. 2012)
“Most of the researches…indicate that results should be critically interpreted and further research is necessary due to current methodology limitations” (Adamowicz et al. 2019)
So, as you can see above from the various studies, it’s not so cut and dry. I go into this section a lot more and talk about the problems we have with the current studies for determining safety and how to decipher the “body of evidence” in my OG candle post if you want to get nerdy with me!
Here’s What Was NOT Debated in the Various Studies Though…
- It was certain that gel, paraffin, and palm wax candles DID omit several VOCs to some degree; just to what levels and are those levels safe or not was what was debated on
- Across the board, formaldehyde was the highest emitting VOC (especially in scented candles)
- It’s agreed upon that it’s significantly worse when burned in smaller rooms with less ventilation (e.g bathrooms), when more than one candle is burned at once (the more candles burned the exponential increase of indoor pollution), and that burning for longer periods of time increases soot especially (PM)
- In order of worst (emitting highest amounts of everything) to cleanest burning it was consistently: gel wax (worst), paraffin/palm wax, soy wax, then beeswax (cleanest burning).
- Non-scented candles always burned cleaner than those with fragrance added
- Soy wax and beeswax candles always burned the cleanest in every study however it’s worth noting that it still emitted some VOCs and PM at minuscule amounts “formaldehyde was detected at levels similar to or slightly higher than that of the blank, but its presence could not be confidently associated with the combustion of these waxes” (Rezaei 2002)
- There need to be studies done in vivo to see what effect it really has on the human body (e.g testing urine) because right now there aren’t any
So What are the Safer Candle Alternatives?!
Soy Wax 🌱
The most common alternative because it holds scents the best, but widely debated in the clean living world for whether or not it’s truly cleaner. So here’s everything you need to know about soy wax…
All studies consistently showed soy wax to burn cleaner than the conventional waxes (along with beeswax), however, there are very few studies in general that study soy wax on its own.
There was not one study I could find linking the burning of a soy wax candle to endocrine disruption (which is also widely debated whether or not soy actually does). If you’d rather be safe and avoid it, then do you, but it’s HIGHLY unlikely for something inhaled to be able to alter hormone levels (let me know if you know of a study that does link it though!).
Soy wax is derived from soybeans but there’s quite the chemically-treated process typically before it becomes a candle. The beans are harvested, cleaned, cracked, de-hulled, and rolled into flakes. The oil is then extracted from the flakes; separated from the solid components by solvent extraction (often by the chemical hexane) or by mechanical pressing, hydrogenated, then refined and bleached with chlorine (sometimes also deodorized).
It’s typically GMO and very hard to find non-GMO suppliers. In fact, every industry expert I’ve talked to on this topic has said it’s actually impossible to get true non-GMO soy because all non-GMO soy goes straight to the food industry because of lack of supply and wouldn’t be wasted for candles. On top of that, every company I’ve asked who uses soy wax and claims it to be non-GMO has said their supplier never gave them any documentation proving it’s truly non-GMO (Sanaari Candle is an example of this). Which is very sketchy and not common for suppliers. Legit suppliers will always provide documentation so I don’t believe them.
Eco-friendly-wise, this is the least sustainable alternative. There’s a lot to this that would go down a whole rabbit trail, but if you’re interested feel free to comment below or contact me and I can expound more!
For the cleanest burning soy, make sure to ask the company if their soy is:
- Non-GMO (and make sure you see documentation like a COA proving this claim because I think it’s impossible!)
- Not treated with any chemicals (like hexane, bleach, or chlorine) and ask how they clean it
Overall I would personally say soy wax is a BETTER but NOT BEST option.
In my opinion, the cleanest burning because there’s not as much of a process to get it from point of harvesting to wax form. Here’s everything you need to know:
- There are different places to harvest wax in a beehive but the highest quality and most common is the super (collected from the top and has the brightest yellow color)
- Studies showed beeswax to produce the least amount of soot (even compared to soy wax)
- More sustainable option than soy wax
Here’s what to ask companies for the highest quality beeswax:
- Is your beeswax harvested from the super?
- How is it cleaned and is it treated with anything or bleached? (if it’s whiter or lighter in color then it may have been bleached)
Bonus Beeswax Myth: Does it Clean the Air?
There is a claim I’ve seen floating around that beeswax candles clean the air because it emits negative ions. This is a baseless and ridiculous claim that is FALSE. I’m ashamed at big holistic names like Wellness Mama and Dr. Axe for spreading this. You’re great, but do better guys. You’re discrediting yourselves. Here’s why:
- When you look at the sources they cite (if they even cite what sources they are getting that from), it’s always another blog claiming it or a website/article that doesn’t exist. Never a study or even someone experienced in the beekeeping field.
- There is not ONE study that proves this or even talks about negative ions and beeswax. And I don’t even mean just not a peer-reviewed study…NO STUDIES. There are no studies.
- Not only that, but there is one study on paraffin wax that measures negative ions emitted and it actually found that the POSITIVE ions emitted were the same as or in most instances GREATER than the negative ions emitted. (Wright et. Al 2007)
- Here’s the kicker…In order for negative ions to even work to hypothetically clean the air, there would need to be a great deal more negative than positive ions emitted, or else they just cancel each other out or get absorbed (there’s a lot more needed for negative ions to effectively clean the air). Seeing as how another candle wasn’t even close to emitting more negative than positive, it’s unlikely a beeswax candle would be that drastically different. It COULD be that they emit crazy high amounts of negative ions, but we have no study even studying that as of right now.
So until there is any evidence on this…let’s put this theory to bed. All that to say though, beeswax does burn very cleanly! I’ve personally tried quite a few beeswax candles, and to see what my favorite beeswax candle brand is and get a discount code, check out my Basic Bee Candle Co. brand review post here.
Becca’s Recommendation: Welch Candle Co. Beeswax Candles 🕯
Coconut Wax 🥥
I couldn’t find a single study testing this type of wax for safety in a candle, but from what we know of coconut oil it should be clean. But just know it hasn’t really been tested. It’s also *almost* always blended with other waxes in smaller amounts because on its own it’s not the correct consistency when burned. This is also a more sustainable option.
I have found to date only ONE company that has managed to create a completely vegan, ALL coconut wax candle using all organic coconut-derived ingredients with no other added waxes! For my blog post doing a brand review of the company and several of their candles click here.
To ensure the purest coconut oil ask companies that use it:
- Is the coconut wax unrefined and raw?
- Is it organic? (USDA organic certified is even better)
In General, What to Look for When Choosing Clean Candles…
Avoid any dyes or synthetic fragrances. This includes even synthetic scents that meet IFRA standards because remember, there are no restrictions when it comes to candles.
DON’T just label read, do brand research! Remember, a company can basically label ingredients however they want, even ones claiming to be safer. “100% soy wax blend” could mean 1% of soy and 99% paraffin. Never trust the label; always contact the company for the exact ingredients list and sourcing.
Look for an untreated cotton wick with no metal core (certified organic is nice but as long as it’s not chemically treated at all, it’s the same thing) or a wood wick.
Stick to only 100% pure essential oils for any fragrances. This brings us to…
Are Essential Oils Safe in Candles?
It’s complicated and there are many things to consider here.
There are a few studies that have tested the emissions of essential oils and found various harmful VOCs such as formaldehyde and toluene, HOWEVER, these studies don’t specify the brand of essential oils used. It could have just come from the grocery store for all we know and there are far more bad essential oil brands out there than there are pure and high-quality ones. The essential oil brand used is SO important! To be clear, yes all pure essential oils emit VOCs (actually so does anything that smells lol), but not all VOCs are equally harmful.
I’ve seen claims that heated essential oils become toxic. This is really only the case with oils that were toxic to begin with and wouldn’t be used anyway. Also, the concentration/dilution rate at which you’d inhale oils via a candle wouldn’t be potent enough. And inhalation is arguably the safest form of exposure
It IS proven that heating an oil compromises the therapeutic quality because of oxidation and how the components of the oil separate, but you’re not burning a candle for the benefits of the oil, so I’d say this doesn’t matter in this case.
Make sure you ask the candle company if their essential oil supplier provides them with GC/MS proving the purity of each batch of oils they purchase. I talk A LOT about this topic of essential oils on my blog and how to know what brands are actually pure and high quality. Here’s a video breaking that all down with everything to look for, if you’re interested!
In my opinion, there really needs to be more studies done on the topic of essential oils being burned in general, but I’d feel comfortable with them in my candles if I knew the oil was pure.
Meredith’s Candle Conclusions
- It basically all boils down to improving your indoor air quality and lowering your chances of hitting various toxicity thresholds. Conventional candles do lower the air quality (even if only by a small amount), and obviously, if you’re sensitive to certain fragrances or ingredients in a candle, then it’s also about eliminating triggers.
- I really think there’s something to be said for aggregate exposure and how many other things off-gas VOCs in our homes and how that’s NEVER been taken into account when people say “candles aren’t harmful to health”
- If you’re going to burn a conventional candle, burn only one at a time in a big room with a window open to make it safer
- If you hardly ever burn a candle or even keep candles in your house, you probably have nothing to worry about. If you’re a frequent candle user, I’d recommend switching to a cleaner-burning one
- The “science” is very mixed and more studies need to be done, but from what we have, no, I don’t think the body of evidence is correct in assuming that, “all types of quality candle waxes have been shown to burn cleanly, safely and in the same manner”
Connect with Meredith
Meredith is a wife and mother passionate about living a truly clean lifestyle! Her mission with her blog is twofold: to give detailed product and brand reviews to help others find products that work for them, and to empower consumers through thorough, research-based knowledge about healthy living to enable them to make the best, most informed decisions! She’s a truth seeker and research nerd, who sorts through the greenwashing and misinformation for you. Check out Meredith’s website Clean Living Mom Blog and follow her on Instagram @cleanlivingmom.
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- https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/BF02582327.pdf (burning not safety)
- https://link-springer-com.proxy.lib.uiowa.edu/article/10.1007/s10694-013-0339-4 (soy wax produces less soot)
- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1352231010010502 (decorative candles)
- https://cancerpreventionresearch.aacrjournals.org/content/12/10/645.long (bladder cancer)
- https://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/128169/e94535.pdf (WHO)
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK138709/ (PAH)
- https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality (VOC)
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10635590/ (metal wicks)
- https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/5/1/12 (soot)
- Labeling and regulations -CFR Title 16 Part 1303 and Part 1500.17 https://ifrafragrance.org/docs/default-source/ifra-code-of-practice-and-standards/49th-amendment/ifra-49th-amendment-(att-01)—guidance-for-the-use-of-ifra-standardsa7006c445f36499bbb0eb141e8c0d4be.pdf?sfvrsn=7fb244c8_2
- https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Pham_Nhut/publication/339046011_Preparation_and_Characterization_of_Naturally_Scented_Candles_Using_the_Lemongrass_Cymbopogon_citratus_Essential_Oil/links/5f0681eaa6fdcc4ca45999a9/Preparation-and-Characterization-of-Naturally-Scented-Candles-Using-the-Lemongrass-Cymbopogon-citratus-Essential-Oil.pdf?origin=publication_detail (essential oils in candles)
- https://www-sciencedirect-com.proxy.lib.uiowa.edu/science/article/pii/S1352231005011416 https://pubs-acs-org.proxy.lib.uiowa.edu/doi/full/10.1021/es981039v (soot)
- https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02786820701225812 (negative ions)
- https://www.n-ion.com/e/faq-04-all.html#32 (ions cancel each other out)
- Indoor air quality -Spaeth K. R. (2000) https://doi.org/10.1006/pmed.2000.0769