Editor's Note: Since the publication of this article palm oil has been linked to deforestation, human rights violations and is considered a major part of human-induced climate change. For more information please visit the Rainforest Action Network.
From candlelit dinners to the flicker of flames next to the bathtub, candles create a warm glow electric light can’t replicate. But, depending on their makeup, the candles setting the mood in our yoga studios and perfuming our kitchens could be compromising our health.
Most conventional candles are made of paraffin, a petroleum byproduct, and scented with synthetic fragrances, which often contain hormone-disrupting phthalates. According to a study reported by LEAD Action News, scented paraffin candles emit the same fumes as diesel exhaust—known neurotoxins and carcinogens such as toluene and benzene, and hydrocarbons linked to asthma, allergies, and skin, eye and lung irritation. What’s more, studies have found that the superfine soot emitted by burning candles penetrates deep into the lungs where it can cause irritation and damage. Scented paraffin candles in enclosed containers (such as glass jars) are the worst soot offenders. Finally, although use of lead in candles has mostly been eliminated, some inexpensive imported candle wicks may still contain and emit lead—a bioaccumulative neurotoxin that’s especially dangerous for children.
Fortunately, several candle options can safely illuminate your space. Pure beeswax candles with cotton wicks (not dipped in paraffin) are a healthy choice. Compared with their petroleum-derived counterparts, beeswax candles burn at a lower temperature, produce less soot and last longer. Find a local source, and you’re supporting local beekeepers, too.
Soy wax candles made with pesticide-free, non-GMO soy are a clean, renewable choice (non-organic soy is a pesticide- and water-intensive, genetically modified crop). Because soy is less firm than paraffin, most soy wax candles come in glass containers. Palm oil candles also burn cleanly, but palm tree plantations are often responsible for the destruction of rainforests, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia.
If you’re looking for scented or colored candles, use extra caution. Choose candles scented with pure essential oils (labels should say 100 percent essential plant oil, not fragrance). Essential oils offer natural scents rather than chemical imitations. Also ask manufacturers about the makeup of candle dyes. Beeswax candles are naturally honey-colored. Some companies offer “naturally dyed” candles, though they often don’t report what the ingredients are. If you want to be absolutely sure your candle doesn’t contain synthetic dyes, it may be best to choose white/undyed.
Kelly Lerner, a Spokane, Washington-based architect specializing in healthy, super-energy-efficient homes, is coauthor of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green Home. See her work at one-world-design.com.
Regardless of the type of candle you choose, burning your candle properly can reduce soot and increase safety. The National Candle Association offers these tips for burning candles:
- Trim wicks to ¼ inch before each use.
- Burn candles in a well-ventilated room, but away from drafts and air currents.
- Discontinue burning of a candle when 2 inches of wax remains (or ½ inch if it’s in a container).
- Extinguish any candle if it smokes, flickers repeatedly or the flame becomes too high. Cool, trim wick, check for drafts and re-light.
- Place lighted candles at least 3 inches apart.
- Use a candle snuffer to extinguish candles.
Seek out healthy candles made by local artisans, or opt for the paraffin-free options listed here.
Organic Soy Candles