Before you light that candle, consider if you want the air inside your home to resemble the air around a combustion engine. Cause that’s exactly what studies say conventional candles can do to your inside air. Want to buy better brands to improve your indoor air quality? We can help! You’ve trusted Mamavation to bring you air quality topics like best & worst air purifiers, best & worst cookware, & best & worst organic mattresses, now join us as we explore the candle aisle, the best brands, and what to look out for.
Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.
The EPA Told Us in 2001–Candles Can Be Problematic to Your Health.
In the case of candles, we can’t say that the Feds didn’t warn us of the dangers. They have. In fact, studies commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been pretty explicit in saying since 2001 that candle use could be a public health issue.
What’s the problem: mostly lead, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, and acrolein, but also black soot deposition (BSD), naphthalene, alkanes, wax esters, alkanoic and alkenoic acids, and alkenes.
“Burning an aromatherapy candle made of paraffin is similar to preparing a healthy drink of fresh-squeezed juice and adding a shot of gasoline,” says Eric Johnson of Candleworks, an Iowa City, Iowa-based company that specializes in wholesaling non-toxic aromatherapy candles. We thought that quote served as a great start.
But the EPA report was a bit more clear saying “burning several candles exceeded the EPA’s 10-6 increased risk for cancer for acetaldehyde and formaldehyde, and exceeded the RfC for acrolein.”
That is federal speak for “this is a problem and we know about it.”
This report goes on for 53 pages to warn you about the dangers of incense and candles to your indoor air quality. We’ve pulled this report from 2001 apart and added more of the recent research on candle use since then to this investigation and some worrying technology that has become recently popular. But stick around for the end where we go over all the most popular candle brands one by one and categorize them into bad, better, and best.
Type of Wax Best For Candles: Paraffin Wax, Soy Wax, Coconut Wax, Beeswax or Palm Oil Wax
The most important part of the candle is what it consists of and that is mostly the wax. The most popular choices are paraffin wax, soy wax, coconut wax, beeswax, & palm wax. Paraffin wax is by far the worst selection and is also the most prevalent material to use for candles in the United States. Here are your selections one by one.
Paraffin Wax: Paraffin wax is a by-product of the crude oil refinement process, so it’s not the friendliest material on our planet. It’s also believed to be quite toxic to your indoor air quality and to humans in general when inhaled. Here’s why you should avoid paraffin:
- In 1999, researchers found that the majority of emissions from paraffin candles consisted of organic compounds including alkanes, wax esters, alkanoic and alkenoic acids, and alkenes.
- More recent studies have linked paraffin wax candle burning to an increase of emissions of volatile organic compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in indoor air.
- The University of South Carolina produced a study about indoor air dangers of paraffin scented candles. The study claimed that paraffin scented candles emitted toxic chemicals like toluene and benzene into the air and frequently lighting many candles in an unventilated space could lead to problems, and may aggravate asthma, cause allergy-like symptoms, or irritate the respiratory tract. However, soy wax did not cause a problem with indoor air.
- In 2013, researchers in Poland found the air quality around paraffin candles is similar to air quality around a combustion engine
- The EPA found that burning several candles exceeded the EPA’s 10-6 increased risk for cancer for acetaldehyde and formaldehyde. It also exceeded the RfC for acrolein. That’s bad news.
Soy Wax: Soy wax comes in a variety of container candle blends. Most soy waxes are made from hydrogenated soybean oil. Others are considered “blends” and are blended with other vegetable oils (like coconut) and waxes (like palm wax and beeswax). As long as the blend is at least 51% soy, it’s considered a soy wax blend.
- If it’s soy, check whether it’s non-GMO soy used if you would like to avoid supporting large monoculture farming and toxic persistent pesticides.
- Soy was not found to be a problem for any indoor air quality as found by the EPA study, however paraffin was.
Beeswax: Beeswax is about as natural a product as you can find! The wax is excreted by the bees into “combs” to help incubate their larvae and keep them safe and snug. It’s naturally infused with honey, making it naturally sweet as a fragrance. The strength of the natural fragrance depends on the flowers or plants the bees were feeding on.
- It’s expensive because of what the tradeoff is. Basically, for every 1-2 pounds of wax produced, the bees lose production of around 6 pounds of honey.
- There can be a scarcity of beeswax and in order to be good stewards, it may be better to purchase an arrangement of non-toxic blends as well. But of course, this is your preference.
- Beeswax candles have a longer burn time than paraffin candles, so they last longer
- In the United States, current labeling laws only require a candle to be 51% beeswax to carry the beeswax label, so buyer beware if you want purity look for “100% beeswax”
Coconut Wax: Coconut oil is considered a carrier oil for use in making candles. It cannot exist alone in the world of candle making. Typically “blends” are used with coconut wax, beeswax, or soy wax & possibly fragrances or essential oils or other combos thereof.
- Coconut wax has a slower burn than soy wax & paraffin, so these candles last longer
- Completely natural from beginning to the end of the product for those of you who love natural
Palm Wax: Palm wax is produced by hydrogenating palm oils and is similar to soy wax in that it is made from natural oil. It’s also used in a unique way to produce a crystalline or “feathered” effect in the candles. Palm wax is often blended with soy wax to make it harder. It’s also excellent for use with pillars, votives, and tarts.
- It’s a loved ingredient because it’s efficient. According to organic farmers Riverford, oil palms can yield ‘up to ten times per hectare than rapeseed, soya beans or sunflowers’ and ‘on just 5 percent of the world’s vegetable-oil farmland, palms produce 38 percent of the world’s vegetable oil’.
- Palm oil comes with baggage, whereas endangered animals are brought to the brink of extinction, primal rainforests destroyed, farmers driven off their lands, and peat fires causing devastating air pollution throughout the entire region in places like Indonesia. Careful who supplies your palm oil!
- Just FYI there are better palm oil brands like Palm Done Right who (1) focus on no clear-cutting, burning, or planting in primal forest, (2) fair trade, and (3) community projects for farmworkers like medical facilities and schools. So more ethical palm does exist.
Wicks Can On Occasion Contain Lead & Badly Damage Air Quality in the Home For Children
Lead wicks used to be a big problem in the United States. Lead was commonly used as the core material to keep the wick standing straight when the surrounding wax began to melt and prevented it from falling over on itself and becoming extinguished. This made everyday homes toxic, especially to young children.
Lead was commonly used until 1974 when the industry decided to voluntarily ban lead wicks. However, not all brands followed that rule so after the EPA commissioned a study, it wasn’t officially banned until 2003 by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Therefore, brands saying they have “lead-free wicks” are simply complying with the ban and letting you know about it.
Today, you’ll only find lead in wicks that are coming from overseas from places like Mexico & China. It’s buyer beware from discount candles in bargain stores in terms of safety.
Today, lead wicks have been replaced by zinc or tin. If you want to avoid that, look for “100% cotton wicks” instead.
Synthetic Color Adds More Petroleum to Your Candle–And You Don’t Need All That Negativity In Your Life
I know these candles can look really pretty, but most of the time when you are seeing a colored candle, they are using petroleum by-products to do that coloring.
Why is that a problem? Well, whenever you burn fossil fuels, it turns the air inside your home to something else–something you don’t want–something similar to the air around a combustion engine.
The fewer petroleum products burning inside your home the better.
It is possible to color candles with natural colorants like kelp, annatto seeds, orange peel, paprika, and rosehips.
“Fragrance” Is Code For We Don’t Want To Tell You!
Fragrance is an area of the law where profits trump public health and disclosure.
According to the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act that is overseen by the Federal Drug Administration, all fragrances in candles are considered proprietary formulas, and they are not mandated to give you that information.
In other words, there is very little ingredients disclosure in the candle aisle. They can basically put whatever they want in there, including thousands of these chemicals, and you can’t compel them to tell you, and there is nothing you can do about it.
Synthetic fragrances are known to contain synthetic musks and phthalates that are detrimental to health. Especially, the phthalates, which are considered a hormone-disrupting chemical that is linked to infertility, weight gain, lowering the IQ of children, and cancers.
To make matters worse, having synthetic fragrances inside a wax formula can make the air quality worse. This is exactly what the EPA found. It seems like pretty much anytime anything made from fossil fuels burns, we are exposed to particulate matter and VOCs in the air from those chemical reactions. This is especially true with candles.
Soot Can Give You a Bad Day & Destroy Your Home
According to the EPA, the stronger smelling your candle, the more soot it could be producing. This soot is referred to as Black Soot Deposits (BSD) and can destroy your home. In fact, the EPA has tracked an increase in complaints from homeowners about soot since 1992.
“Most candle wax paraffin are saturated hydrocarbons that are solid at room temperature. Most fragrance oils are unsaturated hydrocarbons and are liquid at room temperature. The lower the carbon-to-hydrogen ratio, the less soot is produced by the flame. Therefore, waxes that have more fragrances in them produce more soot. In other words, candles labeled “super scented” and those that are soft to the touch are more likely to generate soot.”
When soot builds up in the air, it deposits on to surfaces all over the house but concentrates in four main areas: (1) randomly colliding with surfaces, (2) circulating through home air conditioning filters, (3) gaining enough mass to be subject to gravity and fall on surfaces, and (4) attracted to electrically charged surfaces such as freezers, television sets, computers, and vertical plastic blinds.
Acute health endpoints due to soot exposure have to do with asthma and allergy sufferers. They are more likely to have an acute attack.
The best way to reduce soot, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is to keep your candle wicks cut shorter.
Essential Oils To Be Avoided Around Children
So now that I’ve completely freaked you out about the dangers of paraffin wax on air quality, I’m gonna go further and warn you about some natural ingredients you may not be worrying about–essential oils.
Most of the candles we are going to recommend to you are full of essential oils and they are mostly safe…unless you are around young children or pets. If you have a child or pets in the house, you need to adjust some of the choices of essential oils you are using.
This is not an entire list of what essential oils are bad for children, it’s only a list of essential oils that are dangerous to diffuse around children and have them breathe in. So this would be relevant for essential oils inside candles as well. There are other essential oils that you should not apply directly to their skin that you can find here.
- Nothing is safe for infants under 3 months. Essential oils are not safe for children under 3 months old. PERIOD.
- Peppermint: consists of up to 55% menthol and up to 10% 1,8-cineole. In children aged 1-3, studies showed 1,8-cineole and menthol can cause serious, yet non-fatal reactions. Keep watch till children are over 6 years old.
- Eucalyptus: Eucalyptus contains varying amounts of 1,8-cineole, with Eucalyptus globulus having up to 84%, Eucalyptus radiata having up to 65%, and Eucalyptus polybractea having up to 92%. The concern is seizures, however rare, but it’s expected that approximately 2% of children will experience one after extensive exposure.
- Rosemary: This oil is high in 1,8-cineole and can potentially cause respiration to slow in children. Avoid with children under 6.
- Marjarom (Spanish): This oil is high in 1,8-cineole and can potentially cause respiration to slow in children under 6 years old.
- Anise/Aniseed: avoid diffusing around children under 5 years old
- Fennel (bitter), Fennel (sweet): avoid diffusing around children under 5 years old
- Niaouli (cineole chemotype): avoid diffusing on children under 6 years old
Here are all the safe essential oils for children from John Hopkins like cedarwood, ginger, or sweet orange.
Essential Oils Fragrance to Avoid Around Dogs & Cats
Cats and dogs have an enhanced sense of smell, so using scents around them like in candles or diffusers can be overwhelming for them, depending on what type you are using. According to Veterinarians, this can cause shortness of breath, skin rashes, and even liver failure.
If you also diffuse essential oils, you should always keep your essential oils stored away from pets, but if they get into them, call your veterinary office or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center.
Cats’ livers cannot metabolize some of the compounds in essential oils, which leaves them susceptible to toxicity. These animals have very different essential oils that bother them, so please pay close attention to each one.
For dogs avoid the following:
- Tea Tree
For cats avoid the following:
- Tea Tree
New “Natural” Scents Made Very Unnaturally–Synthetic Biology
Welcome to the new Frankenstein of genetically modified options that will eventually lead to your plate and your lungs without your permission. This new generation of GMOs is hitting the market without regulatory oversight or assessment for health and environmental risks right now. It’s called synthetic biology and you’ll likely never hear about it because the companies that make it are encouraging brands to call it “natural” and there’s nothing to stop them from doing that.
I repeat. The industry is purposely encouraging brands to lie about this ingredient and refer to it as “natural” even though it’s a new GMO technology. How do I know this? In 2018, I was at a Supply Side West in Las Vegas speaking on a panel and heard people from the industry strongly suggest not to tell anyone it’s GMO. I also heard testimony from other natural food & supplement suppliers who listened to panels at that same conference where they encouraged brands to basically lie about this ingredient and call it “natural.” Yes, seriously.
Do these people want to be quoted? No. I tried. I’m sure you know why.
Several of these new gene-editing techniques are being used to develop the new genetically engineered crops, animals, insects, industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and even bioweapons. And the scariest thing about this technology is it’s virtually unregulated.
In addition to transferring genetic material between organisms, like traditional GMOs, DNA and biological components can be composed synthetically and existing organisms can be genetically “reprogrammed” to do something completely different.
In terms of candles, the easiest way to avoid synthetic biology is to look for 100% organic essential oils. As of now, these ingredients are marketed as “natural” to the brands, so it’s possible they would have no way of knowing they are purchasing scents made through synthetic biology. Because the USDA organic certification mandates suppliers to show proof up the chain of organic materials from farm to the bottle, you are safe because of that chain of custody. You would also be able to avoid sythetic biology if the brand had documents about that chain of custody from farm to bottle in a similar manner as organic, which some do.
Sadly, some of the most popular essential oils are in danger of becoming unpure. This is because most oils are a combination of chemical compounds mixed together, so if one of those chemicals are made from synthetic biology, you have an essential oil that is really no longer natural but it’s being marketed as such.
Most of the synthetic biology scents we couldn’t track. But we were able to track some: Limonene, citranellol, geraniol, menthol, perillyl alcohol, linalool, thujone, Farnesene, Amorphadiene, Artemisinic acid, Artemisinin, Bisabolol, Bisabolene, alphaSinensal, beta-Thujone, Camphor, Carveol, Carvone, Cineole, Citral, Citronellal, Cubebol, Geraniol, Limonene, Menthol, Menthone, Myrcene, Nootkatone, Nootkatol, Patchouli, Piperitone, Rose oxide, Sabinene, Steviol, Steviol glycoside (including Rebaudioside D or Rebaudioside M), Taxadiene, Thymol, and Valencene.
Here’s a list the most popular essential oils those ingredients find themselves inside:
- Clary Sage Oil
- Lavender Oil
- Citrus Oil
- Geranium Oil
- Bergamot Oil
- Mint Oil
- Frakencince Oil
- Tea Tree Oil
- Rose Oil
- Rosemary Oil
- Ylang Ylang Oil
- Grapefruit Oil
The greatest challenge of all this is there is no way to identify these components made of synthetic biology yet. So if you really want to avoid this mess, go organic…or at the very least, go traceable!
Mamavation’s Investigation of Candles
Mamavation looked at close to 90 different candle brands looking for ingredients made from petroleum, synthetic biology, or undisclosed fragrance ingredients.
We want to make sure your home doesn’t get filled up with toxins by other products accidentally, so please check out our air purifier investigation next for the best professional systems to clean your indoor air.
Not Our Favorite Candles
These brands are full of petroleum, including paraffin and synthetic “fragrance” which is also made from petroleum. These researchers may argue that the air quality around these candles could be similar to air around a combustion engine because they are made of paraffin.
- Anthropologie Candles
- Bath and Body Works Candles
- Better Homes & Garden Candles
- Chesapeake Bay Candle
- Cutter Citronella Candles (carbon monoxide warning)
- DW Home Candles
- Empire Candle Company (lead warning)
- Evergreen Candles (lead warning)
- Frazier Fir Thymes Candles
- Goose Creek Candles
- Homeworx by Harry Slatkin Candles
- Illume Candles
- Luminaria Candles
- Meyer’s Soy Candles
- MojiLife Candles
- Murphy’s Candles (carbon monoxide warning)
- Nest Candles
- Paddywax Candles
- Partylite Candles
- Red Leaf Home Candles
- Thymes Candles
- Tyler Candle Company
- Votivo Illume Candles (past lead warning)
- Yankee Candle
- Woodwick Candle
These brands were way better but not quite perfect yet. We found this category to contain better components–supposedly made without paraffin. Those claims are known to be iffy sometimes, so it’s possible some of these brands contain a small amount of paraffin to their blends. (We didn’t test them!) When it comes to fragrance, either they did not disclose fragrance ingredients at all or are containing synthetic blends of fragrance.
- Anecdote Candles
- Baum Designs Candles
- Birchhouse & Co Candles
- Boy Smells Candles
- Castleton Candles
- Cedar Street Candle Collection
- Country Scents Candles
- Farmhouse Candle Shop
- Follain Candles
- Growing Candle
- Hearth and Hand Candles
- Jen Luana Candles
- Kalamazoo Candle Company
- Laguna Candles
- Lake Erie Candle Company
- Life Cycle Candles
- Malicious Mermaid Candles
- Mecca Candle Co.
- Medeluca Candles
- Milkhouse Candle Company
- PF Candle Company
- Prosperity Candles
- Root Candles
- Sand + Frog Candles
- Scentsational Candles
- Solo Candles
- Sea Love Candles
- Swan Creek Candles
- The Candle Lab
- Voluspa Candles
- Wax & Oils Candles
- White Barn Candles
- Yoke Candles
This holiday we are recommending you try the seasonal Candles from Pure Haven. They are made from 100% organic peppermint essential oil, soy wax (non-gmo), & theobroma cacao (organic cocoa) seed butter.
Very simple, yet this product contains no petroleum byproducts and no ingredients made from synthetic biology. (Please note that this scent is too strong for children under 6 or around cats.)
These brands are not made from paraffin (petroleum) and unknown blends. They comprise of soy wax, beeswax, coconut wax, or palm wax. As for fragrance, they are either comprised of 100% essential oils or are 100% transparent in their fragrance ingredient label. All wicks are lead-free. Brands here could also have Made Safe Certification. (The brands with an * mean they are using organic essential oils, meaning we know the scents are not produced through synthetic biology.)
- A-Z Candles
- Abbot Candles
- B. Happy Candles
- Cellar Door Candles* (only found organic lavender essential oil)
- Coco by Stone Candles
- Edition 01 Candles
- Fontana Candles (Made Safe Certified)
- Goodlight Candles
- Grow Fragrance Candles
- Heart 2 Heart Candles
- Heretic Candles
- Milk & Honey Candles
- Mountain Rose Herbs Candles (only non-scented candles available)
- Nashville Wax Candles
- Neal’s Yard Remedies Organic Candles*
- Poofy Organics Candles* (uses some organic essential oils but not all)
- Pure Haven Candles* (uses some organic essential oils but not all)
- Pure Plant Candles
- Sunbeam Candles
- Terralite Candles
- The Grace Effect Candles
- Thistle Farms Candles
- Uma Candles
- Wild Beautiful & Free Candles
- Woodlot Candles
About the Author
Leah Segedie is a consumer watchdog, author, entrepreneur, environmental activist, and mother of three boys.
She wrote Green Enough: Eat Better, Live Cleaner, & Be Happier (All Without Driving Your Family Crazy!) in 2018. She’s consistently been featured in the media for the past 15 years in media outlets like ABC, CBS, CNN, Yahoo, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Reader’s Digest, Ladies Home Journal, Shape Magazine, Fitness Magazine to name a few.
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