Are Scented Candles Toxic?

Here's the truth about scented candles.

One of my favorite ways to mark the changing seasons is with a scented candle. From springtime florals to fall pumpkin spice to Christmas pine, the fragrance of a candle drifting through the house immediately sets a mood.

I put the tradition on pause when recent headlines claimed that candles—especially the paraffin wax variety—might be harmful to health. Are scented candles toxic? Here’s the deal.

Are Scented Candles Bad for You?

The quick answer is: almost certainly not.

When scented candles burn, they do release particles into the air, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some provide fragrance. Others, like benzene and formaldehyde, are carcinogenic. (Hence the scary headlines about toxicity.) However, the amount released by scented candles does not approach unsafe levels. According to The New York Times, “experts [say] there is no reason to think that occasional candle-burning will be dangerous.”

Studies have shown that the amount of vapor and potentially harmful chemicals released from a burning candle is low. In one test, even after four hours of continual candle burning in a closed indoor space, air quality remained well within the healthy range set by the World Health Organization. This was true for both larger living rooms and smaller bathroom-sized spaces. What’s more, the concentration of chemicals remained within the typical expected range for indoor air.

Nikaeta Sadekar, a respiratory toxicologist with the nonprofit Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, said, “Even the highest users of scented candles and other fragranced products are not putting themselves at any appreciable risk of harm.”

Much of what’s released when a candle burns is actually the wax itself, which forms carbon dioxide and water vapor. That’s why candle wax disappears as candles burn.

Are Scented Candles Bad for Cats or Dogs?

In general, scented candles are safe for pets. The exception? Pets with respiratory issues may experience irritation with prolonged candle burning, just like humans. Take a hiatus if your furry friend seems bothered.

How to Burn Scented Candles Safely

Encourage your candles to burn cleanly by trimming the wicks to 1/4″ each time you light them. (If you forget, you might get the dreaded mushrooming wick, which smokes and won’t burn as evenly.) After burning, make sure the pool of wax is clear of debris. These tips will also make your candles last longer.

Less pollution will build in a well-ventilated space. Consider running an exhaust fan in the kitchen or the bathroom while burning candles. That said, keep candles away from drafts and vents, which can make the flame sputter, releasing soot.

Alternatives for People Who Are Sensitive to Fragrance

Try a Different Candle Type

Some people have a negative reaction to candles. They may be allergic to fragrance, especially artificial fragrance. Or, they may be sensitive to a specific type of candle wax. Most candles are made with paraffin wax, a petroleum byproduct, which releases more soot than other types of wax. Soy, stearin or beeswax candles may be less irritating.

Make Homemade Candles

It’s easy to make candles at home and doing so gives you total control over the ingredients in the candle, from the type of candle wax to the quality and quantity of fragrance.

Diffuse Essential Oils

Aroma diffusers are a natural alternative to scented candles. Ultrasonic oil diffusers release the scent of essential oils into the home. Most work with any essential oil you like: think lavender, lemon, sandalwood or eucalyptus. For winter, try mixing spearmint with Scots pine and cinnamon.

Enjoy a DIY Stovetop Scent

Simmer fragrant ingredients on the stovetop to scent the home with ingredients you probably already have in your pantry. Here’s how to make DIY home fragrances.

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Kelsey Rae Dimberg
A former in-house editor at Taste of Home, Kelsey now writes articles and novels from her home in Milwaukee. She's an avid cook, reader, flâneur, and noir fanatic. Her debut novel, Girl in the Rearview Mirror, will be published in June 2019 by William Morrow.