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Are Scented Candles Making You Sick?

Are Scented Candles Making You Sick?

I remain fascinated by synthetic fragrance–both the science behind it and consumer-lust for it. Perfume for the body aside, synthetic fragrance is ubiquitous in personal care products, cleaning products, air fresheners, scented candles, you name it. Apparently we can’t get enough whiffs of Fresh Breeze, Mountain Spring and Lavender Field. If only they could do some Willy Wonka magic and really capture the scent of a fresh breeze, it most certainly wouldn’t smell like what we’re being taught to think!

The sense of smell is the strongest of senses, and the least understood. What’s clear is that we thrive on good smells; and it seems to me like we have been subtly strong-armed into thinking that synthetic “fresh” smells are better than the natural smells of living. Maybe that would a bit more acceptable to me if synthetic scent wasn’t proven to be so flippin’ toxic.

A study performed by the EPA found that numerous potentially hazardous chemicals are commonly used in fragrance, including acetone, benzaldehyde, benzyl acetate, benzyl alcohol, camphor, ethanol, ethyl acetate, limonene, linalool, and methylene chloride. According to Material Data Safety Sheets, when inhaled these chemicals can cause central nervous system disorders, dizziness, nausea, slurred speech, drowsiness, irritation to the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, and lungs, kidney damage, headache, respiratory failure, ataxia, and fatigue, among other things.

With scented candles we have the extra harm caused by the soot emitted from many of these aromatherapy products. Breathing soot is a big no-no. Soot particles can travel deep into the lungs and are a particular health nuisance for those with asthma, and lung or heart disease. To make matters worse, many scented and aromatherapy candles are made with paraffin–a byproduct of oil refining. The soot from these materials can contain carcinogens, neurotoxins and reproductive toxins.

The American Lung Association of Minnesota says that burning candles can emit small amounts of toxins such as acetone, benzene, lead and mercury into the air. Although they say that normal use of candles should not pose a health hazard, large quantities of these toxins may prove to be harmful. I’d say I’m a little more pessimistic than that.

Unscented, 100 percent beeswax candles with a cotton wick are the safest option–but aren’t suitable for vegan candle-lovers who should opt for unscented soy-based candles.

The American Lung Association of Minnesota recommends the following tips to minimize candle soot pollution in your home:

Because many scented and slow burning candles may contain metals, consumers should look to see if the core of the wick is shiny metal. If you see metal, do not burn, or check with the manufacturer.

When you do burn candles, keep the wicks cut short to one-quarter of an inch.

The longer the wick, the larger the flame, the brighter the candle, the more the soot.

Keep candles away from drafty places. Wind will blow soot and toxins into the air and cause inefficient burning, a cause of smoking or sooting.

Do not shake or tip candles because the candle can smoke and send soot into the air to land on walls, carpets and furniture.

Keep candles in places away from children and pets. Besides fire hazard, small children and animals may accidentally disturb a candle, causing it to smoke and release soot.

Avoid putting small children directly on carpet. Lead and other pollutants from candles are attracted to synthetic fibers often used in upholstery and carpeting.

Refrain from burning scented or slow-burning candles that have additives. Look for candles, such as beeswax, that do not contain high levels of pollutants.

Keep your home clean. Vacuuming may just recirculate particles unless you use high-performance vacuum bags that catch micro particles.

Use a good filtration system on your furnace that attracts micro particles. High performance furnace filters minimize the level of pollutants that circulate throughout your home. Changing filters more frequently will help reduce the amount of micro particles in the home.

Be aware of candles and holiday products that have been recalled by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

For more information of synthetic fragrance see Good Scents: Natural Perfume. Read more about air fresheners in Air Fresheners: Easy Greening.

Read more: Home, General Health, Health & Safety, , , , , , ,

By Melissa Breyer, Senior Editor, Care2

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.

50 comments

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3:34AM PDT on Apr 18, 2014

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4:40AM PDT on Mar 31, 2014

Actually I love candles and its smell as well, you have nicely discussed everything! santeria

12:23PM PDT on Sep 18, 2013

Synthetic fragrance is nasty. People need to STOP it. I'm trying to find out how to eliminate the scents that have permeated the condo I've leased in FL. It wreaks havoc on my sinuses. ACK.

8:22AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

Love to burn candles especially beeswax candles. These are lovely and relaxing. One person made the comment that it is not necessary to burn candles. Well, burning candles is soothing and relaxing since I no longer have the wood stove to watch the dancing flames as they heat the house.

1:59PM PST on Nov 20, 2011

Thanks for this great information..

12:14AM PDT on Jul 6, 2011

..thanks..x

5:51AM PDT on May 6, 2011

I enjoy candles alot and now know to use the soy based ones. Thanks...

6:22AM PST on Feb 17, 2011

To: Melissa Breyer, Senior Editor, Care2
Ms. Breyer, I know you mean well, but your article makes all candles sound taboo. Your "candle happy readers" would be greatly relieved if they were better informed on the "healthy Soy Candles". These candles are made from soy beans and DO NOT have the petroleum base that most candles do. The fragrances used are those coming from natural oils, not imitation.
I have been making these natural/vegan candles for quite awhile and have had nothing but positive feedback.

Thank you.

4:56AM PST on Feb 6, 2011

You wrote "Unscented, 100 percent beeswax candles with a cotton wick are the safest option"....they are certainly better than the smelly option but be aware that while sitting in a store the cotton wick sucks up odours which will, over time, add an unwanted scent to the beeswax candle.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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