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It’s no secret that scent and mood are
But could the wrong candle be doing more harm than good? It’s a surprisingly controversial topic. While many conventional candles are still made with questionable ingredients, including paraffin wax, synthetic fragrances, and inferior oils, evidence of their negative health effects remains largely inconclusive.
Still, if the idea of a nontoxic, clean-burning candle appeals to you, I’ve done the research and rounded up the contenders for your consideration. But first, here’s a quick look at the ongoing discussion of candle toxicity.
Some of this discussion started back in 2001, when the Environmental Protection Agency released a report about candles and incense as potential sources of indoor air pollution. The report identified issues like:
- lead wicks, which were banned in 2003
- a range of synthetic and problematic volatile organic compounds — including formaldehyde, which can be released into the air while a candle burns
However, to date, research hasn’t linked scented candles with a health risk. When it comes to candles, we’re still dealing with a largely unregulated industry and inconclusive data.
But if you’re like me, a little digging about the ingredients in the average candle might give you reason for pause.
Is paraffin really a problem? Is soy always a better choice? What about your favorite wax blends, or those complex aromas that can’t really be captured in an essential oil? (Sea salt, I’m looking at you.) And why do some candles give me a raging headache, while others just smell great?
Until we know more, it’s probably best to opt for candles from companies committed to transparency, quality, and sustainability. But it’s not enough just to follow your nose. Instead, check the label, scour the website, or ask a company directly to learn more about three key elements.
In the United States, skin care products, perfumes, and candles can legally use the catchall term “fragrance” on an ingredient list. But when you’re swooning over scents like seaside or pumpkin spice, what are you actually inhaling? Well, it depends.
“What many people don’t know is that the word ‘fragrance’ can refer to thousands of chemicals used to make up a complex aroma,” says Daniel Swimm, founder and CEO of Grow Fragrance.
“The reality is that many of the chemicals used to create fragrances today are synthetic petrochemicals derived from crude oil that carry carcinogens and have reproductive toxicity warnings.”
That sounds terrible, but it doesn’t necessarily mean all synthetic ingredients are bad for us — or that every “natural” ingredient is automatically safe.
Actually, there are a number of synthetic molecules that are
“Many of the chemical names in disclosed ‘fragrance’ will be long and scary-looking — think ‘methyl dihydrojasmonate,’” says Mia Davis, Credo Beauty director of environmental and social responsibility. “But their chemical-y sounding names don’t equal ‘toxic.’”
There’s another benefit to synthetic ingredients. As Stephan Tracy, Harry Doull, and Christophe Laudamiel of Keap, a Brooklyn-based candle company, explain, “Man-made materials allow us to innovate beyond the limitations posed by nature.” That can mean far more nuanced scent profiles.
Paraffin wax, which is petroleum-based, has long been painted as a villain in the toxic candle debate. That’s largely based on a 2009 study that found burning paraffin wax released potentially dangerous chemicals. But there are questions about the validity of the study, and it was never published in a peer-reviewed journal.
While the health risk hasn’t been confirmed, there are other options if you just feel better avoiding paraffin. Plant-based waxes, including coconut, soy, and beeswax, can offer a more natural, sustainable approach — but shop wisely.
Because the fragrance industry is largely unregulated, “A candle can have 1 percent soy and still be labeled as ‘soy-based,’” says Swimm. This is when it becomes important to know the brand.
This was far more of an issue before lead wicks were banned, but it’s still a good idea to shop for wicks made of cotton or wood. Some wicks have a metal core for support, which may not be readily visible.
Ready to shop? Here are a few nontoxic candle brands to get you started.
Grow Fragrance was created to offer 100 percent plant-based home fragrances using toxin-free ingredients, sourced naturally and in season.
That extends to their candle line. The company says they use a test developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure all candles are 100 percent plant-based and free of heavy metals and toxins — no phthalates, parabens, petroleum, or synthetic petrochemicals.
Grow Fragrance also says they avoid essential oils with sustainability issues, though they don’t say which ones. Their eco-friendly awareness extends to design as well. When making your first purchase, you’ll buy a concrete outer vessel that can be used again and again with refill candle inserts. The refill inserts are housed in aluminum that can be recycled after use.
Made with American-grown soy wax, coconut wax, and plant extracts that burn without emitting any harmful toxins, candles by Grow Fragrance are incredibly fragrant and long lasting.
Michelle and Jon Simmons were motivated to create plant-based candles following the birth of their first son. During Michelle’s pregnancy, they became increasingly aware of questionable ingredients in common household items.
As they searched for nontoxic replacements, the need for naturally healthy candles become clear, and the pair began experimenting. Their approach to candlemaking centered on ingredient transparency and clean-burning fragrances. The resulting candle line was an immediate hit.
All Slow North candles are made with pure essential oils and U.S.-grown soy wax. They’re poured into U.S.-made tumblers that can be reused. Cotton and paper wicks and cork lids round out the design, which is beautiful in its simplicity.
Slow North has over one dozen scents, and I can personally recommend the Rosemary + Lemon!
Brooklyn Candle Studio is all about affordable luxury — captivating scents, a minimalist aesthetic, and the very best ingredients.
Raw materials include 100 percent soy wax derived from U.S.-grown soybeans (a renewable resource), cotton wicks primed with vegetable oil, and fragrance oils derived from both natural and high-quality synthetic ingredients.
The company uses only phthalate-free fragrance oils, and all candles are cruelty-free and vegan. By avoiding paraffin wax and metal core and petroleum-primed wicks, their candles are an eco-friendly choice with a clean burn.
Pure Plant Home keeps it simple with coconut wax, an unbleached cotton wick, and pure essential oils — no petrochemicals, synthetics, or artificial dyes or colorants.
Tina Rocca, the founder, has been making aromatherapy blends for over 20 years. In 1995, she launched Aroma Naturals Candles, which would grow into the largest manufacturer of handcrafted aromatherapy candles before being sold to Yankee Candle Company.
Tina found her way back to candlemaking and developed a soy-free coconut wax — the perfect carrier for her essential oil aromas.
The founders of Keap took an intellectual approach to their candlemaking, taking perfumery classes and touring factories to help them pinpoint the details that matter. The result is a masterfully scented, virtually zero-waste candle.
Keap applied a deep understanding of the practicality, safety, artistry, and ethicality of fragrance options, which resulted in a blend of natural and synthetic fragrance. Plus, the team’s commitment to continuing its education in the pursuit of transparent, sustainable candlemaking is admirable.
Made from glass with low-adhesive labels, the containers can easily be reused or recycled. Subscription shipments are sent in compostable mushroom packaging.
Keap candles include cotton wicks and are made with slow-burning coconut wax in lieu of paraffin.
I found Heretic as one of a handful of candle brands stocked by Credo Beauty.
Thanks to the Credo Clean Standard, a rating system that considers safety, sourcing, sustainability, ethics, and transparency, the company’s roundup of “clean” candles actually means something. Plus, all products sold by Credo are free of what they call the Dirty List, a list of ingredients linked to health or environmental issues.
Four candle brands have made the Credo Clean Standard cut so far, and Heretic is one of them. These candles are made with soy wax and lead-free cotton wicks, plus a mix of essential oils and both natural and synthetic fragrance ingredients. Ingredients are listed in full, and definitions are provided for all.
There’s a lot of contradictory information about candle toxicity, and it’s hard to know what to believe. That’s why a little digging about a candle manufacturer and its philosophy is the best way to separate transparency, quality, and sustainability from marketing hype.
Remember to check ingredient lists, check out websites, or ask directly about the fragrance, the wax, and the wick. And keep in mind that like most things, candles are probably best enjoyed in moderation — and always in well-ventilated spaces.
Jessica Timmons has been working as a freelance writer since 2007, covering everything from pregnancy and parenting to cannabis, chiropractic, stand-up paddling, fitness, martial arts, home decor, and much more. Her work has appeared in mindbodygreen, Pregnancy & Newborn, Modern Parents Messy Kids, and Coffee + Crumbs. See what she’s up to now at jessicatimmons.com.