Scented Candle Scintillations

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Soy_tealight_candlesWinter is here and the air is filled with the scent of cinnamon, hot chocolate and freshly cut pine trees. We love to create cozy warm retreats for ourselves complete with glowing fires and scented candles.

At the risk of being a party pooper, I’m suggesting you might want to rethink lighting those yummy smelling scented candles. In this post, I’ll explain why some scented candles should be avoided and provide you with some healthy and money-saving alternatives.

Here are my top three reasons you should avoid traditional scented candles:

  • Harmful chemicals in the fragrances
  • Most are made from paraffin
  • Heavy metal poisoning

Lets’ look at these concerns one at a time.


I love my scented candles and burn them in my house, but there are certain types I avoid.

In particular, I try to steer clear of the inexpensive mass-produced ones with intensely strong fragrance. As I outlined in my previous post Hormone Havoc, many everyday products contain endocrine disrupting chemicals or  EDCs. Fragrance is one of them. The class of EDCs  most commonly found in products with fragrance are called phthalates (pronounced thal-ates, yep, I know it’s weird.)

Without being too repetitive, phthalates are a family of chemicals that are known to cause disrupted hormone activity, reduced sperm counts, reproductive malformations, neurological disorders and have also been linked to liver and breast cancer, diabetes, and obesity…to name a few. The effects of phthalates are particularly harmful to young children (especially baby boys), girls and women 1,2,3,4.

Are your eyebrows raised?

Manufacturers of those amazing smelling candles freely use a phthalate known as DEP 5,6. Although earlier studies gave this phthalate the green light, in 2010, the US Products Safety Commission issued the “Final Toxicity Review for DEP” and concluded that DEP should considered harmful, and in some cases, toxic for both long and short-term exposure. This is especially true for females of reproductive age 13-49 4. In the European Union, DEP has been placed on the list of priority chemicals that are potentially endocrine disrupting 7.

Don’t panic; it’s easy to avoid this deceptively alluring, but worrisome chemical. Choose candles made with essential oils or labeled phthalate-free. Lots of companies manufacture candles made with essential oils or use phthalate-free fragrances. They are really easy to find in just about any local health food store or on the Internet.

What’s wrong with paraffin?

Paraffin is used in multitudes of personal care products and in food. According to the Environmental Working Group, the paraffin used in food, body products and cosmetics has a safety score of 1, the safest of chemicals 8. However, the paraffin used in candles is not food or pharmaceutical grade. It is refined from petroleum and contains byproducts considered irritating, toxic and even carcinogenic.

Beeswax candles with cotton wicks.

Researchers at the University of South Carolina burned many brands of paraffin wax used in candles, to analyze the gasses produced 9. The results revealed undesirable and carcinogenic products such as alkenes, alkanes, and the nastiest of all, toluene. All are known to cause health problems in humans. Interestingly, soy-based and other vegetable-based wax candles produced no toxic gasses 9.

I prefer to use candles that are soy-based wax or beeswax. They are more expensive, but are always given a clean bill of health in scientific tests.

Heavy metal poisoning

Are you kidding me? No, I’m not. Many candlewicks have metal cores, which add rigidity to keep the braided cotton wick straight in melted wax. The most common metals used in candlewicks are zinc, tin and lead. The good news is that in 1974, the US banned use of lead in candlewicks manufactured in the US. In addition, US Federal regulators banned the import of all candles with lead-core wicks in 2003 10.

Some unscrupulous importers continue to supply lead-wicked candles to the US. Burning one of these candles can release enough lead into the atmosphere to exceed safe limits for children within 45 minutes. There is no visual way to discern if the metal in a candlewick is lead or another metal.

The candle industry considers zinc and tin-cored wicks to be safe6. I was unable to find any studies on the safety of inhaled zinc and tin fumes. Like lead, the metals zinc and tin are also are heavy metals but not nearly as toxic11. As trace elements, zinc and tin are essential to maintain the human metabolism. However, at higher concentrations they can lead to tin or zinc toxicity12. What especially worries me is the possibility of bioaccumulation. Once taken into the body, heavy metals are excreted very slowly and become concentrated in the liver or kidneys over time. I don’t want my family breathing heavy metals fumes of any kind!

Candles that are most likely to have metal-core wicks are votives, pillars and tea lights or candles that produce puddles of wax. Your safest bet is to buy candles with braided cotton, paper or hemp wicks.

To buy safe and healthy candles, choose only candles that:

  • Are manufactured in the US or EU
  • Are sold by reputable vendors
  • Are made of soy or other plant-based wax or beeswax
  • Have wicks made of braided cotton, hemp, paper or wood
  • Use essential oils or phthalate-free fragrances
Pacifica soy-wax scented candles have cotton wicks and are phthalate free. This photo was taken at my local health food store.

A quick Google search will yield bunches of candles that fit the bill. Once you start looking, you’ll be shocked at how many choices there are! Have fun perusing the aisle of your local health food store, or look online for thousands of choices. Steer clear of the mass produced candles so popular in the grocery stores and malls of America. At least read the label to see if it mentions phthalate-free or essential oils used as scents.

Dr. Gonzo’s Blended Solution

Battery operated candles on Dr. Gonzo’s coffee table.

I REALLY love the ambiance that candles create and I have discovered another solution to avoid nasty air borne chemicals and risk of fire from unattended (forgotten in my case) candles. I use the battery-operated candles purchased from Costco. I haul them out every year, change the AAA batteries, and they are good to go from Thanksgiving through Valentine’s Day.

The BEST part of using battery operated candles, is that I save a ton of money. My Costco candles still look terrific after 5 years. To save even more, stock up on these “candles” in after-Christmas sales at department stores!

I still light my favorite soy-wax, phthalate-free (cedar or spruce), cotton-wicked, scented candle for a lovely winter aroma. So relax and enjoy the winter by creating a healthy and cozy nest for your loved ones!