People believe that candles are natural and beautiful. Candles are available in different shapes, sizes, scents and colour to match any decor. Some even claim to have health benefits and are infused with essential oils. There are no regulations relating to the content of candles and no requirements for ingredients to be listed on the product. So is burning candles safe for our health?
Candles may contain ingredients that may be detrimental to our health and to the environment as explained by Jo Immig in her article “Shedding Light on Candles” that appeared in the Australian Organic Gardener Magazine. When choosing candles think about the health, environmental and ethical issues. Candles were traditionally made from animal tallow and other natural waxes including beeswax, making them very expensive to purchase so they were used sparingly. Today most households have candles. Even with the availability of electricity, candles are still used regularly.
Spermaceti wax has been known to be used in candles. This oil is derived from the head of the sperm whale. This oil became readily available with the increase in the whaling industry but now most candles are made with paraffin wax. This is a hydrocarbon by-product of refining crude oil. Candle manufacturers claim that there are no significant health hazards associated with burning candles but there is some evidence to suggest that burning candles emit dangerous substances.
Soot Created from Burning Candles
Any soot can be damaging to the environment. Burning candles or incense can create soot. Soot is created from the impure carbon particles that are left after the incomplete combustion of the wax. This soot can gather on furniture, carpets, walls and it can be inhaled. Soot is made up of very fine particles and when inhaled they penetrate into the deepest part of the lungs. This means that the particles cannot be easily discharged.
The amount of soot generated when burning a candle will depend on how cleanly the candle burns. This will depend on the length of the wick, disturbance to the flame such as from a draught, and any scent that may have been added. Paraffin wax candles tend to produce more soot than natural wax candles.
Trace amounts of chemical pollutants are emitted when paraffin wax burns. The amount of pollutants will depend on any scent or colour that may be added to the wax. Emissions can include acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, acrolein, naphthalene, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PHAs) such as benzo (a) pyrene, dioxins and furans. One study shows that by burning several candles at once, the emissions result in levels of acetaldehyde, formaldehyde and acroletin that exceed United States recommended levels and present a cancer risk.
Candles with Lead Cored Wicks
Candles with metal centred wicks may contain lead and other metals such as zinc and tin. These types of wicks are used to keep it upright out of the way. There are safer materials that can be used for wicks such as cotton, paper or hemp.
Candles containing lead cored wicks were banned in Australia in 1999. Older candles or imported candles may still contain lead. When purchasing candles examine the wick to see if it has a thin metal core. If metal is present, it is highly likely that it contains lead. Burning such a wick will emit levels of lead that may be dangerous to pregnant women, babies and young children.
Most candles available are perfumed with a combination of essential oils and synthetic fragrances. With the addition of any fragrance a candle will burn less cleanly and therefore increases the levels. This also applies to aromatherapy candles.
Healthier Options for Burning Candles
Candles made from beeswax have been around for many years and are the best candles to buy. Beeswax candles burned much cleaner with less soot. The natural honey scent also provides natural aromatherapy without the addition of fragrances.
Soy and Palm Wax Candles
Candles made from soy and palm wax are now available. They may be a better option than paraffin and cheaper than beeswax. The palm wax is made from palm fruits which produced a large amount of oil. There is a large demand for palm oil and this is causing the destruction of tropical forest to be replaced with palm oil plantations. This is an environmental concern and has a number of cultural impacts such as affecting orangutan populations. There are some sustainable producers of palm oil, so when purchasing candles check the manufacturer credentials. Or perhaps avoid candles made of palm oil.
Soy wax candles are the other alternative, made from hydrogenated soybean oil. There are some soybeans that are grown in already cleared agricultural regions but again some Forest’s are being cleared to be replaced by soybeans. Soybeans are also often genetically modified with the environmental impact of this also an issue.
The benefits of soy and palm wax candles include a long burn time and less soot. Check the natural wax content of candles. If they don’t say that they are 100% natural wax then they probably have a high content of paraffin wax. To reduce the risks to health and the environment choose natural wax candles with a natural wick. If a scent is desired then burn pure essential oils in an oil burner.