Candle Choices and Indoor Air Quality

by Chrystal Johnson on April 17, 2012

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When it comes to the topic of pollution, much of our collective attention often focuses on large-scale issues and events such as outdoor air quality (coal plants and other factory emissions) and water quality (oil spills; drinking water contamination).

Sometimes these bigger issues seem overwhelming, and, despite our best efforts and informed activism, it feels like there is little we can do about them. But instead of losing hope, focus on the pollutants you can do something about—mainly, those inside your home.

As more and more people are realizing, there is a surprisingly high number of environmental toxins that we come into contact without ever walking out our front door. And I’m not just talking about asbestos and radon—I’m talking about toxic chemicals that we buy at the store.

Some of these are obvious (aerosol cans of bug poison), but many are hidden or downright invisible. From the flame retardant that coats all but the most organic mattresses to the off-gassing paints that coat your walls, we’re literally surrounded by stuff that’s just no good for us to breathe. Even candles—one of the most seemingly benign product out there—can be something you should avoid.

Almost all candles sold in stores today are made from paraffin wax. Paraffin is a byproduct from oil refineries—basically it’s the waste left over after other petroleum products such as gasoline and motor oil are extracted from the crude. Scientific studies have found that chemicals found in paraffin candle fumes (such as benzene) are linked to cancer and birth defects.

Formaldehyde, toluene, and other toxic chemical compounds have also been identified in paraffin candles, causing even more concerns. And since candle makers are not required by law to list ingredients on their packaging, you don’t really know what it is you’re burning—and inhaling—when you light most candles at home.

Luckily for candle lovers, there exist many safe alternatives that are widely available at natural grocers and other conscious retailers. Your best bet is to choose candles made from unscented beeswax, soy or palm wax.

Beeswax comes from hives, and, instead of emitting chemicals when it combusts, actually emits negative ions instead. This is perhaps one of nature’s most lovely air cleaners. Soy and palm wax are hardened forms of their respective plant’s oil, and burn cleanly and virtually soot-free.

Palm wax is derived from a rapidly renewable resource that is the most efficient oil-producing crop in the world. However, expansion of the palm industry is responsible for a lot of deforestation in Southeast Asia, so you must choose your palm products carefully—more on that in another post.

If you like candles for their scent, then make sure that the candle is scented only with 100% pure essential oils. Or add a drop of essential oil to a diffuser and warm it with a paraffin-free tea light. Either way, it is not wise to burn candles scented with synthetic fragrances. When those combust, they may release the hard-to-spell phthalates, which are hormone disruptors. Also, make sure that the wick does not contain lead or any other filament.

There are many choices we can make at the store that can have a big impact on our lives and the health of our families. Switching to beeswax, soy, or palm wax candles is an easy yet important way to greatly improve the air quality in your home, and to improve the quality of the lives of those who are chemically sensitive or suffer from allergies.


Thank you to David Callicott for today’s guest post. Born in Memphis, David spent most of his adult life in the Telluride high country before relocating to New York. Now he’s in San Francisco, trying not to get run over on his bike in the Wiggle. As Co-founder of Goodlight Natural Candles, David is grateful that he gets to spend his days and nights spreading light.

About Chrystal Johnson

Chrystal, publisher of Happy Mothering, is a mother of two sweet girls who believes in living a simple, natural lifestyle. A former marketing manager, Chrystal spends her time researching green and eco-friendly alternatives to improve her family's life. She enjoys sharing those discoveries with anyone who's willing to listen.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 UltimateAir April 18, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Its surprising how something as simple as candles can be harming the environment of our home with toxic chemicals. There is an experiment that shows how quickly the things that we normally think of as cleaning our home, are actually releasing dangerous amounts of formaldehyde and other toxins into our air in a mater of seconds. It can be found in the video in this article:
UltimateAir recently posted..The Passive House Project


2 Viviana April 29, 2012 at 8:10 am

I wish I had known about this earlier! I used to work in a store that sells candles, and well, I never really thought they could be dangerous. I’ll be linking this to my former boss! ;)


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