There are so many things in this world to worry about. Not only what to eat and what to wear, but also, if you’re an enlightened and conscientious individual, the materials those clothes are made of and the ingredients that went into the food. Not just what to do for work and for fun, but also how you should get there. Not just keeping your home clean, but also what you use to do so. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by trying to make good choicses. Sometimes I go to Wal Mart. Sometimes I’d rather eat a Reese’s, which is apparently one of the worst offenders in the already-bad-enough realm of chocolate manufacturing.

Recently I was buying a hand-poured soy candle at a local craft fair, and the maker mentioned off-handedly that I was making a great purchase because regular candles release toxins into the air of our homes. Great, I thought, yet another thing to worry about. But a little bit of research has me convinced that changing the type of candle I burn is a relatively simple safeguard against a potential health hazard.

Soy candles are a better alternative to traditional paraffin wax.

A few years ago I went candle crazy. I found there were almost always coupons for the brands available at Target or the grocery store, and I got amazing deals on them when they went on sale. I loved the names of the scents and the thought that, if I burned them, my home would evoke all the emotions associated with those delightful phrases.

Unfortunately, there are three main potential hazards in those run-of-the-mill candles.

  • Paraffin wax, which is what most candles are made of, is a petroleum by-product. It can release carcinogenic soot containing benzene and toluene, the same chemicals found in diesel fuel fumes. Yuck! In fact, there’s a veritable laundry list of -enes, -ols, -anes, and -ides that might be hiding in your candles. It’s unlikely that simply burning a candle periodically could release high enough levels to be of concern, but I don’t see why it’s worth the risk.

  • The synthetic oils used to create those charming scents, not to mention the dyes that make my cute spring candles pink, can be triggers for allergies, especially for individuals with asthma. They can also be skin irritants. They contain some of the same toxins as paint remover! If I were stripping paint, I’d be sure to do it in a well-ventilated area, and yet I burn these candles in my enclosed home, and sometimes even in cordoned-off rooms like the bathroom.

  • At some point candle makers started using bits of lead in the wick to help it stand up better. Candles in the United States are supposed to have pure cotton wicks, but not all candles are manufactured here. We’ve banished lead from paint and children’s toys, and yet it’s still sneaking in under the guise of a happy, relaxing treat. If you notice a ring of soot on the lip of your candle’s jar, that may be an indication that the wick contains heavy metals. You can also pull apart the fibers of the wick using your fingernail and take a peek–if you see metallic streaks, set it back down! Again, the likelihood of this creating enough pollution to do harm is small, but burning these types of candles can potentially lead to poor indoor air quality that is as harmful as secondhand smoke and there are horror stories out there (of course).

So what should we do if we want the soothing presence of a flickering flame and the refreshing scent of a candle?

First of all, avoid inexpensive candles, imports, grocery store aromatherapy, and anything with a metal wick. I like the newer wood wick candles that crackle cheerily like a fire, though the verdict is still out on whether the wood is treated in such a way as to render it harmful. I’m going to choose ignorance is bliss on that one for now. Secondly, don’t burn any of your candles for more than an hour or so at a time, and never in a completely enclosed room. If you’re sticking with traditional candles, it’s even best to have a fan on for ventilation (though that ruins the relaxing mood).

You have a few options when it comes to the wax. Soy is a popular alternative to paraffin wax, and it’s the type I’ve chosen to purchase. Soy candles are everywhere these days! It doesn’t release harmful fumes and also offers longer burn times than traditional paraffin wax. However, not everything labeled as a soy candle is actually 100% soy wax, so make sure you double check. And also, most soy beans grown in the U.S. are not GMO-free. Many people avoid soy in their foods for this reason, and that logic would carry over into the realm of candles.

Beeswax is probably the best choice when it comes to candle wax. It literally is the wax made by bees and actually removes impurities from the air as it burns.


Beeswax naturally has a light scent of honey, or you can find varieties scented with essential oils. Essential oils are all the rage right now and can offer a variety of health benefits. A downside to beeswax candles is that they tend to be expensive, but it’s relatively easy to make your own if you can get your hands on beeswax sheets or granules.

Another positive upside to purchasing soy or beeswax candles is the opportunity to support your local economy. Because the ingredients are minimal, it’s easy for solopreneur crafters to break into the candle market. Soy wax can be poured into a variety of vessels, and the beauty of it is that, since it’s all natural, you can rinse and re-use the vessel after the candle is spent! I’ve seen booths at local markets selling soy candles in vintage tea cups and other beautifully delicate jars.

If you’re ready to ditch the paraffin and lead, Etsy has a number of stores offering handmade candles. I’ve enjoyed purchases from Sugar N Spice Naturals and Yo Soy Candles. I haven’t purchased any beeswax to date, but that may be next on my list.

You don’t have to take my word on this. A little organization called the EPA released a study over a decade ago called “Candles and Incense as Potential Sources of Indoor Air Pollution” and plenty of other bloggers and news outlets have spread the word as well.

We’re all going to die of something some day, and it’s impossible to mitigate every potentially harmful situation. It’s our choice what we do with the information once we know it, but I think it’s worthwhile to be aware. If I can enjoy the lovely scent of a candle without worrying about lead soot, toxins, and allergens, then I’ll spend a few dollars more to protect my home.

Laura Lindeman

Laura Lindeman