Wait, Are Those Scented Candles We’re Obsessed With Actually Toxic?

Experts have flagged that those expensive, pretty-smelling candles might not be as lit as they’re made out to be.
Scented Candles
Photo: Getty Images

Saloni Rao’s aspiration for a life of calm and mindfulness was briefly punctuated by scented candles. The 25-year-old India-based due diligence associate in the financial space claimed to have been “swept up by the candle trend” and began stocking up on a range of artfully packaged ones.

But within a few days of regularly lighting the candles, Rao began experiencing unpleasant symptoms. “The smell got to me. I felt gross, my lungs felt weird. I had splitting headaches and [felt] anything but calm,” she said. “Apart from the base wax and essence, you don’t know what the manufacturers [are adding to the candles] for a longer shelf life.” 


As paraffin wax candles are made from petroleum byproducts, a friend of Rao’s suggested opting instead for environmentally friendly candles. More sustainable candles are made of soy, stearin (made from vegetable or animal fat and oils), and beeswax. However, these didn’t help Rao, either. “I tried soy candles, but the effects were the same,” she said. “Also, it’s a lot of money for something that I honestly could do without. I realised that candles aren’t the cornerstone of my existence.” 

So, when did candles become such an important part of our lives – more than just alternative sources of light during power cuts or part of religious rituals? Few things are more luxe than a scented candle in an expensive glass jar. Unlike regular, unscented candles, scented varieties promise to make us feel things – to wrap the memory of an otherwise random hookup in notes of cherry, to relax us after a terrible day at work, or just to make a pretty table with bonsai and paper flowers even prettier. 

During the pandemic, the demand for candles shot up in various parts of the world. In part, because scented candles help add a little personality to any home. For some others, the visual of pretty lights glowing with scent after sunset can make a vibe happen in the quickest way possible. 


For Rao, though, giving into these trends was actually a vibe kill. After feeling disappointed with various scented candles, Rao opted for oil-based diffusers and was pleasantly surprised that they produced the same calming effect she’d expected from scented candles, minus the watery eyes, splitting headaches, and feelings of unease. 

According to a 2021 study that analysed the burning of five types of pillar candles with different wax and wick compositions, “all candle types were dominated by soot.” The study did clarify that the emission of such particulate matter varies over time and that “stressed burning” – burning candles for more than five or six hours at a single stretch – can lead to more emissions. 

Pulmonologist Indu Bubna told VICE that she gets the appeal of scented candles. “[But] anything that’s burning and emitting black smoke, which is basically soot, is going inside your lungs. It could be incense sticks, scented candles or even mosquito coils. In the long run, they will cause harmful effects.” 

These harmful effects, Bubna explained, can vary. Burning scented candles might trigger symptoms in those who have respiratory issues such as asthma or pneumonia, and can also aggravate migraines. Babies and the elderly can also be adversely affected. She attributed the practice of burning scented candles to a lack of awareness. “It’s definitely harmful if the candle is not plant-based. But there are other factors that influence emissions such as the composition of the candle, wick size, and the number of hours you’re burning it.”


Bubna clarified that she thus advocates for fragrance-free, unscented candles that are made of organic and plant-based materials. According to a fact sheet by Safer Choice – a voluntary programme run by the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – a “fragrance-free” product means that fragrance materials or masking scents are not used. “Unscented” means that the product may contain chemicals that neutralise or mask the odours of other ingredients. 

“Go for candles that use hundred percent beeswax, natural soy wax, and [that have a] paper wick. Basically, when you add fragrance to candles, it can trigger allergic rhinitis (inflammation of the inside of the nose caused by an allergen), asthma, and other complications.” 

Bubna cautions that if candles aren’t made with organic materials, but are fragrance-free, they will still release soot and carbon dioxide. She added that prolonged periods of exposure to scented candles, particularly ones that are not plant-based, can lead to harmful effects in the long run. 

While one can control the hours of candle exposure and ensure one’s room is well-ventilated, a 2015 study found that scented candles can produce emissions even when not lit. The study investigated the effects of six different candles before and after they were lit and found that “certain scented candle products should act as potent sources of VOC (volatile organic compounds) emission in the indoor environment, regardless of conditions — whether being lit or not.” 


However, some experts argue that there is little evidence to support that scented candles are toxic. Pamela Dalton, an odour perception and irritation researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia in the USA, told VICE that while certain scented candles might lead to watery eyes and a scratchy throat, it’s a stretch to think of candles as being “toxic.” “We breathe out chemicals from our body, not to mention that we are exposed to diesel exhaust on a daily basis,” she said. “In terms of scented candles, we do not take into account how [few] the number of chemicals emitted by candles are.”

Dalton added, “If there is sufficient ventilation, you will not have a buildup of toxic chemicals even if you burn the candle all the way down because there just isn’t enough [toxic] material in the candle to do so. If you burn candles for a long time with no [ventilation] in the room, the effect will still be limited to watery eyes and a scratchy throat – and not chronic like leading to cancer.”

So, what’s the definition of a well-ventilated space in the context of scented candles? How much ventilation is required for the scent of the candles to linger without the space becoming a palace of fumes? As long as you’re not burning candles in your closet without any ventilation whatsoever, you’re good to go, according to Dalton.

Bubna acknowledged that while the World Health Organization’s (WHO) limit for indoor air pollution (resulting from cooking, for example) might be higher compared with the pollutant level of candles burnt indoors, one cannot discount the toxic effects of candles burning for long hours in a poorly ventilated space. 


In the case of S. Khan, a 36-year-old Toronto-based journalist who preferred not to have her full name mentioned in this story, cutting out the use of scented candles and other scented products became imperative after she started experiencing intense menstrual cramps. 

Apart from feeling incapacitated during the three to five days of her menstrual cycle, she also experienced nausea, increased sensitivity to certain food smells, brain fog, as well as hot flashes and cold shivers. 

“In my search to get to the root cause of [these symptoms], I went to endocrinologists and naturopaths who endorsed [making] lifestyle changes. These included eliminating dairy or meat (as it disrupts hormones) and endocrine disruptors present in household products including candles, air fresheners, and cleaning products,” she said.

“While eliminating my home of cleaning products seemed like a formidable task, it was easy for me to stop buying candles and diffusers. I’m also sensitive to fragrances and tend to have an allergic reaction or feel [my nose] clog up when in the proximity of [a burning scented candle].”

An ENT surgeon weighs in

Hashmi Mohammad Syed, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) surgeon, suggests a few pointers to help ensure your safety, whenever you burn a candle or are near a burning one: 

  • Avoid burning candles for longer than four hours at a single stretch.

  • Avoid burning candles just before going to bed. Under no circumstances should candles be left to burn while you’re asleep.
  • Ensure burning candles are not too close to your nose, even during those romantic candlelight dinners. 
  • Avoid burning candles in a closed, poorly ventilated room. Candles require oxygen to burn and this can result in suffocation. All candles, especially those made from paraffin wax, produce soot or black smoke, which can trigger or aggravate breathing problems.
  • Opt for certified organic beeswax candles or, better still, vegan candles. Vegan waxes include palm, coconut, and soy.

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