Can burning candles be bad for you? – Cleveland Clinic
There’s a reason candles play a role in religious traditions and mindfulness practices around the world. Fire is the basis of human life and we react to it accordingly. A 2014 study in Evolutionary Psychology found that even looking at a registration a fireplace or campfire can induce physical and mental relaxation.
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It’s no wonder so many of us enjoy burning candles – especially scented candles – in our homes.
But over the past few years, a number of articles have cropped up suggesting that burning candles releases potentially dangerous hydrocarbons into the air.
It’s a scary thing to read, but don’t let it dampen your mood. At least not yet.
We spoke to pulmonologist Sobia Farooq, MD, about the dangers candles pose to your health. Spoiler alert: Lit candles can contribute to indoor air pollution, but given all the research available, it doesn’t care who chooses to light them (in a well-ventilated space, at least).
Can burning candles be harmful to health?
When it comes to candles, the question is not whether they contribute to air pollution. We know this because it is a product of combustion. But what the medical and scientific community is divided on is whether the emissions they generate, however small, can have a significant impact on your health.
What happens when you burn a candle?
When you burn a candle, you release hydrocarbons – chemical compounds made up of hydrogen and carbon – into the air. In particular, burning candles releases traces of toluene and benzene.
We commonly use toluene in paint thinners and adhesives. Without adequate ventilation, exposure to toluene can irritate eyes, nose, throat and skin. It can also cause headaches, dizziness, confusion, and anxiety.
Benzene is a gas emitted by forest fires, volcanoes and the burning of coal or oil. We use benzene primarily in industrial and pharmaceutical settings, but the vast majority (90%) of all exposure to benzene occurs as a result of smoking. Benzene is carcinogenic, having been found to increase the risk of leukemia and other blood cancers.
Who is at risk?
Although you don’t want to inhale significant amounts of toluene, benzene, or any other hydrocarbon, the small amount released when you burn a candle is only of concern in certain situations.
According to Dr. Farooq, a small number of studies suggest an association between candle burning and bladder cancer. “All these volatile organic hydrocarbons build up in the blood,” she explains. “They end up being excreted through the bladder, hence the link to bladder cancer.”
As a result, Dr Farooq says people under watch, living with, or in remission from bladder cancer might want to take it easy. Likewise, she encourages people with chronic lung conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to be aware of air pollution levels in their homes.
Frankly, however, the science isn’t strong enough to suggest that we should stop buying and burning candles.
In fact, we engage in much higher risk activities every day. According to Dr Farooq, indoor cooking increases particles in the air and has been linked to respiratory illnesses. A scented candle is simply not dangerous in comparison.
“There is no imminent danger,” says Dr Farooq. “You just need to be aware of investing in high-quality candles and keeping them in well-ventilated areas.”
Are some waxes better than others?
Although concerns about burning candles are overblown, it is true that some candles are better than others. The type and quality of the wax can change the amount and type of emissions generated by the candle. Although there’s no definitive science proving it hurts, Dr. Farooq suggests avoiding paraffin wax. Paraffin is made from petroleum and appears to generate higher emissions than other waxes. And paraffin-based candles tend to be less expensive.
“In some cases,” she explains, “these cheaper products contain more formaldehyde-generating materials and a lower melting point. It has been suggested – but not proven – that cheaper candles are more dangerous because they contain more volatile organic carbons.
If it is listed, check the paraffin content of the candle you are considering buying. Whenever you can, opt for beeswax, soy or other vegetable waxes instead.
Although they can be pretty to look at, Dr. Farooq also suggests skipping candles that have been dyed out. “The dye used to color the candles contains benzidine,” she says, which is also linked to an increased risk of bladder cancer.
Are scented candles toxic?
For every person who likes to relax with a scented candle, there’s another person who gets a headache (or runny) just thinking about it.
There is no science to suggest that scented candles are inherently more dangerous than the unscented variety. Like all candles, they release volatile organic compounds, but in amounts that should not pose a health risk. For the safest aromatherapy adventure possible, choose high-quality candles that do not use dyes or paraffin.
Regardless of toxicity, many people have allergic reactions to scented candles. For some, scented candles can even trigger asthma attacks.
Simply put, when it comes to scented candles, your mileage may vary.
What about wick toxicity?
Although once a cause for considerable concern, many countries have taken steps to prevent the use of lead and metal core candle wicks, which can produce dangerous emissions and cause lead poisoning.
Australia was the first country to ban the use of lead fuses. While most American manufacturers stopped using lead in their candle wicks in the 1970s, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) only banned the sale and import of candles with lead wicks. ‘in 2003.
If you’re not sure if your country has banned lead candle wicks, just be sure to buy candles with paper, cotton, or wooden wicks.
How to burn candles safely
If you’re like most people, the therapeutic benefits of burning candles far outweigh any health risks they may pose. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make healthy choices to improve the experience and protect yourself from crashes.
Treat yourself to quality candles
Good news for all lovers of scented candles! Expensive candles may be bad for your wallet, but they are a good investment for your health.
According to Dr. Farooq, the candle industry is not as well regulated as it could be. “Studies suggest that lower quality candles emit more particles and chemicals. Higher quality candles burn very slowly. So if you’re looking to minimize risk, stick with the fancy stuff.
Of course, the safest candle in the world is as safe as the person burning it. This is why it is of crucial importance to follow candle safety guidelines.
Follow fire safety instructions
If you’re looking for a reason to stop burning candles altogether, the most obvious safety hazard – fire – is also the most important. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), firefighters respond to approximately 7,400 structure fires in the United States caused by candles each year. Result: an average of 90 dead, 670 injured and nearly 300 million dollars in material damage.
Although they are significantly smaller than the fires we burn in bonfires, fire pits and fireplaces, we should always exercise caution and common sense when interacting with candles. The following safety tips will help keep you and your family safe:
- Trim the wick to 1/4 inch.
- Use a wick ladle to keep the wax pool clear of debris at all times.
- Burn your candle in a well-ventilated room, away from anything that could catch fire.
- Never burn a candle for more than four hours.
- Never leave a candle unattended or burn it if you risk falling asleep.
- Instead of blowing out a candle or using a snuffer, use a wick ladle to gently immerse the wick in the pool of wax. This method generates no smoke or wax splatter.
- Do not attempt to touch or reposition your candle until it has had time to cool.
Alternatives to candles
If you’d rather avoid candles altogether, but still want the feeling of a lit candle in your home, consider these alternatives:
- Ghee and oil lamps, such as diyas (which are used in several religions across the Indian subcontinent), are smokeless and less toxic than candles or incense.
- Flameless candles, while certainly not comparable to the real thing, do not pose a fire hazard.
- If you’re buying scented candles for the smell, melted wax might be a suitable substitute. According to Dr. Farooq, the lower temperatures used for wax melting result in fewer combustion byproducts.
you do yourself
Although not all candles are created equal, there is little scientific evidence to suggest that they pose a hazard to your health. As long as you take all the proper fire safety precautions, go ahead and “light up.”