Scented candles are one of the easiest and most effective ways to mask unpleasant odors in your home. They're a go-to when creating a relaxing ambiance to unwind after a long work day or while taking a warm bubble bath.
But one of the main problems with scented candles is the scent itself. According to Anne Steinemann, an environmental pollutants expert who is a professor of civil engineering and the chair of sustainable cities at the University of Melbourne, certain candles may emit numerous types of potentially hazardous chemicals, such as benzene and toluene. They can cause damage to the brain, lung and central nervous system, as well as cause developmental difficulties.
"I have heard from numerous people who have asthma that they can’t even go into a store if the store sells scented candles, even if they aren’t being burned," Steinemann added. "They emit so much fragrance that they can trigger asthma attacks and even migraines."
Researchers at South Carolina State University tested both petroleum-based paraffin wax candles and vegetable-based candles that were non-scented, non-pigmented and free of dyes. Their 2009 report concluded that while the vegetable-based candles didn't produce any potentially harmful pollutants, the paraffin candles "released unwanted chemicals into the air," said chemistry professor Ruhullah Massoudi in a statement.
"For a person who lights a candle every day for years or just uses them frequently, inhalation of these dangerous pollutants drifting in the air could contribute to the development of health risks like cancer, common allergies and even asthma,” Massoudi said.
The National Candle Association refutes these claims, stating in a comment to The Huffington Post: "The safety of scented candles is backed by decades of research, fragrance testing and a history of safe use. The fragrances approved for candle usage -- whether synthesized or 'natural' -- do not release toxic chemicals. Health and safety studies are conducted for fragrance materials used in candles, including toxicological and dermatological tests."
It may be shocking to think that your favorite candles could potentially be bad for you, and made worse by added fragrances. Steinemann said for some people, the effects are "immediate, acute and severe," while others may not realize they are being effected until they gradually develop health issues.
Though the risk to you may be small, there are alternatives. Steinemann suggests going the unscented route, avoiding "even those with essential oils, as they can potentially have hazardous chemicals," she said. "It's almost like air fresheners with the fragrance just sitting there ... permeating surfaces in the room."
To help guide you on a safer, unscented candle journey, shop our editors' picks below.