Are candles toxic?

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As the seasons swiftly meld into fall and winter, the colder months bring with them the peak of the candle-burning season.

However, lighting your favorite candle and cozying up in a blanket may not be as care-free as it sounds, especially at a time when our lung health is paramount. As many of you know, traditional candles are typically filled with toxic chemicals, which can be housed in the candle’s fragrance, wax, or wick. Keep reading to find out more about what to avoid in candles and how to pick a safe one so that we can all enjoy candles without worrying about how the invisible byproducts will damage our health.

As usual, I like to share how I look at and vet products, so you can do this for yourself - but if you are not interested in this, and just want to know a few brands I have looked at and like - skip to the last section. 



Artificially scented candles often contain harmful ingredients that are emitted into the air when burned. Under U.S. Food & Drug Administration regulations, companies are allowed to mask thousands of toxic ingredients in products such as candles and personal care products under the umbrella term of “fragrance.” These toxins include phthalates, which are known endocrine disruptors that off-balance your hormones, and many other chemicals that have adverse health effects for the general population, commonly migraines, respiratory issues.

Candles that say “natural fragrance”, "plant-based" - is not much better, because manufacturers can claim they are derived from natural plant sources but still do not disclose any information about how the fragrance was processed and whether harmful chemicals like phthalates or others to make the scent stick around and more pungent. Many of these are synthetic - they may have originally come from a plant but to make them smell stronger, things have been added to them and there's no way of knowing if these may be harmful to our health (unless the company can provide this information).  The word “natural”, "plant-based", here thus has no meaning whatsoever and is nothing short of a marketing gimmick.


To avoid this, look for candles scented with only essential oils. e.g. NOT, 'come from lavender' or 'present in lavender' - that means they extracted something from lavender and most likely added other stuff to it. Instead, look for, 100% Lavender essential oil. Good companies will also be able to tell you how the oil was acquired, such as steam distilled or pressed, where the plant is from, and ideally paid a fair wage to source them. Essential oil adulteration is rife and consumer reports testing essential oils on the market have found synthetics and harmful chemicals in essential oils, and so if companies use cheap, adulterated essential oils in their candles - we are back literally to square one. 

Another pitfall is to look out for the term ‘pure’. U.S. regulations allow companies to label their products as “pure” even if they only contain 51% of the claimed material. So even if you buy a candle that says it is scented with “pure” essential oils, it may still be mixed with other synthetic fragrant chemicals. 

Look for a candle that uses 100% essential oils, and ask the company where the oils came from - and I have an easy rule of thumb - if something smells strong or heavily scented, I smell a rat. In my experience, candles scented with 100% essential oils have only a very subtle smell. If the candle is able to fill a whole room with a strong scent, they've added synthetics to it. I know we all want our houses to smell of pumpkin and ginger spice right now, but it is probably not great for our health. 



Even if you buy unscented candles to simply enjoy the warmth and ambiance and not worry about the chemicals in the fragrance, chemicals can still be found in the wax.

Candles are most commonly made from paraffin wax, which is the leftover oil from refining substances like petroleum or coal after it has been treated and bleached with the carcinogenic chemicals of benzene and toluene. Paraffin candles - even when unscented, non-pigmented, and using no dyes - emit these carcinogens, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), PM2.5 particles, alkans and alkenes, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, along with other chemicals, when burned. Reports show frequent exposure and inhalation of these dangerous pollutants can be linked to the development of dermatitis, cardiovascular and respiratory issues, allergies, asthma, and cancer

Safer alternatives include vegetable-based wax, including soy wax and coconut wax. Beeswax is also gaining popularity although I always have question marks around the cruelty aspect of such mass production of beeswax, and so I personally prefer vegetable oil-based wax like soy and coconut. 


But do these emit any harmful particulate matter when burnt? Well, it depends on the purity again. 


The truth is - some of the chemicals mentioned above will be emitted whenever there is a combustion process going on, that is just the true nature of combustion. However, the degree will vary, so for me, it is about weighing up the enjoyment of something vs the potential harm, and finding items that are BETTER.



This very small study showed that unscented and non-pigmented candles, if made from soy, beeswax, or palm oil (which I do not support, but it was included in the study) appear to not contain or emit toxic chemicals when burned, unlike paraffin candles. Bear in mind this is a small study where n=1, and also, we don't know the purity of some 'vegetable' waxes out there on the market. So I would say, do your research and make sure you are happy with the brand you chose for the quality of their wax. 


Soy wax is sustainable, renewable, biodegradable, economically-beneficial for farmers, and the agriculture industry. They also produce less soot than paraffin candles, thus keeping the atmosphere of your house cleaner.


It should be noted that NO candle can be burned without producing some degree of soot, so there is no 100% non-toxic candle - but with PURE vegetable-based and beeswax, there is less, and you guys know I don't strive for perfection, especially when the enjoyment of candles for me outweigh the tiny amount of soot that may be released. I'm not here to tell you what is right for you. If you don't care for candles, you may prefer just to go without to be 100% safe. But I do love a candle this time of year. 


Quality matters - As with fragrances, wax blends are very common in candles, and the label will often not disclose all of the ingredients. A candle can be labeled soy wax but include 50% paraffin (yes that is legal). Therefore, only candles that say on the label that they are made 100% of a safer, vegetable-based wax are better. Ideally, these candles will also be labeled as “paraffin-free." If the company does not disclose this, you can contact them and ask. 

Look for wax that is 100% pure soy, coconut, or beeswax with no paraffin.  



Another aspect to pay attention to in order to ensure your candle is non-toxic is the wick. Manufacturers often stiffened wicks using pollutants such as lead, zinc, and tin, which can add harmful toxins to the candle’s emissions. Lead wicks were banned in 2003, so a candle labeled as having a “lead-free” wick may be misleading (because there should be NO wicks with lead now) - but look out, it can contain another toxic stiffener instead. 

Look for wicks made of 100% “unbleached cotton” or unprocessed wood. If the candle simply says the wick is made of 'natural' cotton or wood, it has possibly gone through a bleaching or chemical process so ask the company.


Important tips

It is sometimes hard to find all of the above-mentioned information on a candle’s label or the manufacturer’s website. Follow up with the brand and ask them if they use fragrance or 100% essential oils if their wax contains paraffin. Check what their wicks are made from and if they are unbleached. 

Tip: Look for a clean burn - It should be burning cleanly without soot or smoke, and the glass should not be stained with black soot after burning. 

Tip: Look for a wick that does not require trimming - you may have noticed that some candles develop red glowing bubble or head that eventually drops off into the wax to create a nasty mess in the wax. This happens usually because of an inferior cotton wick 

The thing to realize and maybe adjust to, with non-toxic candles, out of all the ones I've tried, is that the scent they give off is much more subtle than synthetically fragranced ones. And that's a good thing. If a candle you burn gives a strong smell, you have to question what chemicals have been used to create such a pungency. 

Tip: To reduce soot, use a candle tweezer to put out your candle instead of blowing it out. Even with ones that says no-trim, trim the wick (that's blackened) for a cleaner burn 


Here are some brands I like: 


  • Pure plant homes  - This is my favorite because I love the amount of care and attention that has gone into these candles. As part of my research, I connected with Tina, the founder who told me the lengths she went to, to ensure top quality ingredients in her candle.

1) She makes the wax herself instead of sourcing from a wax manufacturer (what most other candle companies do), this is important because then she knows exactly what goes into them and she formulated them with a chemist, and they make them in their facility in Southern California. They are 100% coconut and vegetable oil-based wax, and she only uses non-GMO ingredients.

2) She uses unbleached cotton for a wick

3) Perhaps the coolest thing is that she is an aromatherapist and has been working with essential oils for over 20 years. Her essential oils are direct from farmers and distillers whose practices she knows, she pays them a fair wage, and these are 100% pure, wild-crafted, essential oils with no additives or adulterants. The smell is very subtle though, so if you are used to synthetic smells, it is very different. 


She also loves what I'm doing and how picky I am, and so she wanted to give us a time-limited discount. My favorite from her are Peace on Earth, Lavender, and Ginger vanilla. 


Discount code: platefulhealth

Burning time: 40 hours 

Size:  6 oz (other sizes available too)

Price: $20 USD 


  • Meaningful Mantras - these are created in the same facilities and use the same ingredients and process as Pure Plant Homes above - but they have wonderful mantras on them. The bath salt is amazing. She also has organic cotton clothing with meaning mantras on them - These will make great holiday gifts. My favorite is 'You are extraordinary'

Code Platefulhealth gets you 20% OFF 


  • Lit and cycle - Vegan - Soy candle made with 100% pure essential oils. American-grown soy wax, and a cotton wick. Made without paraffin, dyes, lead, animal by-products, or synthetic fragrances.
    • Burning time: 65 hours 
    • Size:  10 oz
    • Price: $50 USD 


  • TerraLite - Botanical coconut wax candles made with pure, organic, wildcrafted essential oils and plant extracts. 
    • Size:  8 oz (other sizes available)
    • Price: $24 USD 



  • Fontana Candle Co - made from beeswax + coconut wax, and 100% pure essential oils. This candle has an untreated wood wick that crackles as it burns. 
  • Burning time: 20-60 hours 


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