our tips for the healthiest way to set the mood
It's Friday night. Congratulations on making it through this brutal, long week. We completely understand that all you've got on your mind are the wine and cheese sitting in your fridge calling to you. OH, and maybe a bubble bath with those brand new candles you just purchased. It's the perfect spa night. Yep, it's happening. Forget going out, tonight is all about staying in. But before you light a million candles in the bathroom, hear us out on why maybe just one (or some cute string lights) will do!
Candles release compounds known as volatile organic compounds whether they are lit or not (1). VOCs can have both short and long term adverse health effects and there are consistently higher concentrations of VOCs indoors than outdoors. The majority of the VOCs released from candles is because they doesn't burn cleanly, which releases acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, acrolein, phenol, benzene, and toluene, many of which are carcinogenic (3). Phenols (one of the words in that list if you jumped to the end of the sentence when you started seeing a bunch of scary words) are the chemicals that make candles smell like brown sugar, wild mango, and clean laundry. It makes sense that it would take some pretty weird chemicals to bottle up the smell of a tropical island in a single candle, right? Definitely healthier and safer to go with candles scented with essential oils to avoid some of these nasty VOCs. A few of the other VOCs released can cause changes to our DNA (and in some cases, bad changes!). Of all of the VOCs released, formaldehyde and acrolein are the other two biggest worries because they are released in the highest concentrations. Formaldehyde itself can cause cancer (4) while acrolein, which is used to make weapons in high concentrations, can kill you if you breathe in too much of it - Yikes (5). I don't know about you, but those are some things I definitely don't want to invite to my relaxing spa night!
So what is in my candles?
Candles are traditionally and most commonly made of paraffin, which is obtained from petroleum or shale. Beeswax, soy wax, palm wax, gels and synthetic waxes are also used for candle-making in the U.S. market (2). These waxes themselves are also worrisome. When burned, they all can contribute significant amounts of particulate matter (tiny little pieces of smoke, dust, and general gunk that can get stuck inside your lungs when you breath) and release carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs – the same toxic chemical that is released when you burn grilled food!). It might be easy to confuse particulate matter and VOCs, but here's the biggest difference between them; particulate matter consists of small pieces of material and VOCs are made up of gases. Studies have shown that particulate matter can cause sharp, sudden irritative symptoms, especially for throat and upper respiratory tract irritation. There has also been research suggesting that candles made of paraffin wax might be more toxic than candles made of soy or beeswax, so try and stick to candles made with these waxes instead.
Noooo, but candles are the best! Don't make me give them up!
Don't worry! There's a silver lining! In many research studies, the amount of released toxic emissions was less than the health standards set up by the World Health Organization (WHO). This means that you don't have to say no to candles, you just need to be smart about when and where you use them. Here are our suggestions.
- Keep candles on display in a well-ventilated area (since they also release VOCs even when unlit)
- Only light candles in a well-ventilated area. Unfortunately, that means maybe don't use it in your bathroom with the door closed, but Zen all you want next to an open window (next Instagram post, anyone?).
- Stick with candles that are scented with essential oils (think lavender, jasmine, or eucalyptus)
- Try and purchase candles that are made from soy and beeswax, instead of the typical paraffin.
- If you're really worried, or happen to be more sensitive, we suggest keeping candle use to a minimum and using just for special occasions (like birthdays!). For alternative ways to set the perfect relaxing mood, try hanging some string lights, setting out some flameless votives, and adding a slice of orange or dried lavender or eucalyptus to your bath water.
Stick with these guidelines and you can continue to enjoy their relaxing and festive properties!