Do Candles Cause Air Pollution?

BY ON December 13, 2012

Little girl standing near holiday candles

Last weekend I spent a few hours holiday shopping, visiting both boutiques and big box stores. Every shop that I visited smelled more delicious than the next. Scents of lavender, vanilla, cinnamon and spice hit me like a ton of bricks as I walked through each doorway. Unlit candles were strategically placed throughout almost every store emitting scents intending to remind us ‘tis the season to shop.

Ever since I can remember, candles have been peppered throughout my living space providing me, and anyone who visits, with familiar and delightful scents. Since having children, my lighted candle craving has toned down a bit. Fire and children don’t mix well. However, candles continue to provide everyday enjoyment and represent the universal symbol of the holiday season for many of us.

For this reason retail shops tend to ramp up their candle inventory during the holiday season offering candles in varying scents, colors, shapes and sizes. Approximately 35% of candle sales occur during the holiday season.

Unfortunately, not all candles are created equal. According to a study presented at the American Chemical Society, candles can be responsible for adding nasty pollutants to your indoor air. It’s hard to imagine that something as small and simple as a candle can actually be a culprit in indoor air pollution, but it’s true.

Toxic chemicals

Most of the candles on the market are made with paraffin wax, derived from petroleum, and scented with synthetic fragrances, also derived from petroleum. In the study by the American Chemical Society, researchers found that the petroleum-based candles emitted varying levels of cancer-causing toluene and benzene, as well as other hydrocarbon chemicals called alkanes and alkenes, which are components of gasoline and can irritate respiratory tracts and trigger asthma. Not something you want to breathe in. The levels of these toxic chemicals can build up in a closed room without much ventilation.


Soot is the solid particle that results from incomplete combustion of carbon containing fuels, primarily petroleum-based fuels. Candles are known to produce soot and this microscopic airborne pollution can lodge itself deep in the lungs. An Environmental Protection Agency report on candles and indoor air quality found that one type of candle could emit 100 times more soot than another. Scented candles were more likely to produce soot than unscented.

Soot exposure can harm all of us, but soot specifically harms babies, as it can cause premature birth and low birth weight.

What you can do

  • If a candle begins to smoke, place the candle in water. Keep in mind longer wicks and higher flames may produce soot.
  • Make sure the room is properly ventilated when lighting candles.
  • Look for candles made from soybean, palm, hemp, or beeswax. These aren’t petroleum-based and most likely won’t emit the same toxic chemicals as a paraffin wax candle.


photo credit: Laenulfean via photopin cc

TOPICS: Asthma, Cancer, Pollution, Toxics