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Saturday, December 10, 2011

11: Chemicals by Candlelight

Earlier this fall, I saw a sign outside a home décor store in Wetaskiwin, advertising their “BLOW-OUT SALE on CANDLES.” I wondered if they meant to be funny; I thought it was hilarious.

Speaking of which, we’re into that time of year when we love the warm glow of candles on a long, dark evening. They are a favourite way to lend ambiance or romance to a setting. However, there are some health issues to consider when buying candles, things of which I was not aware until recently.

A large percentage of the candles available today are made of paraffin, which is a waste product left over from the oil-refining process. When these candles burn, they release formaldehyde, benzene, and up to a total of eleven different carcinogenic chemicals. I heard it said that you might as well have a small diesel engine running in your living room. Softer waxes and artificially scented waxes give off even more greasy, black soot; likewise petroleum-based gel candles.

Even more harmful is the vapour released from wicks that contain lead. Metal in the wick helps it stand upright and burn more evenly and slowly. But lead is one of the more toxic heavy metals. Airborne as the candle burns, and inhaled and accumulated over time, it can cause behavioural changes and learning and memory problems. This is particularly dangerous for young children and fetuses in utero. “Burning leaded candles in a home once a week can release enough lead into the indoor environment that a child’s lead levels could exceed federal health standards” ( Be especially wary of tea lights, pillar candles, those that puddle greatly, and any made in China. Lead wicks were banned in the US in 2003 but as yet are still not restricted in Canada. (Apparently all of the candles sold at IKEA are lead-free—and many of them are made from soy.)

Sometimes tin and zinc are used in wicks, which are not considered to be as harmful (though I prefer to know there’s nothing but pure cotton wicking up the molten wax).You can determine for yourself if a candle contains lead: shred the wick a little, and if you find a metallic centre, rub it on paper. A grey mark indicates lead. Get rid of the candle.

But you don’t have to deprive yourself of candlelight altogether—just look for healthier alternatives. Soy candles are slow-burning, which makes them more economical in the long run. No toxic fumes, and they burn at a cooler temperature, which makes them safer. Look for soy candles that are scented with natural fragrance oils. These can actually contribute to health and a sense of well-being, unlike chemical fragrances. And from what I can find, it seems that only carbon dioxide and water vapour are produced in the burning of a vegetable oil candle like soy, much like the breath expelled from the human body.

The healthiest option of all, and certainly the most esthetically pleasing, is beeswax. It is expensive up front, but because it is slow-burning, the dollars go further. It is estimated that burning a beeswax candle costs between 10 and 30 cents an hour. That’s pretty economical for these beautiful golden, naturally honey-scented candles. They have the longest and cleanest burn of any candle. Not only do they not emit toxic smoke, they are actually reputed to remove toxins from the air as they burn. The site at says: “But there is much more benefit to beeswax candles compared to paraffin candles that are made from polluted petroleum sludge, or even vegetable-based candles, that are a big improvement over paraffin: When beeswax candles burn, they clean the air like a great, natural, air purifier….” And adds the following: “There’s a whole lot of information out there about negative ions. The theory is that beeswax, being nature’s wax, emits wonderful air-cleaning, depression-reducing ions that combat things like dust, odours, mold and even viruses while elevating the mood.”

Any candle will smoke and produce more soot if it is placed in a drafty place or if the wick is too long. Always trim the wick to a quarter inch in length before lighting, and situate the candle where the flame burns straight up and steady. Most important of all, never leave a burning candle unattended. Even a lovely, clean-burning beeswax candle can set a house ablaze and create a toxic inferno that devastates a family materially and emotionally. Have a safe and happy holiday season.


  1. Nancy,
    A great article on candles, I'm inclined to read more of yours now.
    David Babich

  2. Thanks, Nancy. This is really useful. I'm going to send the link to my daughter.

  3. Nancy,

    It is wonderful to see more information being presented about the benefits of beeswax candles. It is the only candle we have burned in our home and office spaces for years. It has been one of our Christmas traditions to make our own candles. We have given them as gifts to relatives and friends with a small info sheet promoting the health benefits of burning them. We found that by providing the info along with the candles actually encouraged the recipients of the gifts, to burn them rather then save them for a special occasion :-)


  4. Nancy,
    For the first time I lit candle during prayer in my bedroom and later went to sleep. When I woke up I realised I have throat irritation and the candle smoke was the culprit. It was a beautiful white coloured candle but off it goes to the garbage. Thanks for the tip

  5. This is an informative post review. I am so pleased to get this post article and nice information. I was looking forward to get such a post which is very helpful to us. A big thank for posting this article in this website. Keep it up. Get Wholesale Unscented Pillar Candles .