Can Burning Scented Candles Spark Health Issues? Experts Explain.

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I was perusing the Annals of Medicine & Surgery, as any well-informed beauty editor does, and I came across an editorial about the unknown health risks of scented candles. It piqued my interest because I’m a total candle head. I burn down at least one scented candle a week in my house, and they’re my go-to gift this time of year. Of course, I know enough not to freak out after reading one editorial in one random medical journal (which cannot be said for many content creators on TikTok!), but still, I was concerned. So I reached out to the article’s authors to get some more information.

Before I share what I learned, I have to point out something the paper’s co-authors made clear to me: Burning a scented candle for a few hours in a ventilated room is not a health concern for most people. But there are some people who experience vertigo, headaches, respiratory issues, watery eyes, sneezing, or a stuffy nose after candle exposure. If you’re one of those people, don’t burn candles! And even if you don’t experience those symptoms, it’s not a bad idea to improve your air quality after burning a candle by simply opening a window to air out the room.

Now, on to the concerning stuff: There are at least two candle ingredients that are potentially problematic, especially for people with underlying health concerns. One is the volatile organic compound (VOC) toluene, which you can be exposed to when you burn candles made of paraffin, a petroleum-based wax. “Extended exposure to high concentrations of toluene has been linked to a number of health hazards, including effects on the nervous system, the respiratory system, and the developing brain,” says one of the paper’s co-authors, Ariful Haque, MPPS, MPH, a physician who is a medical editor for Elsevier. The other concerning ingredient is benzidine, a component in some of the dyes used to make colored candles. Research shows “a correlation between occupational exposure to benzidine and the development of urinary bladder cancer,” says Haque. This does not mean all colored candles cause cancer! The health dangers of benzidine are linked to the type of repeated, long-term exposure you’d get if you worked with the ingredient on a daily basis for your job. It’s also possible for a company to make colored wax without this harmful ingredient, but it’s not always possible to know what you’re getting. So … the correlation remains concerning.

Luckily, you can limit your exposure to both of these questionable ingredients by burning candles that are made with soy- or beeswax-based waxes and that don’t contain dyes or colorants. (Or you can just not burn candles, which, sorry, isn’t an option for me.) If you’re concerned about exposure to other airborne pollutants or you have an underlying respiratory issue, such as asthma, Haque and his co-authors also suggest you look for scented candles that get their aroma from natural, rather than synthetic, fragrances. This isn’t to say natural fragrances, like essential oils and natural isolates, are automatically healthier. In fact, burning some essential oils can potentially be harmful for your airways. But, in general, burning candles scented with essential oils is a healthier way to satiate a candle habit.

With that in mind, I set out to find candles that adhered to the standards suggested by the Annals of Medicine & Surgery editorial. Of the 52 candle companies I contacted, 11 brands made the cut. These days, lots of candles are made with natural, un-dyed waxes, but candlemakers and fragrance developers I spoke with said it’s expensive and difficult to get a candle to create enough scent to fill a room using natural fragrances in doses that will not irritate people’s airways. Of the 11 “healthier” candles I tested, there were four I couldn’t recommend because their scents weren’t strong enough to fill up a room and/or they didn’t smell great. But the six candles below get my stamp of approval. They’re made with natural fragrances, natural waxes, and, in many cases, recyclable vessels. And, most importantly, they smell amazing. Happy burning!

Healthier Scented Candles

These are made with cleaner-burning waxes and 100 percent natural fragrances

This was one of my favorite candles before I started working on this story, so it was a thrill to learn that its sandalwood, lavender, rose, and jasmine aroma is all natural. Of all the candles I tested, it tied with the Nette X Tata Harper candle for biggest scent throw.

Piney, woodsy scents are easier to do with naturals, so I was amazed to find a natural candle with a more delicate, nuanced aroma like this soft green floral. I also love the colorful ceramic vessel, which I’m going to use as a mini flower pot once the candle is gone.

This is such an earthy, sexy delight. It makes any room smell like the real outdoors with that slightly mineral, dusty smell a dirt road gives off after the rain.

If a Christmas-tree seller set up in the lobby of a fancy spa, this is what it would smell like: authentic pine (not that fake candle-store version) tinged with crisp, fresh lavender.

It’s tough to find a natural candle with a floral scent, but this powdery rose is beautiful — especially in the bedroom. Do I need my candles to reveal submerged amethyst crystals as their wax melts? No. But do I like a hidden treasure that is supposed to ward off insomnia and nightmares? Absolutely.

This three-wick beauty has an impressive scent throw for its price point. The soft, lavender aroma is super-relaxing and could convince anyone who thinks they don’t like scented candles that they do, indeed, like scented candles.

I hadn’t heard of this brand before I looked into natural candles, but I will definitely be trying their other scents after I finish up this one. It’s dark and spicy and reminiscent of a riad in Morocco.

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Can Burning Scented Candles Spark Health Issues?