Candles are wonderfully therapeutic and burning them can provide you with a increased sense of health and well-being. Not only do they provide us with an ambient source of light, but if scented they can also provide us with all of the benefits of aromatherapy while in the comfort of our own home. Unfortunately, not all candles burn equally. In fact the very additives that make them burn slowly, look pretty, and smell pleasant, can be harmful to your health.
Not all candles give off pollutants as they burn, but unfortunately, many do. It's probably not surprising that scientific studies have found that the candles most likely to be toxic are those that smell the best-or at least the strongest. The most toxic candles also tend to burn more slowly, and (ironically) usually have the highest price tag.
Candle wicks can be made from several types of materials. The most common are cotton and hemp, sometimes with a metal or paper core. Wicks with a metal core usually contain zinc, tin, or lead. In the early 1970's, several scientific studies proved that burning candles with lead core wicks posed a significant risk to human health (lead poisoning), especially in small children. As a result, the United States banned the manufacture of candles containing lead core wicks in 1974. However, imported candles with lead wicks can still be bought in the US and other countries, and although much less common, they still manage to find their way onto store shelves.
When purchasing candles, examine the wick closely for a visible "wire" in the center. Container, pillar, votive, and tea light candles are the candle types most likely to contain metal cored wicks. Sometimes the wire is hard to see, so use your fingers to peel back the cloth covering on the wick if you have to. If you see metal, contact the manufacturer and ask them if they use lead cored wicks in their products. If you don't get an answer, select a different candle!
Evidence as to whether zinc or tin core wicks are harmful to human health is inconclusive, however some tests suggest that burning them may also pose a significant health risk, as all non-ferrous metals also contain trace amounts of lead.
The American Lung Association says: "Refrain from burning scented or slow-burning candles that have additives" (like synthetic oils and other additives). Instead, select unscented or naturally scented candles made from natural materials like beeswax or soy. Avoid candles made from paraffin.
Look for "safe" symbols on the packaging. Many candle manufacturers now use icons advertising their products as "no lead" or "safe wick" candles. Beware of candles claiming to be "soot-free" or those that promise to be "clean burning". No candle can be truly "soot-free", but candles made from natural materials won't produce sticky, petroleum-based residues.
Buy your candles from trusted sources. Lead core wicks were discontinued and have not been manufactured in the United States for several years. However, some imported candles that contain lead wicks are still being allowed onto shelves in the U.S. If you're unsure what the wick is made of, contact the vendor or manufacturer. If no one can tell you, don't buy it. Remember, cotton or hemp wicks are considered the safest.
Make your own candles using natural materials. It's fun, it's easy, and it's one way to know exactly what you're burning.
Burn wisely. A candle burning in a drafty location will still emit particulate matter into the air no matter what the wick is made from. The same is true for a wick that is too large for a particular candle-it will flare and burn less cleanly. For cleaner and more complete combustion, keep candles away from open windows and drafty doorways. Avoid burning candles scented using synthetic fragrances (natural essential oils are better) and candles that leave a trail of black smoke while they're burning. Keep all wicks trimmed to 1/4 inch and always use a snuffer to put out a candle's flame.
About The Author: Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services. Contact her on the web at http://www.sustainable-media.com
December 3, 2008
I'm glad someone realizes that those awful, stinky, "scented" candles are indoor air pollution. I always buy unscented ones. I don't understand why people love horrible artificial scents, anyway. Fresh air is the best scent of all! :-D