Scented or plain, beeswax or soy? Here's what you need to know.

Nothing says ‘holidays’ like a glowing candle as a table centerpiece or set above the hearth, and scented candles can bring a seasonal fragrance of cinnamon or spice to the room. But with many candles, the pleasing effects come with unseen hazards which impact the health of individuals and bring unseen pollutants to the general room environment.

While candles are available in many different shapes, colors and sizes, and can be scented or unscented, the first thing to consider when buying candles is the type of wax used. Value-conscious shoppers may gravitate towards the least expensive candles, usually made of paraffin wax, but the price of the candle is not always a clear indication if its actual value.

The first thing to consider when buying candles is the type of wax used.

Cheaper candles usually burn faster, giving less light than similar but more expensive candles, such as beeswax. Cheaper candles also release more toxins into the room air, which may affect the comfort and health of the occupants, especially those with asthma or respiratory conditions.

Candle emissions can contribute to increased exposure to benzene, toluene, xylene and lead, as well as other potentially carcinogenic volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds.

Candle emissions may also include soot, a fine particulate matter which can be toxic. Soot particles can travel deep into the lungs. Those with asthma, lung or heart disease are particularly vulnerable.

The absence of consumer warnings concerning candle emissions and their potential health effects leaves the consumer responsible for understanding the risks and benefits of different types of candles. Here below is a brief look at types of candles available today, and any concerns associated with them.

Paraffin candles

Most candles found in the marketplace today are made from paraffin wax. Paraffin candles are the cheapest candles available, which accounts for their popularity. A waste product of the petroleum industry, paraffin is a sludge-like substance which burns readily. As paraffin candles burn, benzene and toluene, both known carcinogens, are released into the air. Incompletely burned carbon particles are also released into the air in the form of soot, which is a respiratory irritant for humans and contributes to carbon residue on walls, ceilings, and all room furnishings.

Paraffin is a petroleum product, which is not a renewable resource and causes pollution in its production.

Gel candles

Gel candles are popular because they are crystal clear and come in a variety of decorative containers, and may have attractive embedded items. Gel candles have a rich glow and burn more than twice as long as wax candles. But gel candles, similar to paraffin candles, are made from petroleum-based wax or synthetic hydrocarbons which release hazardous pollutants when burned.

Gel candles use a different type of fragrance oil than is used for wax candles. Fragrances must be specially formulated for gel candles and completely oil soluble. If such a precaution is ignored, pockets of scent can form in the candle which can be highly flammable. Avoid gel candles that have a cloudy look to them, and it is advised to not leave burning gel candles unattended.

There have been fire hazards associated with gel candles. Some of these candles have flared up or flamed and caused house fires. The fire safety of gel candles is debated, with some indications that the container holding the gel may shatter as the gel expands during heating.

Soy candles

Soy candles are vegetable wax candles made from hydrogenated soy, palm and coconut oils. Soy candles burn slower and last about 50% longer than paraffin candles. Soy wax is clean burning and produces very little soot. Because soy wax is relatively cool burning, any spilled wax is easy to clean up. From an environmental perspective, soy candles are recommended over paraffin or gel candles.

Soy candles produce a flame that is less warm and vibrant than candles of other materials, and some feel this detracts from their appeal. Long tapers can also bend when burning in a warm room, and some brands are stiffened using stearic acid, derived from animal or vegetable sources.

Soy wax candles have become popular since soy is both affordable and plentiful. They are at a price point that is higher than paraffin and lower in cost than beeswax candles.


Beeswax candles are the healthiest choice in candles. Made from the caps of bee honeycombs, beeswax candles burn clean, are very long-burning, and give off a pleasant natural fragrance as they burn. Beeswax candles are dripless when burned properly, and release negative ions which help clean the air in a room. They are also non-allergenic and can help soothe the symptoms of hay fever, asthma and allergy sufferers. Beeswax is also derived from a sustainable natural source, unlike paraffin.

Although more expensive than paraffin or soy, beeswax candles last up to three times longer. Pure beeswax candles have a golden to amber color. Beeswax candles that are ivory colored typically have less of a natural honey scent. Be wary of candles labeled blended beeswax since these will often contain paraffin; look instead for the 100 percent beeswax label.

Natural, 100% beeswax candles are the healthiest choice when burning candles, and they are not as expensive as they may seem when their long burn life is taken into consideration.

Candelilla wax

Derived from the candelilla shrub native to the southwestern US and Northern Mexico, candelilla wax is a 100% natural vegan option for people who don’t use beeswax. Denser than beeswax, candelilla wax also has a higher melting point. The wax is odorless and pale in color and can be found in a variety of plant-based, non-toxic candles.

Scented and aromatherapy candles

Scented and aromatherapy candles are not always the safest way to introduce fragrances into the air as candles burn. The fragrance oils soften the wax as it burns, resulting in the wax not burning cleanly. This releases soot which can contain carcinogens, neurotoxins and reproductive toxins. Soot generated from burning scented candles has also been reported to have caused damage to computers and electronics, and damage to homes and furnishings. Scented candles which are set into containers produce even more soot, since the oxygen necessary for a clean burn doesn’t reach the flame properly.

Scented and aromatherapy candles made with paraffin wax and synthetic fragrance oils are of particular concern. The Canadian and American Lung Association both caution against prolonged exposure to fragrances and soot for the very young, the elderly and those with respiratory diseases.

Diffusers are a better choice for adding scents to the room, and diffusers can be used alongside candles. Buy unscented candles made without petroleum, with wire-free wicks, for use with a diffuser. Diffusers are a safer way to practice aromatherapy, and they are available in most health food stores.

Wick material

Another thing to consider when buying candles is the material used for the wick. Cotton wicks are cleaner burning than wicks which contain wire, and according to Indoor Air Solutions of Tampa Florida, about 30% of wire wicks contain lead.

It’s certainly worth taking the time to research the candle you are buying. A quality candle may cost you a little more, but it should also last you longer, and bring peace of mind in knowing your candles aren’t releasing any dangerous toxins into the air your family is breathing!

Editor’s note: This article was originally published November 2011 and has since been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Responses (3)