For many of us candles are the ultimate statement of holistic living. They add light and beauty and sense of ritual to almost any occasion, especially as we get closer to the holidays.
For these reasons it’s hard to imagine that there could be anything inherently unhealthy about burning candles and yet mounting evidence suggests that their bright beauty can sometimes hide several toxic secrets.
As the candle burns, it releases largely invisible but dirty soot containing microscopic particles light enough to remain suspended on the air for a long time, and small enough to be easily absorbed into the body once inhaled. If your candle contains heavy metals it will most certainly add to the amount of these pollutants in your home.
The greatest danger lurks at the heart of the candle. The purpose of a wick is to draw wax to fuel the flame. In candle making, different types of wick are used for different purposes and these can be divided into two general categories: cored and non-cored wicks.
Non-cored wicks are generally made of a braided or twisted fibre (usually cotton), and are considered to be the safest to burn. Cored wicks also use cotton but it is wrapped around a paper or metal core that gives it support in candles that melt easily (for instance, some container candles).
Wicks with a metal core also burn at a higher temperature, useful when the candle is made of a wax that requires a high temperature to melt. Among the metals used in candle wicking are lead and cadmium, as well as zinc and tin.
The release of toxic metals, in any quantity, into the air is worrying. But candles contain a complex mix of other unseen and unlabelled ingredients and these also add to the atmospheric pollution they create.
One of these is paraffin. Made from petroleum wastes this is the most common type of candle wax. From the manufacturers’ point of view it is cheap and easy to work, has an appealing translucence and is slow burning. Gel waxes have recently become popular because of their crystal clarity and ability to hold colour and fragrance. These are basically petroleum oil turned to jelly, and need to be used in a container (and often with a reinforced wick) because the wax is very soft. Both are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. Both also produce smoke and soot.
In 2005 the American Lung Association issued a warning that paraffin candles can emit a frightening range of known carcinogens including acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, acrolein, acetone, benzene, 2-butanone, carbon disulfide, carbon tetrachloride, creosol, chlorobenzene carbon monoxide, cyclopentene, ethylbenzene, phenol, styrene tetrachloroethene, toluene, trichloroethene and xylene as among the other toxins.
And of course cotton wicks, unless they are certified organic, are likely to be made from GMO cotton!
How ‘cleanly’ a candle burns, depends on many things including the type of wax it is made of, and whether it is perfumed and coloured. A wick that is too large will flare and burn less cleanly than a properly trimmed wick. A flaring, smoky flame will be emitting undesirable particulate matter into the air no matter what the wick is made from.
It is almost impossible for most consumers to tell the difference between candles with metal containing wicks and those which are free from toxic metals and there is currently no legislation to stop such candles being sold.
Organic vegetable wax is also a better choice than petroleum-based waxes because it burns cleanly. Soya wax burns cleaner than petroleum-based waxes and is a renewable resource. Likewise beeswax is a traditional candle wax that is making a comeback. It is more costly than paraffin or soya wax, but it burns both long and clean. Along with bayberry wax it has a pleasant natural aroma and both are especially good choices especially for people who have allergies or environmental sensitivities.
Bottom line? Avoid candles where the labeling is in anyway vague or unclear. Certified organic candles come with their own guarantee that they will be free of some of the worst ingredients used in conventional candle making!
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