Paraffin wax candles were not and are not banned or limited in production or sale in the United States, despite concerns about the release of potentially harmful substances when they are burned. The safety of paraffin candles has been a subject of continued debate and research for years.
Some of the substances that may be released when burning paraffin candles include:
- Particulate Matter: The combustion of paraffin wax can produce fine particulate matter (PM), often referred to as soot. These tiny particles can become suspended in the air and may pose respiratory risks, especially for individuals with pre-existing lung conditions.
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): Paraffin candles can emit VOCs during burning. These compounds, such as toluene and benzene, can contribute to indoor air pollution and may cause health issues when inhaled, including eye and respiratory irritation.
- Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds (SVOCs): Phthalates can be added to candles to make the wax more pliable and to help fragrances disperse more evenly.
It is important to note that the extent to which phthalates are used in candle production can vary, and not all candles contain phthalates. However, as we will see in later blog posts, they are often used in the creation of fragrances, and so choosing a scented candle increases the odds that phthalates are involved.
Beyond candles, phthalates are a group of chemicals that are used as plasticizers in various products to make plastics more flexible and durable. They have been widely used in a range of consumer and industrial products, including plastic containers, cosmetics, fragrances, children’s toys, and more. The concern about the potential dangers of phthalates arises from several factors:
- Endocrine Disruption: Phthalates are known to be endocrine disruptors, which means they can interfere with the endocrine (hormone) system in the human body. These chemicals can mimic or block the actions of hormones, potentially leading to hormonal imbalances. Endocrine disruption can have adverse effects on reproductive and developmental health, particularly in vulnerable populations such as infants, children, and pregnant women.
- Developmental and Reproductive Effects: Research has shown that exposure to certain phthalates may be associated with adverse effects on the development of the male reproductive system in both animals and humans. These effects can include undescended testes, reduced sperm production, and genital malformations.
- Respiratory and Allergic Reactions: Some individuals may experience respiratory issues or allergic reactions when exposed to phthalates. This can be especially relevant in cases of exposure through inhalation, as is possible with some products containing phthalates.
- Potential Carcinogenicity: While the evidence on the carcinogenic properties of phthalates is limited, some studies have suggested that certain phthalates may have carcinogenic potential, particularly with prolonged and high-level exposure.
- Aldehydes: Some aldehydes, like formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, can be produced during the combustion of paraffin candles. Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde, in particular, can lead to respiratory and eye irritation and may be associated with other health risks.
- Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs): The incomplete combustion of paraffin wax can lead to the formation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are known carcinogens and can pose health risks with prolonged exposure.
- Heavy Metals: If candles contain metal-based colorants or wicks with metal cores, the burning of these candles may release trace amounts of heavy metals such as lead or cadmium into the air. This last concern is not limited to candles made of paraffin; even if a candle is made of waxes that are considered safer (i.e. soy, palm, etc.) the inclusion of a metal-based colorant or metal core wick can introduce this issue into the equation.
In 2019 phthalates were commonly restricted in children’s toys and childcare articles. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) imposed limitations on the use of certain phthalates, including DEHP, DBP, and BBP, in concentrations higher than 0.1% in children’s toys and certain child care articles.
However, paraffin candles have not been banned.
The safety of paraffin wax was supported by a study in the Journal of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology that found that scented paraffin candles do not pose any health risks when used under normal conditions. In this experiment, researchers used environmentally controlled emission chambers to evaluate the concentrations of possible harmful emissions. The researchers aimed to replicate candle use in normal households. They found that the highest estimated emission levels for fragrances, formaldehyde and benzene were well below the air quality exposure limits defined by the World Health Organization.
It’s important to note that the concentration and health risks associated with these emissions are generally considered low when burning candles in well-ventilated spaces and under proper conditions. However, certain factors, like poor ventilation, using candles with additives or colorants, and burning candles for extended periods, can increase the potential health risks.
The problem with the recommendations?
To recommend that consumers burn a candle in a well-ventilated space for a brief period of time is not conducive to the whole point of burning a scented candle: to produce a concentrated volume of air filled with a scent, often to accompany an evening that may stretch out over hours. To me, it seems prudent to choose other wax options. Popular options include:
Soy wax: Soy wax, derived from soybean oil, gained popularity as a safer alternative to paraffin. It produces fewer VOCs and burns cleaner. Many consumers prefer soy candles for their reduced impact on indoor air quality.
Beeswax: Beeswax is a natural alternative known for its clean and sustainable properties. It does not emit harmful VOCs when burned and is favored by eco-conscious consumers concerned about indoor air quality. For example, a study published in Environmental Chemistry Letters demonstrated that beeswax candles produce minimal air pollutants during combustion.
Blended waxes: Candle manufacturers often combine different waxes to optimize burn characteristics and scent diffusion.
At Brimstone, our container candles are made of a soy/palm wax, and pillars are made with 100% palm wax. For some candles bee’s wax, apricot wax, or coconut wax may be part of the blend.