Burning candles is a way to make your home smell good, add soft light and relax. Beyond the obvious fire risk, is burning candles indoors harmful to your health in any way?
Perhaps you heard that candles can release toxic chemicals or fumes or that certain types of wax are safer than others.
So what are the health risks, if any, of burning candles in the home? We spoke to experts to find out.
Is burning candles bad for your health?
First things first: Anything with an open flame poses a risk to your health and safety because it has the possibility to ignite a fire. Even small candles can lead to massive blazes. An average of 20 home candle fires are reported every day in the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Between 2015 and 2019, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 7,400 home fires started by candles per year — these caused an average of 90 deaths and 670 injuries annually and hundreds of millions in property damages, per the NFPA.
So, what about the vapors and chemicals released into the air when you burn candles? Are these harmful? Generally, no, burning candles does not carry a serious health risk, the experts note.
"The simple answer is that burning the candles or burning any combustion product increases the air pollution," Dr. Sobia Farooq, a staff pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells TODAY.com.
When you burn a candle, it releases particulate matter (soot) and volatile organic compounds into the air, says Farooq — examples of VOCs include formaldehyde and benzene, which are known carcinogens. While these particles and chemicals are present in candle emissions, the concentrations are very low.
In a 2014 peer-reviewed study on the human health risks of particulate emissions from candles in indoor environments, researchers did detect cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde, but they concluded that the emissions from candles are unlikely to cause long-term health effects in people.
"The particles that are released from candles are in such small amounts ... that they really don't pose a health impact on people," says Pamela Dalton, Ph.D., a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, tells TODAY.com.
Of course, the amount of pollutants in the air and the level of exposure will depend on how many candles are burning, the ventilation and how close you are to the fumes, says Farooq. But for the most part, the concentration of these chemicals won't be high enough to cause serious problems, Dalton adds.
"If you're sitting in a closet with 12 candles burning around you, you might be able to generate an atmosphere that could have some impact," says Dalton. But most people are not doing that.
“Air pollution in itself can cause respiratory issues, especially in people who have lung issues, (such as) asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” says Farooq, adding that particulate matter can also irritate the lungs. But there isn't direct scientific evidence that the pollutants released burning candles indoors also have these effects.
For context, the indoor air pollution from candles is nowhere near the amount from a wood-burning fireplace or wood stove, the experts note. Organic compounds and carcinogens like benzene are also emitted from gas stoves, TODAY.com previously reported. So these are things most of us are exposed to on a daily basis.
"It is not something I would recommend depriving ourselves from because a lot of us like burning candles. It’s soothing and relaxing," says Farooq.
Are scented candles worse than non-scented?
Many candles have added fragrances, the main reason people burn them in the first place. Whether the scents are natural or synthetic, they aren't a cause for concern for most people, the experts note.
In the same 2014 study on candle emissions, researchers concluded that, under normal conditions of use, scented candles “do not pose known health risks to the consumer." Farooq adds that she's not aware of any research that suggests that scented candles are more dangerous than unscented ones.
That said, the odors from scented candles can potentially trigger or exacerbate symptoms in individuals with asthma, allergies or sensitivities to scents, the experts note.
“These individuals might experience shortness of breath, nose, eye, and throat irritation, headaches and other symptoms when candles are burned nearby,” Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a medical toxicology physician and interim executive director at the National Capital Poison Center, tells TODAY.com.
Dalton adds: "Different people have different reactions to scents. Sometimes even the perception of a health risk can be enough to cause someone to have symptoms."
If you are bothered by scented candles, avoid them or opt for unscented candles instead, the experts note.
Is candle wax or paraffin toxic?
The wax in candles acts as the fuel, which will melt due to the heat of the flame, and then the liquid wax is drawn up into the wick, where it becomes vaporized by the flame.
Paraffin is the most commonly used wax in candles, per the National Candle Association, but some candles are also made of soy wax, beeswax, palm wax, synthetic wax, gels or a blend of these.
Parrafin comes from petroleum, says Farooq, as does gasoline, and it's used as a fuel source. “Candles made from paraffin tend to be cheaper, and they have lower melting point,” says Farooq. But is paraffin wax toxic or harmful to use? Based on the science, no.
"There's been this suggestion that the cheaper candles theoretically can have more volatile organic compounds in them and can be potentially more dangerous," says Farooq, but there haven't been any studies directly proving paraffin candle wax is more harmful.
Adds Dalton, "The science just isn't there to say that one (wax) is worse or better than another."
If you're concerned about paraffin candles, opt for a natural candle made from beeswax or soy wax, says Farooq, adding that it really comes down to personal preference.
Dalton notes: "If it makes you feel better, by all means, go for your soy candle. ... If you're buying something you trust, you're probably less likely to worry about how you feel when you light it."
Are candle wicks made of lead?
Candle wicks are typically made out of fibers, like cotton, paper, wood, tin or zinc, per the National Candle Association. These wicks will vary based on the size and type of candle and the manufacturer.
Previously, candle wicks often contained lead, but these have been phased out since the 1970s after a voluntary industry agreement was made to remove lead from candle wicks due to the health risks, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In 2003, the CPSC voted unanimously to ban the manufacturing and sale of all lead-cored wicks or candles with lead-cored wicks, which present a lead poisoning hazard, especially to young children. Exposure to lead over time can damage the kidneys and nervous system or affect brain development, per the Mayo Clinic.
This federal ban, which applies to all domestic and imported candles, should assure people that their candle wicks are safe, the experts note.
What's the healthiest way to burn candles?
"First, relax and enjoy it," says Dalton.
The experts recommend opting for high-quality candles from reputable sources, if possible, and Johnson-Arbor suggested burning candles in areas with sufficient ventilation to minimize exposure to soot and other potentially toxic byproducts of burning candles.
It's also important to follow basic fire and candle safety and for parents to teach this to children. Burning candles should never be left unattended or near something that can catch fire. Most home candle fires occur because some combustible material — curtains, furniture, mattresses — came too close to the candle, per the NFPA.
Always put burning candles out completely before leaving the home or before going to sleep, the experts note, and keep them out of reach of young children.