How to Make Your Scented Candle Habit Sustainable and Non-Toxic

Image Credit: Three Inches High

Lighting candles on a cold, dark evening immediately creates a cosier home environment. But what if your winter traditions were warming more than just your home? Paige Pichler investigates how to find sustainable candles that are non-toxic to both your home and the planet.

Finding the perfect scent for your home, especially after spending lots of time in it, has seemingly come down to an art form. Many of us have different candles for the various seasons and even enjoy pairing them with the perfect décor. Yet while cosy and inviting, traditional candles may unfortunately be releasing chemicals into the air as they burn – causing potential harm to both you and the planet.

Most candles are made with paraffin wax, which is derived from petroleum. A crude oil used in many different types of fuels, petroleum in its refined state is an active ingredient in gasoline, kerosene and diesel oil. Using fossil fuels to create candles contributes to the already high levels of CO2 in our atmosphere. So, if you’ve kept your carbon footprint relatively low in other areas of your life, a chemically-potent culprit could be sitting on your coffee table.

Even when you light your candle in a well-ventilated area, you’re likely inhaling some of these fumes. Katie Roering of Fontana Candle Company explains that, “Petroleum-derived wax is suspected to release chemicals such as toluene and benzene into the air when burned,” she says. And while the results may smell incredible, your body may be having a different reaction – particularly in your lungs. “Paraffin wax is a petroleum waste product that has to be deodorised and chemically bleached before it can be made into wax. Some studies have shown that toxins released from paraffin candles are the same as those found in diesel fuel fumes, which are linked to asthma and lung cancer,” adds Danielle O’Connor, founder of Shanti Creations.

There remains relatively little science showing whether the amount of particles given off by candles is enough to cause adverse health affects. However, some of the most advanced research comes from a country that would know a thing or two about it, being the home of hygge. The Danish Environmental Protection Agency released a lengthy study on candles in 2017, measuring the particles emitted from both stearin and paraffin versions. Meanwhile, Peter Møller, a professor from the Institute of Public Health Science at the University of Copenhagen who co-authored a study on the effects of exposure to them, suggests that “it looks like candle particles are at least as bad, and perhaps even worse, than diesel particles.” With this in mind, it’s no surprise that UK’s then Secretary of State for Environment Michael Gove urged candle manufacturers to reduce the emissions from their products and include warnings on the labels as part of the government’s Clean Air Strategy.

Image Credit: Three Inches High

On top of releasing chemicals into the air and increasing fossil fuel dependency, candle fragrance also poses a problem. As the debate rages on about what constitutes a natural, sustainable scent, candles represent a vital part of the battle ground. It’s important to look for natural fragrance candles that are made with sustainably-sourced essential oils.

“The components that go into giving a candle a unique smell are considered a trade secret, so manufacturers don’t have to list any of the ingredients used in their fragrance,” Roering explains. “Instead, ‘fragrance’ is simply listed as one ingredient, while in actuality, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), many fragrances can contain as many as 5,000 ingredients!”

Even the wicks can pose a problem – many candles still have lead or other types of metals in the core to get them to stand up straight. Adding hot metal to an already-dense container of chemicals, traditionally-made candles are slowly giving way to products created in small-batches and ethically-produced varieties. Knowing this, it’s best to look for 100% cotton or wooden wicks when sourcing your next home accessory.

Although finding sustainably made candles may not be as easy as heading to the department store, you don’t have to give up candles completely. But, since many labels don’t have to divulge their product’s full ingredient list, it can be difficult – not impossible – to decipher the truly sustainable from the greenwashing. First, look for a plant-based wax made from substances like soy, beeswax or coconut and ensure that the candle is 100% whatever clean wax you’re looking for. Again, because labels don’t have to be fully accurate, companies can market their products as made with a certain wax, but really be using a blend of that and paraffin.

Image Credit: The London Honey Co.
Image Credit: The London Honey Co.

Many traditional candles contain a blend of palm oil as well as paraffin and soy waxes. Dawn Ryan of Products Without Palm Oil explains that using large amounts of palm oil contributes to the massive influx of deforestation taking place in Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. She recommends looking “for candles that clearly state 100% soy wax,” and advises consumers to be wary of labels, since “‘Soy candle’ is different from ‘100% soy wax’”.

It’s also important to note that the soy industry may contribute to deforestation as the world’s production of the bean has doubled over the last 20 years. One of the main victims of this increase in demand was the Amazon rainforest and other areas of central America. Sticking with beeswax may be a better option, as it comes as a natural byproduct of the beekeeping industry. There is a caveat with this type of wax as well; it isn’t vegan if you’re looking for the candle to tick that box.

“Most [candles] are blends,” Ryan continues. “These may contain soy but [are] also typically made of paraffin or palm oil. Another example of a blend and not 100% soy [wax] is the package saying ‘100% Natural Soy Candles.’ This could mean it’s 100% natural, not 100% soy wax.”

With so many sneaky ways to add unsustainable ingredients, it’s best to look for products that say 100% beeswax, soy wax or coconut wax on the label. If that information is not readily available, it likely contains a harmful ingredient. “Candles made with 100% [natural wax] typically contain higher quality ingredients overall. Their fragrances are often from essential oils, rather than being chemically made,” adds Ryan.

Image Credit: Fontana Candle Company

Ensuring that your candle doesn’t contain paraffin wax helps with other facets of your purchase, including the fragrance and wick. Furthermore, finding a locally-made candle that didn’t have to travel far to get to your home is an obvious way to lower your carbon foot-print and minimise fuel usage. You can also try out a DIY candle kit with natural ingredients, helping you learn how to make your own products, such as Earl of East’s candle kit and workshop which teaches you how to make an 100% soy wax candle with botanical oils. 

Repurposing the container offers one of the easiest solutions when it comes to recycling. You can use the jar or tin for another candle if you want to pour your own or use it to hold knickknacks or food items. The good news is that repurposing your candles can be a lot easier than you think. “Cleaning out an old candle jar is as easy as boiling the kettle. Just pour the hot water into your old canister and walk away,” says Kaitlin Sylvester, co-founder of sustainable candle company, Three Inches High. “Once the water has cooled down, you’ll be able to pick the old wax up right off the top of the water and discard. I like to give the jar one more good scrub with soap and water to remove any residue and that’s it!”

You can also look to purchase from local companies that have a pick-up and drop-off option for recycling old jars. Just like with most items in your life, switching to sustainable alternatives doesn’t have to be black and white. If you find an eco-friendly, responsible company that you like, order a few of their products at once to reduce shipping trips. Even if you need to sacrifice total transparency in lieu of getting your candle from a local artisan, it’s still helpful for the environment. Companies like Fontana also partner with sustainable suppliers that source wooden wicks from places such as the U.S. Forest Stewardship Council Certified Mills, and for every $100 they spend on wicks, they plant a tree.

With countless options becoming more and more available to suppliers and consumers, finding a great-smelling, sustainable candle continues to get simpler. By protecting yourself, you’re likely protecting the planet in the process, all while creating a home atmosphere that’s cosy and inviting. Without the chemicals, your candle-burning habit is free to fill your home with warmth and give the Earth more space to breathe.