Here's What You're Breathing In When You Light a Candle
Tania Gonzalez, a freelance makeup artist from Algonquin, Illinois, bought over 35 candles last year.
A voracious candle user who in pre-Covid times would even bring her own on business trips, Gonzalez turned to holiday and tropical-themed candles to get through the past year. She would scour the grocery store, T.J. Maxx, Bath & Body Works, and more for home scents to keep ablaze. Among her three dozen new additions: the Kiwi Passionfruit candle from Bath & Body Works and Yankee Candle’s Balsam Forest, which smells like a thicket of pine trees in winter.
Instead of a travel comfort or an evening ritual, candles became an all-day habit for Gonzalez. "It's something I do in the afternoon as well –– or even when I'm getting ready [in the morning] to set the mood and get my mindset right, for calming or whatever the need is at the moment," she tells Allure.
Scent may be invisible, but its ability to alter mood and environment is undeniable. Gonzalez is one of millions who found solace in candles during the pandemic, a result of prolonged time at home and a skin- and self-care awakening. According to research firm Kline & Company, scented candle sales in the U.S. are projected to hit close to $4 billion this year, up from approximately $3.7 billion in 2020. The NPD Group reports there were 17 percent more candles sold in the U.S. last year than in 2019.
The Clean Candle Movement
Now candles are going the way of skin care. The same way people want to know what they’re putting on their skin – researching ingredient lists, reviews, and influencer tutorials – they want to know what they’re breathing in. Some brands claim their soy-based options are better for inhaling, and outspoken "clean beauty" advocates say paraffin wax, what the majority of commercial candles are made from, could pose health risks because it's a petroleum by-product. Many experts refute this. Dermatologist Ranella Hirsch says paraffin-wax candles, when used as directed, don't appear to be harmful when inhaled.
The "clean" candle and skin care conversations are similar, led in part by brands that advertise as being free of "toxic" or "unsafe" ingredients. There are plenty of upsides to the clean beauty movement, from increased consumer awareness around what's in products to more ingredient transparency, but this movement can sometimes single out common, regulated ingredients and label them as dirty or dangerous. The same is true for candles. According to analytical intelligence firm 1010data, soy-based candles outpaced the rest of the candle market in growth, increasing by 180 percent over the past year.
Are soy candles really safer?
When asked, Gonzalez said soy or beeswax is her preference, fragranced with essential oils. She believes it to be "cleaner" since soy and essential oils are natural — a common misconception for customers.
Danielle Cordell, 27, from Dallas, Texas, tells Allure she prefers soy, but ultimately winds up buying non-soy candles because they smell better. Growing up, her mother only burned soy-based candles.
"Probably because she read an article about it that was like, 'These are the only ones that are safe,'" Cordell adds. But to her, candles are an accessory, a piece of home decor must match the home or room it's displayed in. Cordell says anything that's a "weird" color or looks out of place won't work in her home.
“It seems pretty unclear if there's really a difference,” said Katie Thomas, head of the Kearney Consumer Institute. "Even if you ask a consumer in a survey, 'Do you always buy soy candles or do you try to?' they’ll say yes, but in reality it's going to come down to product effectiveness."
Kathy LaVanier, the CEO of Renegade Candle Company, a candle manufacturer, and former president of the National Candle Association, believes neither types of wax pose a health risk. According to LaVanier, how "clean" a candle burns – the speed at which it burns and how much visible soot is produced – is a result of the combustion properties of the fragrance oil inside it.
"It's a renewable resource that has a little bit of a feel-good message for us," LaVanier says of soy wax, more in demand today because of a clean beauty boom. Plus, soybeans are farmed in the U.S. and buying soy-based candles supports American agriculture (the U.S. is the second largest soybean producer in the world, after Brazil). Paraffin wax is often imported, largely sourced from refineries in China.
According to cosmetic chemist and research scientist Marisa Plescia, "no current research indicates how much soot is inhaled from candles and how much is too much and bad for you."
So, which candles are the cleanest?
There’s really no such thing as a completely "clean" candle. But if you’re looking for the "cleanest" burn possible, experts suggest that proper candle etiquette may trump a preferred type of wax.
Candles are optimized to be burned for three to four hours, LaVanier said. She compared a candle that burns too long to a car overheating. The wax liquifies, starts to burn at an accelerated pace and creates an abundance of soot – which isn't great for inhaling, according to a 2013 study. Another report from 2001 noted that scented candles produce more soot than non-scented ones because of the way solid paraffin wax reacts with liquid fragrance oils (at room temperature). Wicks should also be trimmed regularly to minimize soot.
Consider a candle wardrobe. Rather than letting the same candle burn throughout the day, light a new one every few hours to keep a steady burning pace.
Newer brands like Grow Fragrance say their 100 percent soy wax candles are better than what's already out there. The distinction of being entirely made from soy is key, said founder Daniel Swimm, who believes plant-based options to be superior to paraffin alternatives.
"I don’t think that paraffin wax is inherently unhealthy," Swimm says. "I do think it's inherently unsustainable." Paraffin wax comes from crude oil, a finite resource that’s pumped from the ground. Soybean crops regrow every year.
Grow Fragrance's soy wax comes from soybean farmers in Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, and the $34 candles are sold in reusable concrete vessels that are made in South Carolina (refills are $22, or $40 for two). Swimm also owns CandleScience, a manufacturing company that develops and supplies natural fragrance for home scents. CandleScience's business increased by 150 percent last year.
How to Pick the Best Candle For You
Ultimately, the type of candle you make or buy depends on what matters most to you.
If scent takes precedence, paraffin candles "throw," or circulate, fragrance better, lit or unlit, than soy, according to LaVanier. For those who use scent for its mood-altering benefits, the stronger fragrance from paraffin candles could be more calming. If you’re looking for plant-based options or to support American agriculture, then a soy candle is the way to go.
The sustainability debate is more nuanced. Some consumers prioritize natural and plant-based fragrance in their candles above all else. Others believe synthetic, or manmade, materials to be better for the environment than the sourcing of natural ingredients, and will gravitate towards synthetic fragrance in their beauty products.
Matthew Malin, co-founder of Malin + Goetz, says his customers are seeking ambiance, whether that's from a perfumed environment, the glass or vessel a candle comes in, or the color of the wax.
"Primarily, they're buying based on fragrance and to deliver fragrance is really [dependent on] the formulation of the wax," Malin says. Malin + Goetz’s candles are a (mostly) paraffin and soy wax blend, and bestselling Dark Rum and Cannabis are made with synthetic fragrance. Both sold out multiple times last year.
"People see the world very much in black and white and they think everything natural is amazing and everything synthetic is nefarious and odious," added Andrew Goetz, co-founder of Malin + Goetz. "Yes, we want to do things that are as environmentally responsible as possible, but the purpose of a candle is that it smells really, really good."
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