The Big Problem With Scented Candles

06/16/2015 09:14 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015
  • Dana Oliver Executive Fashion And Beauty Editor, The Huffington Post
Shutterstock / Elena Shashkina

Scented candles are one of the easiest and most effective ways to mask unpleasant odors in your home. They're a go-to when creating a relaxing ambiance to unwind after a long work day or while taking a warm bubble bath.

But one of the main problems with scented candles is the scent itself. According to Anne Steinemann, an environmental pollutants expert who is a professor of civil engineering and the chair of sustainable cities at the University of Melbourne, certain candles may emit numerous types of potentially hazardous chemicals, such as benzene and toluene. They can cause damage to the brain, lung and central nervous system, as well as cause developmental difficulties.

"I have heard from numerous people who have asthma that they can’t even go into a store if the store sells scented candles, even if they aren’t being burned," Steinemann added. "They emit so much fragrance that they can trigger asthma attacks and even migraines."

Researchers at South Carolina State University tested both petroleum-based paraffin wax candles and vegetable-based candles that were non-scented, non-pigmented and free of dyes. Their 2009 report concluded that while the vegetable-based candles didn't produce any potentially harmful pollutants, the paraffin candles "released unwanted chemicals into the air," said chemistry professor Ruhullah Massoudi in a statement.

"For a person who lights a candle every day for years or just uses them frequently, inhalation of these dangerous pollutants drifting in the air could contribute to the development of health risks like cancer, common allergies and even asthma,” Massoudi said.

The National Candle Association refutes these claims, stating in a comment to The Huffington Post: "The safety of scented candles is backed by decades of research, fragrance testing and a history of safe use. The fragrances approved for candle usage -- whether synthesized or 'natural' -- do not release toxic chemicals. Health and safety studies are conducted for fragrance materials used in candles, including toxicological and dermatological tests."

It may be shocking to think that your favorite candles could potentially be bad for you, and made worse by added fragrances. Steinemann said for some people, the effects are "immediate, acute and severe," while others may not realize they are being effected until they gradually develop health issues.

Though the risk to you may be small, there are alternatives. Steinemann suggests going the unscented route, avoiding "even those with essential oils, as they can potentially have hazardous chemicals," she said. "It's almost like air fresheners with the fragrance just sitting there ... permeating surfaces in the room."

To help guide you on a safer, unscented candle journey, shop our editors' picks below.

Also on HuffPost:

  • Create That "Yes, Peonies! How Better to Celebrate" Feeling
    Cupcakes and Cashmere
  • What You Wish You Could Do: Greet guests with a "I'm so glad you're here I got a massive bouquet of your favorite flower" bouquet displayed right on the coffee table.

    You Settle for: Placing a small, affordable vase of flowers on the coffee table that nobody seems to notice (leaving you to wonder whether your money was wasted).

    Next Time, Try: Move the bunch to the bathroom, like Cupcakes and Cashmere's Emily Schuman did. It's a room just about every guest visits during their stay, and the space is small and sparse enough that even a single bud vase is unmissable.
  • Cut Down The "Where Do You Keep the…?" Guesswork
    2014 by Janae Hardy
  • What You Wish You Could Do: Have a Matt Bomer lookalike serve drinks at your next cocktail party, charming everyone while keeping their glasses full.

    You Settle for: Dumping the contents of your liquor cabinet on the kitchen counter so guests can serve themselves without conducting a scavenger hunt.

    Next Time, Try: Keeping a bar cart in the living room. You can store all of your drinks and mixers right where the action is, and vintage, brass-colored carts are almost (almost!) as easy on the eyes as Bomer. If you have wood or laminate floors, roll the cart over a welcome mat so it won't move around -- many of the older models don't have brakes, say Elsie Larson and Emma Chapman, authors of A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home.
  • Spritz A New Signature Scent
    ZStockPhoto/iStock/Thinkstock
  • What You Wish You Could Do: Throw open the windows and let the refreshing smell of the rows of lemon-verbena trees waft in, because -- surprise! -- you actually live in a Tuscan villa.

    You Settle for: Getting that crisp, clean scent from a few strategically placed candles.

    Next Time, Try: Swapping out your go-to home fragrance. Clean scents have been very popular over the years -- think the cucumber melon-infused '80s, which gave way to the spring rain and linen scents of the '90s -- but the latest take tends to borrow inspiration from fine perfumes. People are starting to gravitate toward scents that include hints of amber, musk and wood, says Geoff Medeiros, vice president of brand and product development at Yankee Candle. These notes are so subtle they're usually just mentioned in the candle's description, not its name -- for instance, he suggests Yankee Candle's Soft Blanket, and we also love Bath & Body Works' Autumn Sky or Bella J's Surf Shack.
  • Make A Delightful First Impression
    2014 by Janae Hardy
  • What You Wish You Could Do: Repaint the outside of your house -- if only you could find colors that you'll still like a year from now and a spare weekend to do it all in.

    You Settle for: Hanging a for-all-seasons boxwood wreath on the door and calling it a day.

    Next Time, Try: Decorating your own doormat. You can test out the colors you're considering for your house and create a cheerful entrance in less than an hour. Be sure to use porch paint or latex paint, since it tends to be the most durable, says Chapman. For extra protection, coat it with a waterproofing spray. (You can also do this to create your own kitchen rugs, like the one pictured here.)
  • Allow For More Casual (Yet Comfortable) Seating
    AKA Design, Shannon Acheson
  • What You Wish You Could Do: Find chairs that are as cushy as a Lay-Z-Boy and as stylish as an Eames -- and enough of them for every person you invite over (yet somehow never crowding the room).

    You Settle for: Carting every chair you own into the living room and praying you're the only one who sits on the creaky one.

    Next Time, Try: Making a few no-sew floor pillows that people can sit on. It's inevitable that people will plop down on the floor at parties, and these ensure that they're comfortable. Plus, you can store them in wicker baskets under a console table or in the closet, so they don't take up as much space as traditional chairs. AKA Design has a full tutorial for making your own.
  • Upgrade Your Coat Check
  • What You Wish You Could Do: Keep your coat closet gloriously sparse, so it's always ready to hold people's jackets, scarves and hats.

    You Settle for: Clearing off your bed and letting people toss everything there.

    Next Time, Try: Building your own DIY coat rack out of a few steel pipes and connectors, says Abby Larson, founder of Style Me Pretty Living. All of the materials can be found at a hardware store, and it's as easy as screwing the pieces in place (and coating it with gold spray-paint, for an of-the-moment touch). If you're not the DIY type, several companies also sell collapsible racks that you can tuck under the bed when they're not in use.

    Photos 2 and 4 courtesy of A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home, copyright 2014 by Elsie Larson and Emma Chapman. Photographs copyright 2014 by Janae Hardy. Published by Potter Style, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

CONVERSATIONS