They may smell delicious, but know the risks.
Although nothing can truly substitute for the smell of fresh pine or recently baked gingerbread cookies, busy modern life has made us look for more practical and simple solutions. Consequently, scented candles have become a trendy product, especially at this time of year, whether for filling our own home with rich fragrances on dark winter nights, or as a nice gift for someone we love.
Although the idea of our house smelling of cinnamon and vanilla in a matter of minutes after simply lighting a wick is very tempting, the truth is that sometimes we don’t take the risks into account—both regarding the safety of our house, and our own health.
It sounds silly, but there are many people who leave these candles lit while they “run out quickly to buy something I forgot” so that “the fragrance will spread throughout the house,” or so that “it will smell good when I get home.”
You should never leave a lit flame in a house when nobody is home, even if it’s as small as a candle, in a seemingly safe glass container.
When you do light them, be sure to find a place for the candle that is far away from curtains; otherwise, if a current of air runs through the room, there is the risk of the cloth catching on fire. Always check on the candle from time to time (especially if children are present). It only takes seconds, and it can save many unpleasant situations.
According to Anne Steinemann, scientist and professor at the University of Melbourne, some candles (especially the cheapest ones, which use lower quality ingredients to maintain a profit margin) can release toxic substances, such as benzene and toluene, which over the long term can cause damage to your lungs, brain, and central nervous system.
This is why, she explains, some people cannot even enter stores where scented candles are sold (even if they aren’t lit); just the fragrance they give off contains these substances, which can cause migraines and asthma attacks. The chances of adverse effects increase when these products are used in enclosed areas, since the substances become concentrated in the air (and it’s even worse if they mix with other substances like cigarette smoke).
Many of the chemicals used to create those delicious aromas we love so much are derived from petrochemicals, which have been proven to increase the risk of cancer.
In addition, professor Alastair Lewis, of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of York (England), discovered that most of these candles (as well as many cleaning products) use limonene, which—although it is innocuous on its own—can become formaldehyde on exposure to ozone, which is present in the air around us. Formaldehyde has been cataloged since 2011 as a carcinogen for human beings.
What should we do?
The ideal solution would be not to use scented candles, and to look for natural options with similar fragrances (although they may not be as intense). However, being honest about the pace of our daily lives, and admitting that there are some of us who simply love these candles, the experts recommend that we look for organic options (soy candles being the most recommended solution) and that we always read the label to check the ingredients.
Also, we should try not to overdo our use of them, limiting the amount of time we have them lit and seeking to air out the house after using them. It might not be very practical in many countries to open the windows during cold winter months, but you can do it at other times of year, or make the sacrifice of opening the window for a couple of minutes if you realize that the candles have been burning for too long. Professor Lewis also discovered that there are certain plants that naturally help to absorb formaldehyde, such as English ivy, geraniums, lavender and many ferns. These plants are not only decorative; they also smell good. Maybe we don’t really need scented candles at all …