Candles are a household staple used in just about every home. They serve as highly effective air fresheners that provide unique smells and aesthetics. We keep them in our bathrooms, bedrooms and cupboards, but rarely do we wonder if they pose potential harm behind the candle flame itself.
C.J. Woods, senior chemistry major, shared her knowledge on the topic in regard to how the chemical properties in candles affect not only humans, but also pets. Woods explained that the chemical in candles is only harmful to our health when lit and airborne.
“Harmful chemicals in candles are organic with alkene bonding, which are carcinogens —cancer-causing chemicals,” Woods said.
Woods said that these chemicals are primarily found in the wax of the candle but are also present in other parts.
“They are also found in the wick through the process of osmosis, which is the flow of a substance from a higher concentration area to a lower concentration area,” Woods said. “In other words, the chemicals seep into the wick and saturate it with carcinogens.”
Woods shared that even small amounts of these chemicals pose a danger to our health.
“Since the airborne organic molecules are carcinogenic, it would cause lung cancer for people and animals when inhaled,” Woods said. “There should be an open window nearby to allow some ventilation.”
Candles contain one of four main types of wax. These include paraffin, bees, soy and palm wax.
Dr. Bruce Prins, professor of biology, described the differences between the waxes and their effects on our health.
He explained bees and palm wax are the two healthiest options. However, the other two pose a higher risk in greater quantities.
“Paraffin comes from petroleum manufacture, so there are issues,” Prins said. “However, these chemicals do not pose great risk at low levels.”
Prins warned that candles that cause bodily symptoms are harmful and must be avoided. Even if the human body is quite resilient when it comes to fighting against harmful chemicals, he advised that we should be cautious not to breathe them in high doses.
“If your eyes, lungs or skin get itchy or sensitized by the candle, it is a sign to not use them,” Prins said.
Prins explained the detox of harmful chemicals from the body and that the liver is the greatest defender against harmful chemicals. Unfortunately, this form of detox is not as effective to airborne chemicals.
“Candles can produce toxins that first impact the airways and lungs before the liver can detoxify them,” Prins said.
Jade Adams, senior biomedical sciences major, explained the body detoxes chemicals in a variety of ways depending on the form of entry. Since the human body is designed to remove these chemicals, small and quick doses may not cause any serious effects. However, the same cannot be said for larger doses.
“For detoxifying harmful chemicals that we breathe in, the lungs will primarily take part in doing so through gas exchange,” Adams said. “Being exposed to such a thing over time is when adverse health effects will truly start to take an effect on your body. Even if it’s in small amounts, you’re being exposed to a harmful chemical for long enough where it can begin to become harmful to your body.”
Candles produce not only airborne chemicals, but smoke as well. Adams explained that candles often do not produce large enough amounts of smoke to cause any serious harm, but smoke is far from safe to breathe in, and larger amounts may have more serious effects.
While many of us enjoy candles, they come at a cost. Just like most things, they need to be enjoyed in moderation. Stay cautious of the health effects and keep a window open next time.