I am seriously not sure what I would do without candles. They are my everything, helping to set the mood or transition between various phases as I move through the day.
There is rarely a day when I haven’t got a candle burning (sometimes multiple candles!) somewhere near me — whether to boost energy levels, soothe the senses or even transport me to somewhere gorgeous halfway across the world (like Paris, with these specific candles!).
And when you are surrounded by what’s essentially fragranced burning wax almost all the time, these become obvious questions: Are candles safe? Is my favorite indulgence putting my family’s health at risk? Do I need to switch out my regulars for non-toxic candles? What, exactly, does into a clean candle? And does such an object even exist — or is it all just a marketing gimmick?
Each of these questions becomes even more important when you consider that the candle industry is wildly unregulated. To the extent that candle makers don’t even need to label what’s inside their products.
So, you could be potentially filling up your room with a whole lot of toxic chemicals that can be harmful to health — with effects ranging from headaches and respiratory issues to heart problems, reproductive defects and even, in rare cases, cancer.
Sort of kills the vibe, right?
Speaking with industry experts, ranging from candle makers to doctors and scientists who study the effects of air-borne toxins on health, it’s clear that the credentials of a clean candle boil down to three basic components: The candle wax, the wick, and the components of its fragrance.
Time, then, to study them one-by-one with reference to non-toxic candles.
The various types of wax in candles — and how to choose
Wax is one of the most essential components of a candle (duh!) and also the most controversial.
Is paraffin wax, which makes up the base of most candles, really toxic to human health? Does soy wax make for non-toxic candles? What about coconut wax candles? And does beeswax mean a clean candle?
Let’s break them down.
Paraffin wax candles
This, undisputedly, is the most controversial types of candle wax — ever!
And with good reason.
On one hand, paraffin wax is cheap, easily available and holds the scent very well — which makes it an extremely popular choice for most candle makers, including some of the most prestigious names in the industry.
However, paraffin wax is a petroleum by-product, obtained from the gunk at the bottom of crude oil barrels.
Now, don’t get me wrong… it’s not like the dirty sludge is being poured straight into your candle jars.
These petroleum byproducts first undergo extensive refining to remove naturally occurring toxins, like benzene and toluene, which are classified as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These can be harmful for respiratory and reproductive health.
And herein lies the debate: Does the processing remove all the toxins? Or do paraffin candles continue to hold trace amounts of these VOCs that are then released into the air as ultra-fine soot when the wick is lit?
If yes, this soot is not only potentially carcinogenic, it can also enter the bloodstream or settle in our lungs, leading to issues such as allergies, asthma and bronchitis.
Ultimately, is a paraffin wax candle a clean candle?
The industry has yet to reach a definitive conclusion on the health impact of paraffin wax candles. So, the answer lies with our personal comfort levels.
And remember: Just like any other components, occasional exposure is very different than long time use. So, lighting the occasional paraffin candle is not likely to do you harm.
If, however, you light a candle almost daily (me!), it’s definitely worthwhile to look at a safer alternative.
What the other options should definitely not include are gel candles.
While these may look pretty with their clear jars, coloured gel beads and unusual items embedded into the mixture, they are made from synthetic hydrocarbons that may release toxic chemicals — definitely not the hallmark of a clean candle.
This becomes even more likely when the gel candle doesn’t use a finely formulated fragrance oil. That’s because gel doesn’t hold normal fragrance oil; instead, it needs a special formulation.
If the candle maker doesn’t get it right, pockets of oil can form in the candle, making them a fire hazard.
Another thing about the fire safety of gel candles? Sometimes the glass container may shatter as gel expands during heating.
All-in-all, avoid gel candles whenever you can!
Soy wax candles
Soy wax comes from hydrogenated soybean oil, which is non-toxic, burns clean and produces very little soot.
It also has a lower melting point and burns slower than paraffin wax, which means soy candles last approximately 50% longer — and that’s a lot of dollars saved!
Soy wax is also widely available and hence economical, coming in only slightly more expensive than paraffin wax.
The downside? Soy wax becomes very soft when hot, which means that long tapers in pillar candles may start bending.
It also has a weaker throw (the amount of fragrance a candle releases when burnt), which becomes a limiting factor for scented candles.
However, unless you can get a coconut wax candle, which has a stronger throw (see below), soy wax is currently the best option for a clean candle that also smells lovely.
Beeswax — made from the caps of bee honeycombs — is the oldest known material used for candles. And one of the cleanest.
What makes beeswax the gold standard for non-toxic candles? Let me count the ways: It’s natural, burns super-clean, is non-allergenic, and remains practically soot-free.
As an added bonus, beeswax candles actually act as natural air purifiers since they release negative ions, which attach to positive ions (like dust and pollen) to help clear the air in a room.
So, beeswax candles are not only clean candles, they are actually healthy candles.
However, beeswax has its own subtle aroma and doesn’t mix well with other fragrances. So, choose this one when you want to enjoy their own natural honey scent, rather than crossing lines with a floral or woodsy vibe.
Coconut wax candles
Which brings us to coconut wax — the newest kid on the block that gives both a clean burn (no soot!) and has a great scent throw.
Derived from coconut oil, this vegetable wax also makes for some of the most eco-friendly candles.
However, coconut wax is more expensive than the other options, so you are likely to find it only in the armoire of high-end brands or small batch, artisanal candle makers.
PS: It does burn slower than other waxes for a longer lasting candle, making it price effective when you consider cost-per-use!
Since there’s so much more effort (and cost!) that goes into making a natural wax candle, they are usually listed as “100% coconut wax” or “100% beeswax” or “100% soy wax” up-front. Or you can check the manufacturer’s website to make sure that you are getting a clean candle.
Unless stated otherwise, a “wax blend” is usually soy wax, coconut wax or beeswax that’s combined with paraffin wax to make them more economical or increase the scent throw.
These make them at par with paraffin wax candles — neither more eco-friendly, nor more non-toxic.
How would you know the difference? Look for candles specifically labelled as “coconut and soya wax” or “soya wax and beeswax”… and other such combinations. Else, there is a strong chance of having paraffin wax in the mix.
Is there a non-toxic candle wick?
Candle wicks have become less contentious since the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned the manufacture and sale of wicks with lead cores in the USA.
This came after a 30-year debate on clean candles, which concluded that these seemingly innocuous components could emit relatively large amounts of lead into the air when burnt — leading to indoor air pollution and lead poisoning.
In fact, they even exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) pollution standards for outdoor air.
However, lead core wicks may still be present in other countries, so always check for this one when shopping overseas. They definitely cannot be part of a non-toxic candle!
What, then, should you look for in a clean candle wick? Cotton, wood and hemp make for the healthiest candles.
Cotton wicks are the most popular choice for conventional candles as they are easy to produce and give off a tall flame with little effort. They are made with braided cotton fibers that are cured in wax to hold their shape.
While cotton wicks are usually non-toxic, sometimes they are combined with other materials such as zinc wire or fiberglass to give them more rigidity. This lessens their clean candle credentials, so wherever possible, look for 100% cotton wicks.
Bonus point for an unbleached cotton wick to underline a clean candle.
Newer, more experimental candle makers are rediscovering hemp wicks, which actually date back to ancient Egypt!
Produced by working hemp fibers into twine and then coating the twine in beeswax, these burn slower than cotton wicks, with a lower temperature flame and little to no smoke.
Result? A clean candles that will last longer and bur better.
Plus, considering that hemp is one of the most sustainable crops in the world (unlike cotton), these ones deserve a good look!
Wood wicks — thin strips of wood that are specifically cut to fine measurements — are my personal favorites, though they are harder to find and more difficult to light up.
However, what they make up for in ambience with their distinct crackling sound makes it all worth the while… a wood wick candle sounds just like a mini-fireplace with real wooden logs!
Plus, wooden wicks burn slower than their cotton counterparts, which makes for longer lasting candles.
They also diffuse heat more evenly into the wax, which makes for a much stronger fragrance throw.
As for the non-toxic candles debate, while cotton also burns cleanly, wooden wicks do have an edge: Since they don’t “mushroom”, there’s minimal carbon or soot build up.
The only caveat? It can take a few tries to light up a wood wick candle, since it’s harder for the flame to penetrate the material.
My tip? Ditch the matches for this one and use a stick lighter for a more effortless burn.
Fragrance: Natural or synthetic for non-toxic candles?
In the United States, the term “fragrance” can be legally used a catch-all for all kinds of ingredients on perfumes, skincare, makeup… and candles.
This is part of a larger copyright law under the Food and Drug Administration, which protects manufacturers from disclosing their “trade secrets”.
However, sometimes this may not make for the cleanest ingredients as a single artificial fragrance can be hiding as many as 5,000 different chemicals, including esters and petrochemicals.
All of these release toxic chemicals like formaldehyde and benzene when the candle is lit, causing air pollution that can trigger headaches, allergies, asthma attacks, respiratory tract infections, and even cancer.
What’s the solution?
Pure essential oils… aka natural fragrance
It’s tempting to only burn candles that contain “natural fragrance” — which is pure essential oils.
However, it’s not that simple.
Most essential oils don’t bind well with wax, degrade easily and don’t have a great throw. In fact, a candle with essential oils may actually smell stronger when unlit, making for a misleading test sniff in the shop.
Plus, essential oils can also trigger allergies — just being plant-based never makes anything completely safe (poison ivy is also plant-based, just saying!), so do your research based on your own personal requirements!
Personally, speaking, my husband absolutely cannot handle candles with the essential oils of frankincense or lemon — they give him a coughing fit!
Finally, limiting a candle maker to only essential oils would take away many of the scented nuances of our favorite candles, since several olfactory notes can only be produced synthetically.
Synthetic fragrance — in clean candles?
At the other end of the spectrum are synthetic fragrance — which, for many, are the devil’s work where the search for clean candles is concerned.
However, the synthetic fragrance category doesn’t always deserve its bad reputation. There are a number of synthetic fragrances that are completely safe and non-toxic, even when burned in a candle. So, they definitely deserve a place in clean candles.
All that you need for a non-toxic candle is to keep certain things in mind.
Firstly, steer clear of phthlates. This family of chemicals is linked to respiratory disorders, endocrine disruption, birth defects and possibly even heart disease.
Some of the words to watch out for that indicate the presence of phthalates: dibutyl phthalate (DBP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DNOP), and diisononyl phthalate (DiNP).
Next, look for cosmetic-grade synthetic fragrance oils, which have been rigorously tested and certified as clean by a reputable organisation such as the IFRA.
And, finally, as with all things in life, transparency is key. So, opt for candlemakers who are willing to disclose the full list of ingredients.
Are YOU the problem?
It may be tough to hear but the problem may not always be with the candle — sometimes, we are to blame for our own poor candle-burning habits that can turn even the cleanest candle into a soot-maker (this post will show you how to remedy ALL of them!).
Are you trimming the wick?
For example, you may have the best unbleached cotton wick in the world but if you don’t trim it regularly, be prepared for a lot of soot. Too large a wick (or one that’s mushroomed) causes the wax to over-heat.
A good rule of thumb is to trim the wick to about ¼ inch before every burn. This will give you a clean candle burn.
Is the candle’s surface clean?
Ditto for debris. Any residual soot, dust, mold, lint or other micro-particles that get suspended in wax get a life of their own when the candle is lit, creating even more soot.
So, keep your candles clean and debris-free for the cleanest burn. It’s not unusual to see experts the top layer of their candles with a lint-free cloth and then topping them with a candle lid!
Is your room well ventilated?
The National Candle Association also strongly advices burning candles in well-ventilated areas to avoid the accumulation of any toxic chemicals.
I will personally only burn vegetable wax based candles (that’s soy wax or coconut wax) in a closed space, which is often the case with our bedroom.
Are you burning the candle for too long?
Burning a candle for too long is also counter-productive. Maximum burn times vary from candle to candle, so always read the manufacturers’ instructions; however, a good rule of thumb is no more than four hours.
Are you blowing out the candle?
Finally, notice that plume of smoke when you blow out a candle? That’s because you are doing it wrong. Blowing out a flame will always release soot.
Instead, extinguish with a candle snuffer.
The best non-toxic candles
Where does that leave us?
Lack of transparency, conflicting evidence and an absence of regulations means that it’s a case of “consumer beware”.
So, to cut through the noise, we put together a list of our favorite non-toxic candles. These are all made with cotton or hemp wicks, and are paraffin- and phthalate-free for a clean, non-toxic burn. AND they smell great!
Hotel Lobby Candles
100% soy wax, cotton wicks, phthalate free
Hotel Lobby Candles occupy a unique niche — the fragrance of memories we associate with specific places.
Like Paris Nuit (black musk, wood, rum, mahogany to bring home the seductive Parisian nightlife); or Miami (delicate florals, refreshing citrus, and a touch of mysterious musk); or even a Chalet (spiced cinnamon, cardamom, bergamot, cedarwood, amber to evoke a swanky mountainside retreat).
And I promise you these non-toxic candles will out-perform any others on the market, whether clean or conventional.
Boy Smells Candles
Proprietary all-natural coconut wax and beeswax blend, unbleached cotton wicks, phthalate free
Don’t get fooled by the name — Boy Smells clean candles are genderless and have something for everyone.
For me, that’s Hinoki Fantôme, which is basically meditation in a jar with its blend of sacred woods and smoked resins. Think Japanese cypress, rich ambers, earthy spice, soft woodland moss and a subtle touch of jasmine petals.
Le Labo Candles
100% soy wax, cotton wicks, phthalate free
Most people gravitate towards La Labo’s most famous fragrance — Santal 26 — in candle form. And it is definitely a pure rhapsody of smoky, leathery notes with amber, cocoa, vanilla, cedar, spices and sandalwood (can you think of a more aristocratic combination?).
My personal favorite, though, is the spicy, woody Palo Santo 14, which combines the meditative (and rare) palo santo wood with the dark, resinous labdanum, incense and patchouli — all laid over the comforting warmth of cedar wood.
Additional advantage: The fragrance of palo santo is supposed to clear the space of negativity and misfortune.
PS: Do you know why Le Labo creations always have a number in the name? It refers to the number of ingredients in the blend.
100% soy-wax, unbleached cotton wicks, synthetic fragrance–free, phthalate free
This LA-based clean candle brand is known for its innovative take on classic notes like vanilla, coconut, mango and lemons.
An example? My favorite — Dirty Lemon — plays cold-pressed lemon, Italian bergamot and ylang-ylang against patchouli, pepper and sandalwood for a fresh, feisty and uplifting vibe.
Coconut-soy wax blend, GOTS-certified organic cotton wick, phthalate free
They look gorgeous, smell gorgeous and are kind to both our health and the environment.
Because, in the words of founder Carol Han Pyle, lighting a candle should be like “a cherished ritual, much like pouring a great glass of wine or drawing a bath at the end of a long day”.
And that’s exactly the case with Suede Fringe, a non-toxic candle that’s a super-addictive, sun-kissed blend of warm suede, orris concrete, tonks, amber, violet leaf, cardamom and sandalwood.
The glass jar, made in Italy by a heritage glass blowing atelier, the packaging made from 100% recycled shoeboxes, and the seaweed ink used for printing make for the perfect finishing touches!
100% coconut wax, cotton wicks, phtalate free
Anchored by master perfumers, Keap uses safe synthetic fragrances for clean candles that have some of the most luxurious scents and strongest throw in the market.
They also have a strong environmental commitment, with thoughtfully detailed components such as low-adhesive labels and compostable mushroom packaging.
Brooklyn Candle Studio
100% soy wax, cotton wicks, phthalate free
One of the most iconic names in the world of non-toxic candles, Brooklyn Candle Studio is known for its minimalist aesthetic and affordable luxury.
I literally have Santorini Escapist burning on the mantelpiece as I write this piece, its fruity-floral blend of Mediterranean fig, black currant, amber and sandalwood creating a cozy cocoon around my headspace.
Costa Brazil Vela Jungle Candle
Coconut-soy wax blend, cotton wick, phthalate free
Costa Brazil’s Vela Jungle candle is expensive but the mammoth size (16.5 oz), luxuriously unique metal container, and the INCREDIBLE fragrance makes it worth every single penny. Trust me.
The brand, which was built on the belief that “the spirit of beauty is inseparable from the health of the earth” anchors all its products around ingredients sustainably sourced from the Amazon rainforest.
In this case, it’s sacred white and black Breu resin, cypress root, nutmeg essential oil, myrrh, Brazilian vetiver and wild jungle flora for a calming, stress-relieving aroma that seems to touch the soul.
If you are looking for a really unique and clean candle, you can’t go wrong with this one!
Bluecorn Beeswax 100% Pure Raw Beeswax Pillars
100% beeswax, cotton wick, no additional fragrance
If you really want to enjoy a beeswax candle, go for one without any added fragrance — because, remember that beeswax doesn’t hold scent very well?
Instead, enjoy the natural sweet, honeyed scent on its own, along with the air clearing properties of Bluecorn Beewax’s pillar candles. They are a treat all on their own!