Are scented candles toxic? Medical experts debunk a TikTok trend

I spoke with candle and toxicology experts to make sure that scented candles are safe

Are scented candles toxic? An example of a scented candle, a red candle on a wooden coffee table
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As a qualified Master Perfumer, I love to be surrounded by scents. I always have a candle lit in my home, so you can imagine my surprise when I saw TikToks with millions of views claiming that scented candles are toxic. 

These videos have unnerved a lot of candle collectors. The idea that our relaxation rituals could be poisoning us is horrifying, but I've been reassured by toxicology experts.

I asked medical experts whether scented candles are toxic and what we can do to enjoy clean, fresh air in our homes. Thankfully, they all told me that my aromatherapy routine is safe and yours almost certainly is too.

The bottom line is that most luxury candles - including all of my favorite candles - are safe to use. They're made from premium materials and, if properly maintained, will be fine for your health. The exceptions are cheap paraffin candle wax and wicks with lead cores. If you own these, you should consider throwing them out. 

Are scented candles toxic?

Three candles in front of a spa towel

(Image credit: Getty Images)

I'll get straight to the point. In spite of what some TikTok videos say, if you own a good quality, relatively recently made candle, you're fine. There are decades-old  safety standards to help protect your health when using candles. 

Alex Ebner, owner of ACE Medical, says that 'soy, beexwax, and coconut wax are natural and safe waxes to use'. As long as you maintain your candle well by trimming the wick and burning it in a well-ventilated room, you should be fine. 

Medical expert
Alex Ebner
Medical expert
Alex Ebner

Alex is a medical expert and founder of ACE medical. He works with major medical corporations, providing them with relevant instruments, so is always keeping an eye on the latest medical trends. 

Is the candle wick toxic?

A candle wick on a pale candle in front of a white wall

(Image credit: Getty Images)

A candle's wick is historically the most 'toxic' part, because it used to be made with lead or other metallic compounds. However, lead wicks are banned from production in the US. Even then, most people stopped making lead wicks in 1974, so unless your candle is an antique, it probably has a cotton wick.

For those who are unconvinced or feeling unsure, there's an easy way to check your wick. Rub an unburnt part of it against a piece of plain white paper. If it leaves a pencil-like line on the paper, then it contains lead. Most candles will either leave a waxy or white mark on the paper, indicating that it's fine.

If you're looking for candles with safe wicks, you should opt for a cotton or wood wick. 

Is the candle wax toxic?

scented candle on a bathroom windowsill

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Most candle waxes are fine. If you buy a good quality candle, made from beeswax, coconut, or vegetable wax, they are fine to burn. However, many cheaper candles are made with chemicals and cheap paraffin, which is where experts are concerned.

According to Nate Masterson, natural ingredients expert, cheap candles 'created with synthetic fragrances and waxes can release harmful chemicals, which can eventually affect the respiratory system when inhaled in excess'.

Drilling down to specifics, Kelly Johnson-Arbor, medical toxicology physician, says that 'the paraffin wax, obtained from petroleum products, can release toluene, benzene, and formaldehyde, all of which are known carcinogens when burned'.

Natural Health Expert
Nate Masterson
Natural Health Expert
Nate Masterson

Nate is a certified expert in natural product development and care. He is CMO at Maple Holistics where he works on natural and cruelty-free personal care. He's extensively researched the candle health industry, so is incredibly knowledgeable on what is toxic and which candles are best to avoid.

Medical Toxicology Physician
Kelly Johnson Arbor in a pink blazer
Medical Toxicology Physician
Kelly Johnson-Arbor

Kelly is a medical toxicology physician located in Washington who has done lots of recent, up-to-date research on candles and their health implications.

You'll be pleased to know that Nate, natural ingredients expert, says that 'candles made with natural ingredients such as soy, beeswax, and coconut wax are much safer. Many organic candles use essential oils in place of harmful chemicals, so are better when burnt'. They also come from renewable energy sources and are more environmentally friendly, keeping your walls white and air fresh.

I was consistently referred to a study published in 2014 where candles were burned in a range of room sizes. The tests were carried out using a range of candles, burned for up to four hours in large, medium, and small rooms. The particulate levels of cancer causing substances were less than half of the limits set by the World Health Organization. This means that the air quality remained 'typical' and no different from any other space. They concluded that 'under normal conditions of use, scented candles do not pose known health risks to the consumer'. It's worth noting that these were conducted by researchers within the candle industry, but there are plenty of corroborating studies carried out by independent researchers, too.

Which candles should I avoid?

An Autumn Wrath Yankee Candle in front of squash and pumpkins

(Image credit: Yankee Candle)

If you're at all worried, you should avoid candles with paraffin wax. That applies to most Yankee Candles, Bath & Body works candles, and Febreeze candles. If you can buy it at a drugstore, it probably contains paraffin.

You should be able to tell if a candle uses paraffin wax pretty easily. It will be listed on the candle's ingredients. If you're worrying about the candles you already own, cheap candles like these will make black soot on your walls. It's a tell-tale sign that your candle is not only poor quality, but contains paraffin.

What can I do?

Loewe candle collection in different sizes and colors

(Image credit: Loewe)

For general safety, always make sure to use your candles in an appropriate way: burn them in a ventilated room; never leave your candle unattended, don't place it near pets, and so on. However, there are a few other things you can do which are specific to candles and toxicology.

The first piece of advice is to invest in quality. If you need an excuse to treat yourself to a luxury candle, this is it. Not only do they smell better, but they're less likely to contain harmful ingredients. now they're also passable an investment in your health. 

You should also take steps to maintain your candles. Whilst this keeps them looking pretty, it also ensures that they burn safely. If you trim the wick, using a wick trimmer, to at least 1/4 inch, you won't see a black flame, indicative of incomplete combustion. Also, make sure your wax burns evenly, so it doesn't pollute or mix with any unburnt wick.

Best non toxic candles

Jo Malone Candle - Sephora

(Image credit: Sephora)

I've already suggested a few of my favorites, but there's plenty more where that came from. Many luxury candles are made with premium wax and cotton wicks. When I was evaluating our recommendations for best candles, I actually had to make a few cuts to our list. Even though I love the smell of Diptyque's Oud candle (and would still recommend their diffuser), they use paraffin wax. I always think it's good to be cautious.

Even if soy, beeswax, and coconut candles are more expensive, they're certainly worth the price. It's great to enjoy vanilla latte and candyfloss scents, but these are most likely made using cheap dyes and artificial chemicals. Opting for more natural, authentic scents will reduce the risk of letting off harmful chemicals when burned. 

Alternatives to candles

TWC electronic diffuser

(Image credit: The White Company)

If you want to be ultra-cautious, there are plenty of options on the market which don't require burning. Wax melts are a popular alternative.

If wax warmers don't appeal to you, I think reed diffusers are an excellent and safe way of scenting your space. I'm currently testing the best electronic diffusers at the moment (this motion sensing one from the White Company is my current favorite), but nothing beats a classic.