The definitive answer is, well, up in the air. A 2009 South Carolina State University study found that burning paraffin candles releases pollutants into the air, potentially affecting human health. But a 2007 study from the Bayreuth Institute of Environmental Research analyzed candle fumes for more than 300 potentially toxic chemicals, finding no appreciable difference between paraffin, beeswax, soy, palm, and stearin waxes.
So why are people concerned? Rob Harrington, a toxicologist and industry consultant, believes that it’s about perception. “Years ago, candles were pretty much made with paraffin,” he says. “Soy candles are somewhat new. The marketing is that soy is all-natural and good for you, and that paraffin comes from the petroleum refining process.” Burning soy or paraffin, he says, makes no difference in air quality. (Dr. Massoudi, the lead researcher on the 2009 study, declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Despite the continuing debate, health experts and industry insiders do agree that breathing in smoke from any type of candle is unhealthy. “If candles are burned without adequate air supply, the emissions have the same characteristics as what you would find from diesel [fumes],” says Dr. Jerome Nriagu, PhD, DSc, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
Noting that a properly burned candle shouldn’t smoke, Harrington advises keeping candles away from drafts and trimming wicks to ¼ inch. “The shorter the wick is, the more efficient it is,” he explains. “If you keep the wick trimmed, candles generally have very small amounts of soot.”
Ultimately, choosing a wax may come down to personal preference. For instance, Kristi Head, founder of the California-based line Lite+Cycle, uses GMO-free vegetable wax for environmental reasons. “Produced directly from vegetables, it’s readily available to grow and produce locally,” she explains. “That lowers the threat to the environment.” Meanwhile, people who are sensitive to added scent may opt for beeswax, since it’s naturally fragrant. And paraffin remains a widely available—and often, more affordable—choice.
Meanwhile, if you are looking for plant-based and non-synthetic candles, we’ve rounded up a few of our favorite indie brands. Consider this list your starting point for a fragrant autumn.
Created by a Feng Shui master, these soy wax candles use oils of wild sage and cedar to create an aromatherapy experience.
Made with essential oils from plants such as jasmine and lavender, these vegetable wax candles give off a pretty and potent scent.
Hand-poured into recycled glass packaging, these all-natural vegetable wax candles have fresh-from-the-forest aromas like rosemary and green moss.
Le Feu de L’Eau
Makeup artist Jo Strettell and designer Wendy Polish teamed up to create these luxury soy candles, which are sculpted underwater into objets d’art.
Land By Land
These candles blend beeswax and vegetable waxes with essential oils—and they’re all made by hand in upstate New York.
Up to two dozen essential oils (Moroccan blush rose oil, neroli, and the like) are blended to create each fragrance of this London-based line.
Another Brit import, this spa brand uses sustainably sourced and renewable resources to create its GMO-free, vegetable wax candles.