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Can Candles Cause Headaches? (And Safe Alternatives to Consider)

Can Candles Cause Headaches? (And Safe Alternatives to Consider)

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Candles were originally designed for illumination in the absence of electrical lighting. They have been used since the olden days for illuminating rooms in the night, but after the invention of AC electrical supply, the original purpose of candles became completely obsolete.

It didn’t take very long before electrical supply quickly spread throughout the globe, and in this day and age, electrical supply is available almost all over the globe. However, this doesn’t mean that candles aren’t used anymore; they are still used to create a romantic and calm atmosphere around the house.

Modern candles are scented, and you can choose from a myriad of different features. However, have you ever wondered what kind of chemicals are added to modern candles?

While most people love the soothing flickering of a candle in their room, you should know that most candles can cause allergies to spike, trigger headaches, or cause itchy eyes. Other common problems that may occur include coughing, sneezing, or excessive fatigue.

Even if you don’t suffer from any of these reactions, you should know that many candles sold nowadays are contaminated with harmful chemicals. Understanding the hidden dangers of scented candles is an excellent way to evaluate the risks and buy only high-quality candles.

A majority of the scented candles that are produced nowadays usually have an adverse impact on indoor air quality. Let’s talk about the elements of a candle that may trigger headaches and have a negative impact on the air quality of your house.

Paraffin Wax

A vast majority of candles sold nowadays are made from paraffin wax. This is a byproduct released when crude oil is processed to create petroleum. Petroleum waste needs to be bleached using chemicals and then turned into wax.

When you burn paraffin wax, it releases what are known as toxic volatile organic compounds into the air. These include toluene, benzene, and acetone, and they are all known carcinogens.

These are also the same chemicals that are released during diesel fuel emissions. They can lead to a wide array of skin-related issues and asthma problems, and can also cause serious allergies.

In fact, there was a study conducted by the University of South Florida which concluded that candles made from paraffin wax continue to release relatively low levels of benzene, even when the wick is unlit. Apart from releasing harmful chemicals into the air, paraffin wax also releases soot with harmful particles.

These are ultrafine soot particles which are very similar to the exhaust released from diesel engines, and they tend to go deep into the lungs and are eventually absorbed into the bloodstream.

Studies have shown that these ultrafine particles can cause a range of respiratory problems and can eventually result in strokes or heart attacks. They can also cause cancer.

Another study conducted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency showed that emissions from scented candles are generally higher than in non-scented variants.

Chemical Scents

Another issue that arises when using scented candles is that these candles tend to make use of harmful chemicals to provide pleasing smells. Most of the candles that are mass-produced nowadays make use of synthetic perfumes and dyes.

Again, these also release volatile organic compounds when they are at room temperature. Some of the most common volatile organic compounds that are released by scented candles are limonene, petroleum distillates, formaldehyde, esters, and alcohol.

These are all harmful chemicals which can lead to an array of health problems and can also cause headaches and symptoms such as nausea and dizziness, and can trigger allergies too.

The Cored Wick

The wick on the candle is the part that burns. A cored wick is made using cotton and is generally enfolded around a metal fixture. This design is created to prevent the wick from bending over and falling into the wax.

Obviously, this is critically important for scented candles, as the scented oils used in these candles tend to soften the wax considerably. Wicks that aren’t properly cored are likely to become loose and limp.

There was a time when lead was commonly used in candle wicks. This was quite common in imported candles. But after the landmark case that completely banned the use of lead in cored wicks in 2003, this was stopped.

For those who don’t know, lead poisoning is a serious problem and can lead to cancer or cause other long-term effects.

Even so, you should know that all cored wicks that have a metal support structure in the center tend to release very small amounts of heavy metals into the air when they burn. Wicks that contain tin cores or zinc also release harmful lead particles.

What Are the Safer Options?

As you can see, using scented candles, or most mass-produced candles, is a bad idea. Considering the fact that they use synthetic fragrances and harmful chemicals, it might be a wise idea to opt for safer alternatives.

Here are a few common options that you can choose.

Essential Oils

Essential oils are an excellent alternative to scented candles, and all you need is a humidifier, to which you can add a few drops of essential oil. Before you know it, the scent will be wafting through the entire house.

Essential oils are quite powerful, so it’s best if you put them in a diffuser or a humidifier. Also, make sure that you never ingest essential oils, as they can be poisonous.


Potpourri usually consists of fruit rinds, wood chips, dried flowers, and berries. They are all completely dried, and a few spices can be sprinkled on top before the potpourri is placed in the room.

The smell produced by the dry potpourri is quite strong and you will be able to maintain a beautiful fragrance around the house because of this. These are just a few things that you should know about candles and the damage they can cause.

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Melinda Kilchoer

Thursday 15th of July 2021

Hello Lisa,

Your article greatly interests me as I am the owner of a candle store.

Specifically, I'm interested in the University of South Florida study that concluded that paraffin candles release harmful chemicals into the air. I have read several bloggers making the claim , and I have been searching for scientific proof, but have not found one. Would you mind sharing the link to that study?

The National candle association claims that candle soot is not harmful, and that paraffin was is not more harmful than other waxes (

Thank you in advance for your reply.

Best regards, Melinda