Sunday, August 23, 2009

Myth Debunking: Scented Candles Accused of Causing Cancer? The Truth Revealed

If you're any phobic about the big C disease at all, you'd bettter skip this article or you'll get ideas. Or rather you should read it to decipher another bunch of C, the kind that has you nodding your head incredulously and exclaiming "my, my!"

After all the IFRA brouhaha that erupted last spring concerning the strictening of perfumery raw materials control and percentage allowed in commercial products {you can read about it clicking the highlighted links}, there comes intimidating news concerning even the humble ~or not so humble, depending on your decadence quota and disposable income~ scented candle! According to a fun two-sided approach on the, in which scented candles are praised and trashed respectively by Becky Pugh and Nick Collins based mainly on aesthetic and cultural reasons, it also transpires that "Researchers at South Carolina State University have discovered that the humble scented candle releases potentially harmful amounts of toxins". How scary, right?

To be thorough we investigated this info a little (our geeky nature cannot be hidden for long). Here are some of the claims of the research:
"This study characterized the products of emission by individually burning 91 candles inside a stainless steel combustion chamber and determining specific emission rates of soot, benzene and lead. Candle soot was typically less than 1 ┬Ám, contained up to 66% elemental carbon and carried numerous adsorbed organic compounds including dibutyl phthalate, diethyl phthalate, toluene and styrene. Volatile organic compound emissions included benzene, styrene, toluene, ethyl benzene, naphthalene, acetylaldehyde, benzaldehyde, benzene, ethanol, and 2-butanone (methyl ethyl ketone). Analysis for lead revealed some candles emitted significant quantities of aerosolized lead during combustion".
The quote originates from "Characterisation of Scented candle emissions and associated public health risks" by J. David Krause, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, College of Public Health, University of South Florida, August 1999.

Please note the date folks: 1999!!! I mean, geez, a whole decade ago! Wouldn't there be more info available till now and wouldn't companies have cottoned up to those claims so as to reduce the hearmful ingredients as much as possible? After all nail polish comes sans toluene or phtalates anymore, therefore why would candles be far behind? And just how many of you burn candles inside a stainless steel combustion chamber, unless you're fetishizing KZ-Dachau (in which case what are you doing reading this venue?). Somehow this piece of "news" is making the rounds on the Internet (see this article on The Daily Mail for some quotes by doctors or this one spinning off the info) and one is picking it after the other which usually has my antennae up on something fishy being behind all that. It's either that "there are no news in August" or...something else. There is the snippet mentioned that "The neighborhood around NPR HQ in Washington is crawling with chemists attending a big meeting of the American Chemical Society this week". Could it be comparable to the war declared on fragrances and the egoes involved in the academic world?

It's quite logical and sane that Nick Collins exclaims on the Telegraph:
"One really has to respect the brass neck of the designers who make these things, because they have got the women of this world eating out of the palm of their hand [...]If candles weren’t primarily an evening product, one might call it daylight robbery – the market in candles is believed to be worth a jaw-dropping £125 million, 90 per cent of which are bought by women. What’s more, the market has increased threefold in the past three years".
Who can argue with that? It's a way to make the economy roll! Still I would like to focus more on this attitude as presented by Becky Pugh:
"Being, without doubt, a luxury item, it's hard to justify the cost, especially as the inconvenient truth is that the cheaper the candle, the sicklier its fragrance. So although every homeware store, and even supermarket, now stocks a range of them, you need a fairly posh one for it to be worthwhile".
Indeed one would presume that the real danger healthwise, the lead-treated wicks, are often eliminated from more expensive candles, while paraffin (a cheap by-product of petroleum) is less opted for in favour of soy wax. "Candles made from soybean-derived wax didn't show the same pattern of potentially toxic emissions" [quote source] although scientists are wary of cautioning this is merely qualitative info. Did the soybeans manufacturers lobby up for their product or was the Candlemaking Foundation caught asleep at the wheel? From the following ~published on the above source~ it transpires that something is rotten in the kingdom of Denmark: Scott Hensley notes:
"One more caveat: the work is funded by the Department of Agriculture, which wouldn't mind if soybean-based candles became the rage. As a summary of the research under the headline "Soybean Candles For Healthy Life And Well Being" puts it: 'By replacing paraffin wax with soy wax in candles, an estimated 60 million pounds of soybeans would be required for annual candle production. This requirement will have a direct economic impact on soybean farmers as well as a health and environmental impact in this country'."
Draw your own conclusions!

Of course one could also claim that soy is one of the most heavily genetically-modified products on the planet (and it's in the top 3 actually) so that would open a whole new can of worms, but you know what I am getting at, don't you! And to further this, there is also the fact of a scientist for one company going public on MSNBC that an industry study a few years ago could essentially not differenciate between paraffin-based and vegetable-based candles' emissions!!

Personally I would be wary of linking cancer to any of these products: cancer is increasingly identified as being a genetical predisposition (and believe me I know, I have family members working in cancer research at top notch institutions), meaning you will get it anyway if you're so DNA-inclined and panic certainly doesn't help, nor would banning scented candles bring any significant results; I'd venture that industrial and urban air pollution is hundreds of times more detrimental in exarcebating cancer growth. Like an intelligent commenter noted: "I think the only way to avoid cancer-causing materials these days is to move into a bubble. Unless the plastic turns out to be a cancer-causer too…which it will". Another writer at The Guardian "gets" it, although to her scented candles are a no-no due to other reasons; but that's totally cool and she might have a point (the article is worth a read).
The claim that scented candles "could trigger asthma attacks or skin complaints (ie/eczema)", according to the American Chemical Society's annual conference, that I can believe. But surely the solution to that would be quite simple: avoid whenever possible. Like with smoking, a certain regard for other people's comfort goes a long way...

David's The Death of Marat has been cleverly manipulated to include Cire Trudon candles in I found it supremely fitting! Aqua di Parma candles via


  1. Anonymous04:53

    Nice summation and reality check in what seems to be the next step ibn aroma scare stupidity. Love the redo of Death of Marat, made me grin.
    This reminds me of the cancer from incense scare last year. How many candles would one have to burn, not to mention how close would you have to be to them? Perhaps using one in a hukka or bong would speed up the results?

  2. Anonymous07:48

    Funny, my former TA is in Washington for the geeky American Chemical Society convention in Washington. I think it's for people who writes "too many years of grad school" under their education profile on facebook.

    Helg, I think the public is reacting this way because relatively no information was available before--I suppose this is the downside of the Internet: too much this and that but not enough common sense to sort through it all. And the media picks up on all this and just start quoting things because, well, research is objective, right? Except it isn't, as any decent science undergraduate will tell you! I don't want to get into the specifics--that'll kill my mood for my holiday (starting tomorrow). Sigh.

  3. Ross,

    many thanks for stopping by and commenting. The Marat redo was brilliant I thought when I was searching for pics, I couldn't miss this chance to use it ;-)
    Your point is of course extremely succinct: it would take an inordinate amount of smoke to be breathed and in fairly close quarters (hukka, you're too funny!!) for it to have significant results. I understand the concern of the public on what is after all matters of health, but basically there is some lack of common sense and solid examining of facts in all these articles. They seem fluff and frippant and objecting from an aesthetic point of view (latter is totally cool) rather than from a scientific one. But I guess, a long scientific examination wouldn't "sell". *sigh*
    Thanks for introducing me to that incense project, on to dwelve now!

  4. Albert,

    you could be very right, you know, LOL!

    There is an overwhelming desire from the public to find more "healthy" options in everything they do/consume and in that regard there are several directions to harness that and produce products that would direct them into buying them based on those claims. Of course sometimes it's all bogus! >I am thinking of the "healthier" non-sugar containing ready-made coffee packets which I see lined up at the supermarket aisles, pathetically claiming the no sugar claim, while in fact they contain corn suryp (which is about the same thing metabolically) and even more calories!! I mean, geez, do they take the public for stupid? Apparently they do. :-(

    As you wisely say, anyone who has every done some fact-checking on science research or has read a couple knows that those begin with some already mapped out purpose: usually research begins with forming a theory first of all and then trying to find quantitative data to back it up/refute it.
    This is true even in humanities, in which I am involved (not exactly conductive to "experiments" in the literal sense of the word), so imagine re: chemistry, physics and biology. I am sure results can be read in many ways and I tried to give that angle while composing this article.
    As with everything a little sang froid goes a long way to take things into perspective. It's a pity that the Internet in its vast resource of data doesn't equally provide the means to "break it down" and make us intelligently use it. I guess classical education still has that role.

    Hope your vacation is a really great one. I know you had been looking forward to it!

  5. Alexandra12:20

    I think that this is just a crap. We are being literally poisoned by herbicides and pesticides in our food, not to mention air pollution, USA running away from Kyoto protocol... And then they scare us with *candles will kill you* LOL

  6.'s just a smoke screen, you might say.

  7. Very funny- Olfacta ;-)

    I LOVE what you've done to "poor old Marat " !

    Ah, common sense...
    I bemoan the loss of it , daily.

  8. I think life's far too short to spend time worrying that a scented candle here and there is going to harm me. Trying to keep myself relatively healthy, encouraging my husband to quit smoking, remembering to drive safely, and always wearing sunscreen ... to me, those things are worth the work.

    Other than that ... I'd rather focus on having a happy life full of love, because that's what's really important to me. My biggest battles have always been, and will likely continue to be the ones that I fight inside my own head.

  9. A,

    it is as you say...What a whole stink of nothing!
    This "candles will kill you" concept though originated with the British press. Which is not always reputable, I might add.

  10. P,

    say it again sistah!! ROTF!!!

  11. I,

    the loss of common sense is probably the main reason why today's world is so wrapped up in its narcissistic idiocy. It doesn't take a nuclear physicist's degree to figure out certain things.

    Marat looks like he fainted from inhaling too many candles' emissions, didn't he? ;-)

  12. A,

    wisely said. I hope more people take your cue and try to make some changes to the big picture instead of the smaller one.
    And love...ah, that's the most important thing really, isn't it?


  13. Has anyone ever tried one of these cologne smelling candles ?
    I want to try a few but im curious to see if anyone has any experience with them, thanks !

  14. Yeah, they're crap :-)

  15. You can always be counted on to get to the root of the story and suss it out.

  16. Anonymous18:54

    *phew* I can't believe it; the smog, the CO2, the pesticides and what are the institutions loosing money on? "oh please keep that candle away from my eyes or it will burn my retina & give me cancer" or whatever.
    I get inconceivably intolerant in reading those things.
    but thanks, it is an interesting topic ;)

  17. Anya,

    that's a great compliment, actually, thank you so much!

  18. Violaine,

    exactly! It's all so pretentious, isn't it? In a world with so many greater evils...

  19. Interesting article, I read it a while ago actually. I hope candles are not too harmful, but I have to say , ever since I'd heard of potential danger, I have tried swapping paraffin candles for natural ones and I have to say that it's much more pleasant to breath the air in the room where candles are being burnt. There's no suffocating trace of paraffin anymore, so i stick with natural ones.

  20. Donix,

    thanks for leaving a comment and sharing your experience.

    You know, I LOVE natural beeswax candles. I simply do (love everything about them). But the problem is that if you're burning something to produce a specific scent, the natural scent of the beeswax interferes with the added scent. This is great when the composition is conductive to it (a honeyed rich floral, a resinous oriental), but if it's something that would be "burdened" from it (say a lilac scent or a lily of the valley one), it becomes a (small, 1st world) problem. That's my only apprehension.

    I suppose it all depends on how often one burns candles.

    Enjoy the natural candles you burn, candles are so warm and cozy!


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