Are Candles Bad for the Environment? Mostly…

Are Candles Bad for the Environment? Mostly…

Dennis Kamprad

Read Time:6 Minutes


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With climate change on all of our brains, we should all be stepping up to find out how we can minimize our environmental impact. In many cases, this involves cutting back on some luxuries that we didn’t know were causing ecological harm. Are candles something we should be quitting for the sake of the environment?

Candles are bad for the environment if they are made of petroleum-based paraffin wax, artificial fragrances filled with chemicals, or pesticide-laden cotton wicks. If you choose to use candles, opt for ones made of non-GMO soy or ethical beeswax and only scented with essential oils. 

With marketing companies constantly throwing words at us like “natural” or “green,” it can be hard to tell how true this actually is. When it comes to candles, labels are notoriously uninformative—and this usually means they’re not the ones we want to buy. Keep reading to learn more about what you should be looking for and why.

Why Are Candles Bad for the Environment?

Whenever you are burning something, there is usually some risk that the fumes will have negative environmental consequences. Even burning firewood releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Burning anything emits some kind of toxin—some materials are just relatively safer than others. 

The combustion of chemicals that make up a candle’s wax, scent, and wick all determine the fumes emitted from a candle. Ultimately, releasing any fumes into the atmosphere is going to have negative consequences. One of the heaviest determinants, though, when it comes to environmental impact, is the choice of wax. 

Most conventional candles are made of paraffin wax unless otherwise stated. The problem with this ingredient is that it’s a petroleum-based material that is a byproduct of the oil industry. When you buy paraffin-based candles, you are supporting the oil industry. And we know, for obvious reasons, that this industry is the polar opposite of eco-friendly. 

As the byproduct of fossil fuel, paraffin wax is highly unsustainable. The source of paraffin wax, crude oil, is notorious for environmentally devastating consequences like oil spills, habitat destruction, and of course, climate change. 

Not only is harvesting paraffin wax harmful to the planet, burning it even furthers its environmental damage. As a petroleum product, this wax produces high quantities of particulate pollution, leading to air pollution. We can’t forget that emissions related to petroleum play a huge role in our greenhouse gas (GHG) problem as well.

While paraffin wax may be the biggest culprit in a candle’s environmental impact, the rest of its make-up can be quite harmful as well.

What to Consider When Buying a Candle

The biggest environmental impact a candle has is based on the type of wax it is made of. But fragrance is probably the most commonly discussed element of a candle. And what is that fragrance really made of? And, what is the rest of the candle composed of? Let’s take a look at the four things to consider when buying a candle.

What Type of Wax the Candle Is Made From Affects its Impact on the Environment

As we already discussed, petroleum-based paraffin is the go-to wax when it comes to candle making. It’s cheap, scentless, and readily available—but it comes at a price.

Soy wax is another option for candles. Unlike paraffin, soy is a plant material that is a more natural and renewable alternative. This biodegradable wax also burns much cleaner and at a lower temperature than paraffin, so a soy candle would actually last longer than a paraffin one of the same size. By this logic, you’ll actually be using fewer materials in the long run.

However, a common complaint about soybeans is that while they do have a smaller footprint than crude oil, it’s far from invisible. Conventionally grown soy is infamous for being laden with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and herbicides. The use of both of these can disrupt natural ecosystems and increase levels of air pollution.

Soybean crops are also a huge contributor to deforestation. Lasting effects from this include erosion, pollution, and endangered water health. Aquatic animals are more endangered from chemicals like herbicides and pesticides, while eroded soil can clog up waterways. Some areas may never recover from catastrophic farming techniques as such. If you choose to buy a soy candle, aim for organic wax.

Beeswax is arguably the most eco-friendly choice for candle wax. It does not have a limited shelf life, requires little to no land use, and doesn’t require any special care in transport. Again, it still has quite a few drawbacks. If you’re still committed to using candles despite their ecological impact, these are going to be the least harmful.

Beeswax is naturally produced by bees to build the honeycomb that they live in. When honey is harvested, beeswax is too. However, it’s very difficult for ethical, local beekeepers to harvest large amounts of the wax, so this feat is typically left to larger-scale, commercial industries. 

With larger-scale beekeepers, sustainability tends to fall by the wayside. Industrial beekeeping compromises the wellbeing of the bees by overworking and starving them. Anything that harms bees should be a red flag to all of us as they experience colony collapse. The less pollinating bees that are around, the more our crops will suffer, and the less biodiversity we will have.

If you choose to purchase beeswax products—whether it be candles, wraps, or skincare—choosing to buy from a local, smaller-scale beekeeper will ensure you are supporting the most ethical and eco-friendly choice.

Which Scents Are Used Affects the Candle’s Impact on the Environment

A big issue with scented products is that they often contain “fragrance.” When you see this on a label, run. This ingredient name is a cover for any amount of chemicals combined to make a scent. There are currently no laws in the USA that require companies to explicitly state ingredients on products like candles. This means that manufacturers can get away with adding nearly anything they want.

Not exactly knowing what you’re igniting when you light a candle is a big issue. How can you determine how eco-friendly a product is if you don’t even know what’s in it? You really have no idea what kinds of fumes a candle is emitting when this is the case. 

Beware of candles that claim to be “natural” as well. There are no guidelines as to what classifies a product as natural, so it can often be misleading to see a word like this on a label. 

Candles that truly are naturally scented will usually state that they are scented with essential oils. Since these are natural plant materials, they are a lot better for the environment than the alternative. Do note that it does take a significant amount of raw plant matter to produce a pure essential oil and that there is, of course, an ecological toll when it comes to agriculture. Use responsibly!

Which Material the Wick Is Made From Affects the Candle’s Impact on the Environment

Cotton wicks may appear unassuming, but the hidden truth is that not all of these are actually made of cotton. Some brands wrap a metal base in cotton to create a misleading illusion that they’re safer than they are. Wicks with lead cores are now banned in many countries, but you should still be aware.

When these metals are burned, they release toxic emissions like lead and zinc. Not only are these vapors terrible for the environment, but they can also be detrimental to your health.

Let’s say your wick is 100% cotton. That makes it eco-friendly then, right? Not necessarily. Sometimes, wicks are coated in chemicals or paraffin wax, so they light faster. 

Non-organic cotton should also be avoided as conventionally-grown cotton is notorious for environmentally harmful pesticides, fertilizers, and high water use, among others. Choosing organic also promotes natural biodiversity. 

Which Material the Jar is Made From Affects the Candle’s Impact on the Environment

Most candles you’ll find will come in a glass jar. Glass is highly recyclable, which means it’s miles better for the planet than many other materials you will come across. If anything, it’s the actual process of recycling that causes the most concern. Still, it’s less problematic than substances like plastic.

Though less popular, you might find some in metal tins on the market as well. As with all mining, metal mining can cause severe environmental harm. When not managed responsibly, metal mines may lead to erosion, habitat destruction, and air pollution. 

If you do buy candles, save the jar to reuse it. Upcycling is a great way to lessen your footprint. 

Do Environmentally-Friendly Candles Exist?

All candles do take a toll on the planet to some extent, but so does everything else. Are there some candles that are better for the environment than others? Yes!

The company Voluspa uses a coconut wax blend to make their candles more sustainable. They also manufacture their products without the use of any parabens or pesticides. 

Similarly, Herbivore makes their candles sustainable by using 100% essential oils, non-GMO soy wax, and unbleached cotton wicks. Herbivore also ensures that their materials are grown and harvested responsibly. 

Final Thoughts

Candles do come at an environmental cost. Conventional candles are made with petroleum-based paraffin wax that causes greenhouse gas emissions and relies on fossil fuels. Plus, different added fragrances can be composed of hundreds of different chemicals without us ever really knowing. 

While all candles will have some sort of ecological toll, if you’re really set on buying and burning them, opt for one made up of soy or local beeswax scented with 100% essential oils. 

Additionally, ensure the jar it comes in is glass, and the wick is made up of organic cotton. This is the most responsible way to minimize your environmental impact while still enjoying the glow, warmth, and fragrance of a candle.

Stay impactful,

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