Lighting a scented candle is usually linked to relaxation and wellbeing. But most scented candles contain synthetic fragrances that give off toxic chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) even when they’re unlit and sitting at room temperature.
The difference between synthetic fragrance and essential oil fragrance is vast, and understanding it is essential to good health and wellbeing.
What is synthetic fragrance made from?
Synthetic fragrances are made up of chemical compounds derived from petroleum or crude oil, and contain known toxins, carcinogens (cancer-causing compounds) and hormone disruptors. The most frequently used are:
- Phthalates – a group of chemical solvents and fixatives that are known carcinogens, hormone disruptors and obesogenics, meaning they can cause weight gain by disrupting the endocrine system
- Parabens – a group of chemical preservatives that are very strong endocrine disruptors and have been implicated in a number of health issues including asthma, breast cancer, obesity, male fertility issues and birth defects
- Formaldehyde – a known carcinogen that also causes irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and skin
- Methylene chloride – a solvent that causes skin irritation, is toxic to pregnant women as it crosses the placental barrier, and is a known carcinogen for pancreatic, lung and liver cancers
- Benzaldehyde – common scent molecule that commonly causes respiratory illness
- Toluene – a chemical solvent that can cause damage to the brain and nervous system
The dangers of synthetic fragrance in scented candles
Just as smokers feel the instant hit of nicotine when they inhale a cigarette, inhaling synthetic fragrance has an immediate effect on the body. When fragrance enters the body via the nose and lungs it bypasses the body’s protective skin barrier and enters the brain, nervous system and bloodstream almost instantly.
While long term exposure to synthetic fragrance can cause serious health problems and illness, the most common immediate reactions are migraines, headaches, nausea, asthma, anxiety, dizziness, allergy symptoms and respiratory tract irritation.
Making the switch to natural home fragrance
The use of synthetic fragrance is common across most major candle brands, including those that are vegan, sustainable and eco-friendly. Why? Synthetic fragrance is cheap – which is a reflection of the low-quality ingredients used to make it.
Avoid harmful synthetic fragrance by switching to an essential oil based scented candle. Look for non-toxic soy wax candles that are made with 100% essential oils, not a blend of essential oils and synthetic fragrance.
Essential oils are made by via a natural distillation process (with either steam or water) or by manually cold pressing flowers and plants. The resulting plant oil, which is potent in aromatics and heath benefits, is then combined with a natural carrier oil like jojoba or sweet almond oil and blended through wax to create naturally fragranced candles with no toxins.
How to spot the difference between synthetic fragrance and essential oil
If you’re unsure about whether a scented candle contains synthetic fragrance or natural essential oils, check the colour of the wax. Synthetic fragrance is clear, ensuring that all candles in a collection will be a uniform pure white despite having different fragrances. (The only exception is candles that are brightly coloured, which indicates the use of synthetic dye.)
Essential oils vary in colour from almost colourless through to shades of yellow, orange and brown. A range of scented candles that each have slightly different coloured wax indicates that they contain pure essential oils.