Scented candles are seen as the ultimate luxury. Not only do their heady fragrances help to give a home ambience, but you are, quite literally, burning money — it doesn’t get more indulgent than that.
However, in recent years, the tide has begun to turn against scented candles as we become increasingly worried about air pollution and its impact on our health.
More worryingly, research suggests that while the quality of air in the outside world is improving, inside our homes, it’s getting worse, thanks in part to our preoccupation with scented cleaning products, air fresheners, deodorants — and scented candles.
‘When scented candles are burned, they give off tiny particles, so small that you could fit a thousand of them across a single human hair,’ explains Douglas Booker of National Air Quality Testing Services (NAQTS).
Scented candles give off tiny particles when burned and generate a lot of pollution in the home
‘The problem with particles this small is that they can get into the bloodstream, and they have been associated with both short- and long-term health problems, including asthma and cardiovascular disease.
‘But they have also been found in the brain, where they are associated with Alzheimer’s, and have been found in the placenta of pregnant women, and have been associated with low birth weights and birth defects.’
The way in which we use scented candles means that not only are we generating a lot of pollution in our homes, but we’re also trapping it there too.
‘You tend to light them in small, enclosed spaces, such as bathrooms,’ says Booker, ‘and they’re often used in winter when windows are kept closed.’
Candles have traditionally been made from paraffin wax, derived from petroleum, but a number of brands have now started using what they refer to as ‘natural’ alternatives — such as beeswax or soy wax — which the manufacturers say result in a ‘cleaner’ burn.
The air quality in homes is falling, due in part to our obsession with scented candles
But are these more ‘natural’ candles really any better for you? And does it make a difference whether you’ve paid £4, or £40, for your candle?
To find out, we enlisted the help of NAQTS and asked them to test the levels of pollution given off by ten citrus-scented candles available at prices ranging from £3.99 to £47.
We chose similarly fragranced candles to try to ensure that any differences in pollution they gave off were less likely to be down to them having different smells.
The candles were tested in a controlled laboratory environment by burning them for 40 minutes and constantly monitoring the concentration of pollution to give a final figure for the total particle emissions.
Where a candle had more than one wick, all wicks were lit.
Bear in mind that a certain number of these ultra-fine particles are around us all the time, so in a ‘clean’ room over the same period of time, the number of particles that you would expect to find would be around 7.2 million.
Meanwhile, the number of particles given off by your average diesel car could be in the region of 600 million.
For each candle, we’ve compared the number of particles given off by the candle, to the number that might be produced by a diesel car within a certain timeframe, but this refers only to the number of particles, not the type, as diesel particles are more toxic.
The lab was cleared of particles between each test and the readings ‘zeroed’ so that only the additional particles produced by each candle that were included in each result. So which burned the best?
Bewell Manor Peppermint & Grapefruit
Particle count: 675 million, equivalent to the number given off by a diesel car in 45 minutes.
The claim: Our candles do not release toxic and harmful by-products into the air when lit. In fact, our candles actually cleanse the air as they burn.
When the beeswax melts, it produces and releases negative ions that neutralise pollutants by eliminating dust, mould and odour from the environment and improving the overall quality of the air that you breathe.
We say: Given the number of particles that this candle released into the air, it’s difficult to say that it’s cleansed the air.
‘It’s introducing a larger number of particles than you’d get from a diesel car left running for 40 minutes,’ says Douglas Booker.
‘Those particles may not be as toxic as the ones you’d get from diesel, but the sheer number is so high, you can’t say it’s improved the quality of the air.’
Furthermore, although it’s widely quoted, there doesn’t seem to be any strong evidence that melting beeswax had an air-cleansing effect.
‘This sounds like marketing nonsense,’ says Booker.
Bewell Manor told us that beeswax is a thick natural substance, that when melted, releases up to 35 per cent more particles into the air than other waxes. However, the cleanliness of a candle is not determined by the ‘quantity’ of particles it releases, but the ‘quality’ of them.
They are confident that with the ‘right experiments’ their candles are one of the cleanest burning on the market.
Diptyque Lemon Verbena scented candle
Wax: Vegetable and paraffin wax
Particle count: 343 million, equivalent to the number given off by a diesel car over 23 minutes.
They say: Diptyque candles are made of a high quality vegetable/paraffin wax mix, the purity and safety of which are indisputable. Each Diptyque candle is made with a cotton, lead-free wick.
We say: This was one of the most expensive candles that we tested, but it still produced almost twice as many particles as the least-polluting candle that was exactly the same price. Just because a candle is expensive, it doesn’t automatically mean that it’s going to be less polluting. As for the lead-free wick, Booker isn’t impressed. ‘We know lead is a carcinogen so using the term ‘lead-free wick’ is a pretty low bar.’ Diptyque had not provided comment at time of going to press.
Jo Malone Lime, Basil & Mandarin
Wax: Mineral and vegetable.
Particle count: 174 million, equivalent to the number given off by running a diesel car for 12 minutes.
They say: Our signature fragrance. Transform the atmosphere with luxury and opulence.
We say: This was the joint most expensive candle that we tested but the best performing one by far when it comes to the number of particles it releases while burning. The candle in second place produced half as many particles again, and the worst performing candle generated more than six times as many particles as this one. An out and out winner in the clean stakes, if you are prepared to pay the hefty price tag.
Jo Malone London declined to comment.
Aldi Lime, Basil & Mandarin
Particle count: 509 million, equivalent to the number given off by a diesel car running for 34 minutes.
They say: Add a touch of elegance to your home with the addition of this Luxury Lime, Basil & Mandarin Glass Candle.
We say: Widely acknowledged as an homage, of the original Jo Malone candle, this supermarket copy costs less than a tenth of the real thing — but there was a significant difference when it came to how many particles it gave off … almost three times more. Aldi declined to comment.
Yankee Candle Citrus Grove
Wax: Soy wax blend.
Particle count: 1,100 million, the equivalent to the number given off by running a diesel for an hour and 13 minutes.
They say: Only the finest quality ingredients and materials go into a Yankee Candle. We do not use lead wicks in any candle products.
We say: This was by far and away the worst of all the candles we tested, producing more than six times the number of particles than the best one, and creating a room that was over 150 times more polluted than if there had been no candle burning there at all. The average concentration is many times more than the number you would see in a busy city centre. One to avoid when there are less expensive alternatives that are also less polluting.
Yankee Candle took issue with the testing and say that they use robust third-party research and testing to comply with all applicable safety and regulatory standards.
Kiss Air’s Lemon Sherbet
Wax: Soy wax.
Particle count: 257 million, equivalent to the number given off by running a diesel car for 17 minutes.
They say: We hand-make all the candles in small batches using natural soyabean wax, cotton wicks and the finest fragrances that are vegan friendly as well as paraben and phthalate free.
We say: This was the second cheapest of all the candles that we tried, but in terms of minimising pollution, it was second only to the Jo Malone candle, generating around a quarter of the amount of pollution that the worst polluter created. Available in a range of fragrances, if you’re looking for an inexpensive candle that is on the less polluting side, this is a good buy.
Kiss Air say they use high quality ingredients that are as environmentally friendly as possible, labelling candles in accordance with the EU’s Classification, Labelling and Packaging Regulation.
Whax Lime, Basil & Mandarin
Wax: A mix of paraffin and soy wax.
Particle count: 806 million, equivalent to the number given off by running a diesel car for 54 minutes.
They say: Whax have made direct relationships with the UK’s top fragrance houses and use the same scents as some of the biggest brands, at a much fairer price.
Their candles are made using their own blend of wax made by one of the leading British makers, to give a clean burn.
We say: Another Jo Malone clone that’s about half the price of the original, but considerably more expensive than Aldi’s version, and more than one-and-a-half times more polluting.
If you’re looking for this type of fragrance on a budget, pick the Aldi one over this one for something that’s kinder on your wallet, and likely to be kinder to your health.
Whax say that more scent in their candles means more particles and argue that you are more likely to develop harmful issues walking down any street in London with the emissions and fumes from traffic than spending up to four hours in the same room as one of their candles.
Optimism Candle Grapefruit & Petitgrain
Wax: A blend of soy, coconut and beeswax
Particle count: 843 million, equivalent to the number given off by running a diesel car for 56 minutes.
They say: Blended and hand-poured with care using 100 per cent natural ingredients, Eloise Hall’s luxurious candles use natural wax, which is kinder to you and the environment, giving you a clean, slow burn of up to 45 hours.
We say: For a product that markets itself as being so ‘natural’ and ‘clean’, this was a really disappointing result.
It was only beaten to the bottom spot by the Yankee Candle, and produced nearly five times as many particles as the Jo Malone candle. It may say that it’s ‘kinder to you and the environment’ but our tests suggested otherwise.
Eloise Hall say they are surprised by these results and take them very seriously and are working immediately to ensure their candles meet their specification of the cleanest natural burn.