Hot commodities: The Sway guide to healthy home candles

Posted by Jennifer Easton on

Our favorite non-toxic candles.

Weird confession: I’ve been reluctant to recommend candles on Sway because the simple fact is: burning any candle indoors impacts air quality to some extent. RECOMMENDING CANDLES IS WRONG, my brain echoed for a year. But the reality is: You love candles. I love candles. In the words of my wise friend who inspired this long overdue write-up: “We're all going to buy candles anyway, Jennifer!” So we might as well talk about the best materials and options out there. 

It’s time.

How to choose a better candle

🐝 Beeswax, soy wax, coconut wax—avoid paraffin wax
🌿 Cotton, hemp, paper or wood wicks
👃 Unscented (or phthalate-free fragrance)

Burning candles indoors: It's complicated

The bad news: Despite what many articles out there would have you believe, much of the health research re: the effects of burning candles indoors is conflicting and inconclusive.

The good news: There’s enough info available to make an educated decision on the “best” types of candles to burn—and there are plenty of delightful options. We’ve outlined our analysis for you below, and fall back on the precautionary principle, a tenet of environmental health and science, articulated beautifully by the University of Michigan:

The precautionary principle suggests that, when we do not know for certain that there will not be damaging effects of substances, especially those that are persistent and toxic in the environment, it is best to err on the side of precaution—that is to prevent exposure, rather than try to clean up or cure the negative health effects of an environmental exposure after it has occurred.

First up: Skip paraffin wax

There’s conflicting information about the potentially negative health effects of paraffin wax, a substance created from petroleum byproducts and commonly used in candles. We prefer to forego it in accordance with the precautionary principle: almost made a “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” joke, but that’s not very scientific, is it? Our preference is soy wax—a journal article found that it burned cleaner than paraffin wax—or beeswax, particularly when sourced from sustainable and ethical beekeeping operations.

A quick summary of some of the research surrounding paraffin wax:

A 2009 study conducted at South Carolina State University found that burning paraffin wax candles releases toluene, a known carcinogen. This study is referenced all over the internet, though Healthline notes that it was never published in a peer-reviewed journal, and the link to the study in various 2009 media coverage has expired.

Regardless, an important concept in materials health is that the dose makes the poison, meaning that the presence of toluene becomes concerning only when it's in amounts that can actually cause harm in humans. A 2014 study found that after four hours of burning a scented paraffin candle, potentially cancer-causing chemicals were released, but at amounts far lower than the thresholds set by the World Health Organization. However, note that this study has a disclosed conflict of interest: it was organized by the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials. (Is your head spinning yet?)

A more recent journal article in Cancer Prevention Research explored the connection between scented paraffin candles and bladder cancer, finding that candle emissions of chemicals of concern are below levels recognized to be carcinogenic, while simultaneously advising against the use of paraffin wax candles.

Moving on… 

You can stress less about wicks

Lots of candle brands tout their “lead-free wicks”—which makes it sound like other candles out there have lead in them. But the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the manufacture and sale of lead-cored wicks in 2003. So unless you’ve been hoarding candles since pre-Y2K (I’m not here to judge), you’re good. If metal-free is your preference, wicks made of cotton, hemp, paper and wood are pretty ubiquitous these days. 

Go for unscented (if you can)

A 2015 study found that a range of scented candles emitted VOCs, both “pleasant aromas and toxic components”—even before they were lit. But again, the dose makes the poison, and a different 2014 study states that the levels of emissions from scented candles after hours of burning were within an acceptable range. Using the precautionary principle again here, we’ll stick with unscented where possible. If candles that smell nice bring you joy, we definitely recommend seeking out phthalate-free fragrances or essential oils: Phthalates fall within the Green Science Policy Institute’s Six Classes of Harmful Chemicals

Three more musings on candles

It's a good idea to ventilate and run your air purifier to counteract candle-related emissions if you're able to.  

Give up the glass: If you love candles, then you know how quickly empty candle jars pile up, which can be pretty wasteful. I’m a big fan of burning beeswax pillars on a cute dish that I can reuse ad infinitum. Put a sweet box of matches, a snuffer & wick trimmer nearby and it makes for a beautiful scene.

Fake it ‘til ya make it: I received a flameless, battery powered candle as part of a gift a few years ago. Wasn’t into it at first. But now? I turn her on every single night. She has a permanent place in my bookshelf. She even lives inside her own hurricane. Seeing her glow is calming, which makes sense: a 2014 study from the University of Alabama found that watching a video of a hearth or campfire decreased blood pressure. So it’s not a stretch to say that a fake candle can do some good, especially if you're extra concerned about your indoor air quality.

Without further ado, behold the glorious assortment of candles that meet our standards with gorgeous branding and shapes to boot. 


Big Dipper Wax Works

100% beeswax | Cotton wick | Unscented | $18.74 for two

Big Dipper’s pure beeswax taper duos give your home a warm, natural glow with their honey-golden hue. At this price point, they’re definitely an accessible way to start your taper candle journey.


Mole Hollow

100% beeswax | Cotton wick | Unscented | $22.50 for four

Mole Hollow pillar candles have a classic look, made with a technique that has been in place since their founding in 1969.


Greentree Home

100% beeswax | Cotton wick | Unscented | $32 for two

For a more eclectic look, behold the designs at Greentree. Their pillar candles are designed to be mixed and matched, resulting in super beautiful pairings with real dimension. 


Greentree Home

100% beeswax | Cotton wick | Unscented | $32.50

With their second appearance on our list (and for great reason), Greentree Home nails it with these unconventional pillars, made from hand-poured beeswax. They're standout pieces that work in a variety of spaces and styles.


Bluecorn Beeswax

100% beeswax | Cotton wick | Unscented | $27.79

Bluecorn Beeswax is our go-to pillar candle. Do not let the lack of scent deter you! Beeswax has a subtle aroma (a built-in natural fragrance, if you will) all its own, and these are the longest burning pillars we've tried to date.


Hotel Lobby Candle

Soy wax | Cotton wick | Phthalate-free essential oils and fragrance oils | $56

Hotel Lobby's hand-painted glass vessels for their soy wax candles are scented with phthalate-free fragrance, including pure essential oils, and are made with repurposing in mind. With a 65-hour burn time on this soy candle, you’ll have plenty of time to think about how to reuse that glass.



Soy and coconut wax | Cotton wick | Phthalate-free perfume | $65

Liis says their products are formulated without preservatives, dyes, phthalates and sulfates, in addition to being cruelty-free, vegan, and allergy tested. Their unique purple-tinted vessel is very easy on the eyes, too! 


P.F. Candle Co.

100% soy wax | Cotton wick | Phthalate-free fine fragrance oil 

P.F. Candle Co shares a lot of ethos with Sway. They are a certified B Corp and are Climate Neutral Certified, showing their commitment to a cleaner planet and healthy workplace practices in all stages of their candle production. They also pride themselves on being vegan and “never, ever testing on animals” at any part of their production, so these are soy wax candles to feel good about and love. These vegan candles are scented with fine fragrance oils free of phthalates for the scent lovers out there: anecdotally, they've never caused any sensitivities in our home.


Brooklyn Candle Studio

100% soy wax | Cotton wick | Fragrance oils and essential oils (phthalate-free) | $30

Brooklyn Candle Company's name says it all: these soy wax candles are made domestically in New York with 100% soy derived from American-grown beans. Scented with phthalate-free essential oils and fragrance oils, these classic candles can compliment any space and any style.


No matter what candle you choose

You can trust Sway will curate a product list that’s good for you.

At Sway, we research and vet healthy home furnishings so that our readers don’t have to. Our carefully selected picks can be found throughout our shopping guides, newsletter and online marketplace

Using guidance from reputable organizations like the Green Science Policy Institute, the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design, and the Environmental Working Group, we aggregate non-toxic home goods from a variety of brands, making it easy for anyone to shop for their home, their friends, and their life with confidence. 

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