Not so Nice Pumpkin Spice

Certain chemicals that are frequently used in scented candles are proven to be health risks, but other alternatives to candle burning exists. Diffusers are a safe and healthy way to use scents as a way to stay focused, calm, and motivated.

by Mara Callahan, Lifestyles Editor

It’s been four years since finance designer Helen Kuo and her family last burned a candle in their home. The reason — petroleum byproduct. Kuo’s daughter, senior Simone Kuo first noticed her head aching after she had been burning a holiday scented candle from Bath and Bodyworks. The cause of these aches can be traced back to the synthetic chemicals and fragrances found in paraffin wax candles. 

“We used to burn candles all the time,” Kuo said. “When I started learning about the toxins in the environment and what they can do to our body, I just found it was something I wanted to move away from and do whatever I could to support my family and ensure we weren’t increasing those toxins in ways that I wasn’t aware of. So we try to do as much as we can from a natural perspective. And we do that by not using candles, not using synthetic plugins, and looking to diffuse in our house with just water. We only use a few drops of natural oil or a blend of the one for the scent, or an emotional or health benefit that we’re looking to achieve.”

After learning about the health risks that burning candles can cause, Kuo began to grow her knowledge of what candles can do to the body’s systems from a toxic perspective.

“There are a lot of chemicals that you can actually smell when burning candles, and they smell good, but nine times out of ten that product has some sort of a synthetic fat fragrance that can have negative impacts on your body,” Kuo said. “Synthetic chemicals and fragrances that are in perfumes or candles are not required to be disclosed on their product labels, they’re secret ingredients that aren’t listed. It’s not a regulated industry. Many times those secret substances are linked to allergic reactions that can cause head discomfort, hormone, or respiratory issues.”

Incorporating more non-toxic and healthy options has led Kuo to begin experimenting with different products and fragrances that offer the same mental benefits as candles minus the harm. Essential oils that can be diffused into rooms offer healthy ways for people to cope with stress. When Kuo took the step away from candles, she leaped into the world of diffusers.

“To use a diffuser, you’ll just plug it in, put your water in and add your drops of oil depending on what blend you like, and then turn it on,” Kuo said. “Mist will come into the air which will then pick up drops of the essential oil you added and you can begin to smell and take that in from your olfactory system within your body. The main reason why students may like to burn candles while studying is because of the effects certain scents have, but there are so many ways and so many benefits to diffusing. If you’re diffusing a natural therapeutic grade oil, you can purify the air and use others to calm down and make you feel better. You could diffuse lavender if you want a restful environment or lemon for something uplifting. There are blends that can help you from the inside out.”

Kuo’s knowledge of essential oils has also rubbed off on her family members. Not burning candles in the house is normal for Simone Kuo and she has found she prefers the effect of diffusers and incorporates them into her daily studying routine. 

“I’ve found that some candles are very strong and can be overpowering which would give me headaches often,” Simone Kuo said. “Diffusers don’t give me headaches, they’re more subtle. It depends on what you put in them, but you can control how strong they smell. You can mix different scents too.  During the SAT I put different scents on my wrists to help me stay focused. I think they definitely have a benefit and I do find when I use them I tend to be less stressed.”

The mental benefits of scents are something the owner of CornerCandle shop Lori Woods can agree with, but she isn’t worried about candles causing detrimental health issues. CornerCandle Shop works towards finding the best and healthiest blends to use by experimenting with waxes such as coconut and apricot blends. 

“I heard someone explain candles really smartly once; anything that you’re burning is going to result in smoke, it’s a fire,” Woods said. “It comes down to what materials you’re using as far as candles go. I know there’s always a big controversy about whether paraffin is good or bad because it’s a petroleum-based product, but I feel like the level of chemicals released by each type of candle is well below the amount that would cause human health problems. The reason people usually put paraffin in their candles is to increase the scents, meaning you’re going to have a stronger smelling candle if it has paraffin added to it. I think as long as you’ve got the appropriate wick you’ll be fine.”

Despite where a person may fall in their opinion of candles, Simone Kuo encourages them to give diffusing and essential oils a try.

“Look it up,” Simone Kuo said. “Go onto oil companies’ sites and inform yourself about the pros and cons. Make sure all your sources are credible. Try oils. Experiment. See if you can find different ways to create the smells or blends you’re looking for. It’s impossible to avoid everything, but we can try to do what we can to keep out some of those toxins from our bodies.”