Are Candles Bad for the Environment?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

In the most literal sense, yes, candles are bad for the environment because they release an assortment of pollutants when they are burned, just like anything else, as combustion generates an assortment of chemical compounds. However, open fireplaces and cars are much more of a concern, along with unclean power plants, dirty manufacturing processes, and a host of other environmental problems. Although it is an excellent idea to be environmentally conscious and to make sound environmental choices, candles should probably not be at the top of your list for reform.

Candles made from beeswax are more environmentally friendly.
Candles made from beeswax are more environmentally friendly.

That said, some candles are worse than others, and while you do not need to stop burning them altogether, you might want to think about more environmentally sound varieties, like those made from beeswax, soy, or other vegetable products, rather than traditional paraffin ones. With a growing awareness of environmental issues, several manufacturers have begun to focus on providing “green” alternatives which are good for the Earth, making environmentally sound choices very easy for consumers.

Candles can be a source of lung irritation.
Candles can be a source of lung irritation.

Burning candles can be bad for the environment in a number of ways. The components of the candle are the primary source of environmental problems. Paraffin candles, for example, produce a number of byproducts when they are burned, including greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Paraffin is also a petroleum product, making it a nonrenewable resource and adding to pollution through oil spills and other issues associated with the oil extraction process. Candles also produce soot, a particulate material which can be a lung irritant, and scented or treated varieties may release harmful chemical compounds when they are burned.


The wick is also an issue. Some candles are made with wicks that have additives like lead and zinc, which can release harmful gases when they are burned. While lead wicks are banned in some parts of the world, these bans are hard to enforce, and it is relatively easy to find them, unfortunately. You may also want to consider packaging; many candles, for example, are packaged in plastics that are thrown away, rather than paper or biodegradable wrapping.

No candle is going to be exempt from causing at least a small amount of environmental damage, but on a global scale, a few used to brighten a dreary evening are not going to make a major difference, especially if you choose more environmentally friendly materials and packaging. A soy wax candle burned in a recycled metal tin, for example, is a better choice than paraffin candles individually wrapped in plastic packaging.

A candle.
A candle.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Monika - It is difficult to avoid buying things made in factories. However, you can purchase things second hand to minimize the impact on the environment though. And you could always make you own candles pretty easily. I have a friend that melts her kids crayon stubs and make candles with the leftover wax, for example.


I've never given any thought to the environmental impact of unscented candles before. I don't use them very often, but it's still really interesting to think about. I think it really highlights how most of our manufacturing processes aren't that good for the environment.

So, if you really wanted to protect the environment, you wouldn't buy things made in factories. I think that's pretty extreme, and I doubt many people could live like that in the modern world anyway.


@Ted41 - I'm not giving candles up anytime soon either, but I have tried recently to buy more naturally made candles instead of buying Yankee candles or something. Even if you don't care about the environment, it's probably better for your health to buy natural candles. Plus, you could support a small business by doing that.


@ysmina - I agree with you that almost everything could be considered bad for the environment. It's bad to drink bottled water, it's bad to stop and get a coffee because of the disposable cup, it's bad to take a long shower...the list could go on and on.

I think it's important for everyone to decide for themselves where they draw the line. I'm with you, I don't think I'm going to be giving up decorative candles anytime soon. I don't think their impact is very significant. But, other people might feel differently.


@burcinc-- That's a good question.

I think if you're using a natural oil like sesame oil or olive oil, it should be fine. This is what people used before candles. It's also better for the environment in the sense that oil is much more efficient than candles. It burns for a longer time. So you're also using natural resources more efficiently when you opt to burn oil.

Almost everything is bad for the environment. If you compare the amount of pollution a factory produces and a candle, it's ridiculous -- they're not comparable!

Candles are technically not good for the environment but they don't cause that much harm either. I'd rather see people commuting to work or sharing rides to reduce car pollution rather than not burning candles to benefit the environment.


Oh, so candles made from organic ingredients do not release chemicals?

What about burning oil with a wick? Is that bad for the environment?


This is funny. I always thought of candles as environmentally friendly in comparison to the harm caused by using unnatural and fluorescent lights. I think candles are romantic and are an essential part of returning to more natural technologies.



I agree that the overarching issue may be more important, but I think that this attention to how the general concept is worked out in small ways can have massive results. While a single candle might not be a bad thing, many candles can contribute to significant air pollution. Open fires are even worse. The sooner people recognize that we are essentially completely ignorant of the ways in which we harm our environment the better.


Candles seem like such a small issue, I think that the larger, overarching desire to have a clean environment and protect the world is more important, and much more worthy of our time and energy to work towards. Being persnickety about small details and looking down on people who use candles is quite dogmatic and disrespectful.


Good info.

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