The Strange Scents and Secrets of the Scented Candle Industry

Scented candles have become increasingly popular over the years, with major retailers like Bath & Body Works raking in millions from candle sales. But what exactly goes into making these scented wonders, and are they safe for our health and the environment? This article will dive into the weird world of scented candles, exploring the concerning chemicals, confusing wax blends, and the thriving subculture of candle obsession.

Scented Candles

The Rise of Scented Candles and Bath & Body Works

It’s no secret that scented candles are a booming business today. Major retailers like Bath & Body Works are making an average of $3 million per store from candle sales alone. They market over 100 different scented candles at any given time, with novelty scents for every season, mood, or occasion. Brands like these have made buying scented candles almost an addictive hobby for some consumers.

But how did scented candles get so popular in the first place? It turns out that scent is deeply tied to memory and emotion in the brain. Retailers leverage this by selling candles that evoke cozy feelings and remind people of meaningful times and places. While a basic candle once just provided light, now they promise specific moods, memories, and experiences.

The Health Concerns Around Scented Candles

With synthetic scents filling homes across the country, questions have arisen around how safe it is to be constantly breathing in these chemical fumes. Most scented candles today are made primarily from paraffin wax, a petroleum byproduct. Could paraffin release toxic carcinogens when burned?

Studies have found mixed results. One study by South Carolina State University did find concerning chemical levels being emitted from paraffin candles. However, other research has shown that paraffin candle fumes fall within safe limits for indoor air quality. The jury still seems to be out within the scientific community.

Beyond paraffin, soot is another health concern. When a candle burns improperly it can release black carbon soot loaded with carcinogens. However, we inhale similar levels of soot just from daily activities like cooking or driving, so candles likely pose a minimal risk overall for most people. Those with allergies or respiratory issues may still want to exercise caution.

The Conflicting Candle Ingredient Claims

Today’s candle buyers are faced with many choices when it comes to candle wax. Three main types dominate the market: paraffin, soy, and beeswax. Paraffin is the cheapest option, while also efficiently retaining scents. But many consumers view it as toxic and unsustainable.

This has led to a boom in soy-based candles marketed as “organic” and “natural”. However, soy actually requires additives like paraffin to create a usable wax. Plus the mass production of soy comes with major environmental downsides.

Lastly, beeswax is viewed as the most eco-friendly choice. But it’s very expensive to produce and doesn’t hold scents nearly as effectively as paraffin. There are no easy or clear answers for consumers today about which candle wax is truly the best option.

The Lack of Transparency in the Candle Industry

Surprisingly, there are no federal labeling requirements that mandate disclosure of candle ingredients. Companies can use vague terms like “proprietary fragrance blends” without sharing specifics. This makes it impossible for buyers to fully understand what is in the candles they bring into their homes.

Major retailers certainly aren’t prioritizing transparency about health or sustainability. Their priority is turning a profit through seasonal releases, limited editions, buy-one-get-one deals, and triggers of nostalgia through scent. This candle-selling model mirrors the issues we see in fast fashion.

Still, there are likely small, local candle makers that are willing to be more transparent about their sourcing and practices. For those concerned, seeking out these ethically minded businesses is the best option.

The Psychology Behind America’s Candle Obsession

Given the health uncertainties, why are so many Americans still obsessed with buying the latest cheap, mystery-ingredient candles? Psychologists point to just how powerfully scent evokes nostalgia and emotion. Having a fresh frosty pine or snickerdoodle candle may tap into sentimental memories of childhood holidays or cozy nights with loved ones.

Retailers intentionally leverage FOMO and nostalgia triggers to drive sales. Limited edition scents create urgency and anxiety about missing out. For some, buying Loads of candles on sale provides a temporary mood boost. Of course the feeling quickly fades, sending people back for their next hit.

While lighting a scented candle can be comforting, it’s worth being mindful of how companies profit from exploiting emotions. Seeking fulfillment entirely through consumerism often leaves people empty in the long run.

Scented Candles Don’t Have to Be Mindless Consumerism

Candles themselves aren’t inherently wasteful or harmful. In fact, they can be a delightful sensory addition to mindfulness practices when chosen intentionally. Here are some tips for being a conscious candle buyer:

  • Seek out small batch, local candle makers that use natural ingredients and sustainable practices. Stay away from big retailers pushing gimmicky scents.
  • Treat scented candles as an occasional treat, not a daily habit or emotional crutch.
  • Go for classic, subtle scents using real essential oils. Avoid synthetic “flavor of the month” scents.
  • Look for candles with cotton or wood wicks, not metal-core wicks which release more soot.
  • Buy unbleached beeswax or soy/beeswax blend candles when possible. Or at least verify the candle is phthalate-free.
  • Allow candles to burn all the way through to avoid wasted leftover wax. Extinguish them once they start sputtering to prevent excess soot.

Being mindful of ingredients, sourcing, and psychological triggers allows the simple joy of a scented candle to shine. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence. Just stay conscious of the bigger picture impact along the way.


The scented candle industry has exploded into a billion dollar business fueled by synthetic scents and fuzzy health claims. Questionable candle ingredients and lack of transparency should give conscientious consumers pause. Still, turning to local artisans and burning mindfully once in a while can keep the experience positive. As with so many modern indulgences, it’s all about maintaining balance and perspective.