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The candle quagmire

I’ve sniffed out some tough truths about burning smell-goods at home

A mustard-colored chair sits in the corner of a room next to a tall, skinny lamp. To the right is a bookshelf, to the left is a small bedside reading lamp, a stack of books, and a candle in a glass jar.
A Coil + Drift candle in the home of the company’s founder, John Sorensen-Jolink.
Photo by Read McKendree

Turns out not every aspect of the self-care movement is actually good for you. I’ve sniffed out some tough truths about burning smell-goods at home—though truly, it’s all relative—and have a few recommendations for your inside air. Oh and, come see me talk at Modernism Week this Friday! Info below. —Mercedes

Burn one?

I recently had occasion to talk to an anesthesiologist about weed. Very quickly this doctor emphasized the superiority of edibles, noting that anything you smoke (even if you’re not incinerating it) is doing damage to your lungs. Product side note: I usually prefer not to incinerate, and I use my Pax II—in special-edition rose gold—for that, since it cooks dry marijuana flowers at a high temperature without burning. Yes, it is technically vaping, but I hate vape culture, so I refuse to own the term. (Also, I live in California, so it’s totally legal for me to tell you all this.)

After the anesthesiologist conversation, I remembered advice about not burning things in the house during my pregnancy nor with a baby. What was this all about? Had my years of home vibe cultivation vis-a-vis palo santo been doing more damage than I thought?, I wondered in a Carrie Bradshaw manner.

So I did what we all do: I googled it—and took my editor’s eye to a bevy of links. I hate to break it to you, but it turns out that yes, burning literally anything indoors is bad for your lungs.

But depending on what you burn, and how often and under what conditions you burn it, the damage done could also be negligible (CTRL+F birthday cake). Of course, we’re talking about putting particulate matter in your lungs, so you could argue that anything is too much, especially for those with asthma and environmental allergies.

For context, many of us live in places where the outdoor air quality is still unhealthy, and in fact the mere act of making Thanksgiving dinner can put volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into our home’s air. (FYI: That New Yorker article is my top reading rec on indoor air quality.) What is an information-hungry lover of home vibes to do?

As with other far-too-complex topics where there is almost no scientific research, I have not really made a clear decision on my path forward, though I have started avoiding burning my palo santo. And I’m grateful for my air purifier—more on that later.

Two skinny white candles are positioned on each side of a vase of flowers in front of a stone wall.
Tapered candles in a House Calls tour of an upstate New York home.
Photo by Chris Mottalini

Not all wax is created equal—or is it?

Let’s talk candles. Another hard truth I’m gonna lay on you is that paraffin—the cheapest and most commonly used candle wax—is a petroleum byproduct. Am I saying that you may be burning, in your house, a byproduct of the thing that, when burned (in say, cars) is wreaking havoc on our planet? I am saying that, yes.

The National Candle Association claims there’s no difference between paraffin and other waxes, but this university research revealed that paraffin emits “alkans, alkenes and toluene, all reported to cause harmful effects to humans.” Note that this oft-cited research was done in a small, enclosed environment—and it’s the only one available on the internet. If you are burning paraffin candles in your house every day, without good ventilation, probably stop doing that. Same goes for burning incense.

The only recommendation the candle association folks do give to reduce soot from candles is to trim your wicks properly. Which, that is real—do trim your wicks (cotton is arguably the best material for them) to 1/4 or 1/8 inch, and keep your candles away from drafty windows. The other optimal conditions for burning anything in your house are: do it infrequently, and ensure you have good ventilation.

Beeswax is generally cited to be the best wax for air quality, though I cannot find a single scientific resource to prove that; this self-described toxic exposure expert is as close as I’ve come. I’ve been acting for years like that is verified information, though, and have bought and liked these tapers from Amazon, $30 for a dozen, though I’m newly interested in what Philly’s beeswax-only Mithras Candle is doing. I love their drippy pillars ($36-$68, “preferred by scribes and dwarves of the mountain”—hell yeah), but I’m leaning toward the more design-forward Seshet pyramid candle ($16-$21).

Okay, so maybe skip paraffin. And beeswax is best, maybe. But what about scented soy, which is what many of the on-trend candles these days are made with?

People may have a myriad of issues with soy, including that it might be grown using pesticides, or that it might be genetically modified. Or that the market for soy is messing up local economies, or that it’s grown in place of trees in a rainforest. The world is complex, and I don’t even know how we’d find a clear path here. Considering it’s vegetable-based, it does seem like a soy candle is probably fine to burn (maybe better than paraffin), especially, again, in the optimal conditions. So that you know, the next soy candle I buy will be from Richmond, Virginia-based Na Nin.

50 scents: Smell rich or die trying

Regarding scents, the whole-living crowd says that synthetic fragrances are worse (in all situations, not just candle situations) and essential oils (read: plant-derived) are better. Yet again, the science isn’t clear on this.

A note on status candles: They exist, and have for a while—and I’ll direct you to the Strategist for intel on the latest crop. Unrelated: These incense papers seem very cool, and I’ve been told they’re very nice.

Several small items are positioned on top of a glass surface, including a mail holder, a pair of sunglasses, a candle in a brown jar, two wooden sticks, a spray bottle, and two matchboxes.
We’ve really slowed down on buying things that burn, but, left to right: incense I won’t name because it’s only okay; however, Shoyeido has a lowkey cult following—and a line of low-smoke incense, $19 for 150 sticks; Luna Sundara palo santo, $13 for eight to 15 sticks; P.F. Candle Co. candle in Los Angeles, $20 (it’s a bit perfumey for me; I prefer Golden Coast, $20); Root and Resin Clearing Smudge Mist, $25 for a 2-ounce. bottle.
Mercedes Kraus

Clearing the air

News about the hugely positive impact of air filters installed in some Los Angeles schools caught my attention recently. That article linked to another, which linked to multiple studies connecting higher cognition with better air quality. So that has given the whole particulate matter matter new significance for me.

That’s partly why I feel so lucky that we were given a great air purifier (by a very wise friend) last fall when local wildfires made the air in Los Angeles really bad. Here’s a roundup of eight air purifiers—ours is the Coway purifier on this list, which is also the Wirecutter’s top pick. It’s quiet, it’s minimal, and Judd can pull up on it without hurting himself.

Cross-country shameless plugs

Hey, are you going to Modernism Week? Cool, me too. I’m speaking about the connection between midcentury legend Alexander Girard and (you won’t see this coming) the Museum of Ice Cream. Will I talk about restaurant interiors? Immersion and designed environments? Gathering in public—and Stonehenge? Yes! Info and tickets here. If you attend, come say hi.

”Where we choose to live matters, and it’s possible to find a home, and contribute to a community, while being conscious of our own roles in building more equitable cities. We’re here to show you how.” This week, Curbed editors across the country weighed in on where to live in 2020.

In New York, we’ve just launched The Neighborhood, a three-part event series that explores the power, problems, and potential of New York City real estate today. The first event is sold out, so run, don’t walk, for tickets to the second (on the outsized impact of megadevelopments) and third (on what it means to build a more equitable city). They’re available on Tuesday.

A few headlines that didn’t make the cut: Burning in, not down, the house. Burn, baby, burn—wait, don’t, though. Call me Duncan Sheik because I am barely breathing. Up in smoke. Where there’s smoke, there’s—it’s not great. The truth about candles and dogs. (Don’t) let me stand next to your fire.

Sign up now to get Editor’s Notes directly in your inbox before everyone else. Every other week, you’ll hear from Curbed interim Editor-in-Chief Mercedes Kraus as she shares her latest observations, intel, advice, and shopping recommendations.