Green Products: 9 Safe Scent Ideas for the Holidays

Many people enjoy having a fresh-smelling home this time of year, as holidays bring guests and colder weather means less fresh air running through the house. Scented candles and air fresheners seem like a quick and ambient way to make odors disappear—but the ingredients released in the air add more toxins to your home and present serious health concerns. Get our safe scent ideas here.

Even when labeled “natural” or “non-toxic,” scented candles and air fresheners can emit toxic chemicals that rarely appear on labels. Law requires companies to list all chemical ingredients in a product, but companies can avoid including complex mixtures of hundreds of chemicals in the ingredients list by labeling them as “fragrance.” These fragrance chemicals are known to affect allergies and can cause skin reactions, endocrine and hormone disruption, and possibly birth defects.

One of the biggest issues with scented candles and air fresheners is the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that they emit. The VOCs in these products, which form a gas or vapor at room temperature, include formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, limonene, alcohol and esters. A University of Washington study found that one plug-in air freshener released more than 20 different VOCs, seven of which are toxic or hazardous under federal laws. The health impacts of high concentrates of VOCs include eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness and memory impairment.

Another huge danger specific to scented candles is lead-core wicks. In 2014, it may seem shocking that lead is being manufactured in products intended for the home, but some candles are made with wicks that have lead cores, emitting dangerous levels of lead into the air. Burning candles with lead-core wicks even for just a few hours can create indoor air concentrations that are much higher than EPA-recommended thresholds for outdoor air. Lead poisoning affects organ, central nervous, cardiovascular and blood systems.

Scented candles are often made out of paraffin wax, a petroleum by-product and known carcinogen. If you’ve ever noticed a black ring around your candle jar, it is the fine matter collected from the burning of paraffin. Diesel soot and candle soot share the same physical and many of the same chemical properties, as noted in a study on soot exposure and health risks of scented candles. This petro-soot aggravates conditions of those who already have asthma, lung or heart problems.

Two other toxic chemicals found in the soot residue of burning candles are benzene (cancer-causing) and toluene (affects the central nervous system). It doesn’t end there: fumes from paraffin wax mixed with other chemicals includes: acetone, trichlorofluoromethane, carbon disulfide, trichloreothene… and a long list of other toxins.

A common ingredient in air fresheners is phthalates—plasticizing agents that make fragrances last longer—which are then inhaled or land on the skin. Once they absorb in the blood stream, they can cause damage to male reproductive systems and disrupt hormone levels. A study by the NRDC found that 86% of air freshener products contain phthalates, even those that are labeled as all natural and unscented.

Ironically, instead of eliminating odors, the candles and air fresheners marketed for aromatherapy (like a “sea breeze” or “summer meadow”) are actually masking odors with potentially carcinogenic and toxic fumes. So, what are the alternatives for a fragrant and fresh home?

Alternative candles

Use candles made out of beeswax, hemp oil wax, vegetable-based wax, or non-GMO soy (some manufacturers will still blend paraffin with these alternative ingredients, so be certain it is 100% beeswax, etc.) Also be sure that the wicks are cotton.

Eco Candle Co.: non-GMO soy wax candles; 5oz candle for $11; votive candles at $2.25 each

GoodLight Natural Candles: made from renewable, non-GMO palm wax; $5.99 for 4 votive candles

Way Out Wax: candles hand-crafted in Vermont with 100% hemp and soy; medium travel tin candle for $7.40 – plus they have a Clean Air collection of air-purifying candles and sprays.

Do-it-yourself floating candles in vegetable oil: using a glass container, water, 1-1 ¼ in. oil, and a floating disc or wire to hold the wick; a serene look that lasts for hours.

Alternative air fresheners

There are plenty of do-it-yourself ways to create a fresh and sweet-smelling house. Pure, organic essential oils offer aromatherapy benefits and are non-toxic.

Heat diffusers are containers (glass, marble, ceramic) that release the scent from essential oils with the heat from electricity or a small tea light candle. Less than 10 drops of essential oil in a diffuser will fill a room with the scent!

For essential oils, check out doTerra and Young Living

Room sprays can be made by simply blending 10 drops of essential oil in seven tablespoons of water. Check out this DIY air freshener recipe for more ideas.

Potpourri, a mixture of dried flowers, petals, leaves, wood, herbs and essential oils, are refreshingly fragrant and will look beautiful. A simmering potpourri will naturally disinfect the air as the antiseptic properties are released from citrus and spices. There are many blends you can make yourself.

Pomander balls: orange and cloves, an age-old way to freshen a room.

Plants de-toxify the air and remove pollutants by adding oxygen. Adding ambiance and freshness to your home doesn’t get more natural than this. Check out Green Cleaning Magazine’s list of 10 best house plants.