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What's So Wrong with My Scented Candle?

Reasons why you should avoid today's most common form of aromatherapy

In true aromatherapy, the essential oils are never heated

What do you think of when you hear the term "aromatherapy"?  If you're like most people, your first thought is a scented candle.  Right?

Without question, the most common approach to so-called aromatherapy is either scented candles, or some other method of heating essential oils (or, more often, merely scented oils), to disperse their fragrance throughout the room.

This concept is so ingrained in our thinking that, for many people, an alternative just doesn't exist.

However, in terms of aromatherapy — and just basic health — this is a terrible idea.  With true aromatherapy, the essential oils are never heated or burned.  Doing so may disperse the smell, but true aromatherapy is so much more than just the smell.

Without question: therapeutic-grade essential oils have the ability to enhance your life in almost every way; and diffusing these oils is one of the best ways to enjoy their amazing health benefits.  But, the oils do their work through their very delicate aromatic molecules.  The chemical constituents in the essential oils have a profound impact in supporting a person's health and well-being: body, mind and emotions.

However, to achieve these effects, the aromatic molecules of the essential oil must be kept intact.

This is where you have a problem with scented candles: Heating essential oils to disperse their aroma will fracture these delicate chemical constituents, altering some of their therapeutic properties and rendering the oils ineffective.  Think of it this way: If a therapeutic-grade essential oil must be distilled with low heat to preserve its delicate chemistry, how could it be good to burn the oil in order to diffuse it's fragrance?

But, the issue is even more serious than just taking a good oil and rendering it useless.  In some cases — especially with burning candles — the heat will actually convert those constituents into toxic substances, even as the candle releases other toxin chemicals into the air.

The effects of heating essential oils to disperse their aromas.

The negative effects of scented candles on air quality

A guest article in my home-town newspaper (the Lincoln Journal-Star, Sept 10, 2005, page 9) gave an interesting perspective on the use of scented candles.  The author, Aaron Marshbanks, the owner and president of DuctMedics® Air Duct Cleaning, pointed out a number of issues that most people never consider when lighting their candles.

The basic problem is that, while scented candles are used for their supposed health benefits (it is aromatherapy, after all), they actually emit powerful pollutants into the air — things like benzene, styrene, toluene, acetone and particulate matter.  The wicks in some candles even contain lead.  Not a good thing.

As a result of the increasing use of these candles for aromatherapy purposes, according to Aaron Marshbanks, specialists in environmental medicine are seeing a rise in indoor air pollution-related health problems.

Besides the chemicals noted above, which are released from burning candles, soot is also a major issue.  It's a product of incomplete combustion of carbon-containing fuels, usually petrochemical-based, and is what makes the flame glow.  So, when you burn a candle, along with the fragrance, you're filling the air with petrochemicals and soot.

Since soot particles are very small, they have the potential of penetrating the deepest areas of the lungs, coating and clogging them in the same way they discolor walls or contaminate ventilation systems.  Studies suggest that candle soot may have the same negative effects as that from diesel exhaust or factory emissions.

Heating an essential oil to disperse its fragrance will often just make you feel sleepy.  This must not be confused with relaxation.  Relaxation is a therapeutic effect that is clearly distinguishable from sedation.  Feeling sleepy, on the other hand, might be an effect of toxic overload.  There are reasons why heated oils can produce this toxicity:

These issues are significant enough that some websites actually warn against using Glade®, or other scented candles, around pets.  The amount of cabon monoxide, soot and (poor quality) essential oils emitted with their burning are actually lethal to cockatiels and other birds, and are considered toxic to both pets and humans.

The preferred alternative to scented candles

To avoid these problems, and to enjoy the fullest benefits of aromatherapy, instead of heating your essential oils or burning incense, you should diffuse therapeutic-grade essential oils in an ultrasonic or cold-air diffuser.  Diffuser of these types disperse the essential oils in a micro-fine vapor, that stays suspended in the air for several hours.

If you've never tried true aromatherapy, you have no idea what you're missing.

But what about Glade® PlugIns® Scented Oil?

If scented candles are such a bad idea, would it be safer to use something like Glade® PlugIns® Scented Oil?  The simple answer is "No".

With all wall outlet methods of diffusing essential oils (or, more often, merely scented oils), the fragrance is dispersed in conjunction with a (relatively) powerful electromagnetic charge.  Whether or not the oils are actually heated, the application of an AC charge thoroughly scrambles the oil's kinetic energy (if any is left after processing).  The natural frequency of the oils — which plays an important role in their therapeutic effect — is changed from a beautifully choreographed molecular dance into utter chaos.

In the case of merely scented oils, the results are far worse, since you're starting with a petrochemical base, and usually a synthetic fragrance.

I know first hand how awful this can be.  Some years ago, I started to see a chiropractor who used plug-in diffusers throughout his office.  It took me a while to figure out why; but, after sitting in his office for a few minutes, I'd feel really droopy and/or sick.  I'd get a really weird headache — that would last for days — and basically lose the ability to think clearly.  Sometimes, just trying to drive home afterwards was quite a challenge.

I realize that my reaction is probably somewhat extreme (I'm just that kind of guy … ), but I think it clearly indicates that you should avoid these things, too.

There's simply no adequate substitute for a good ultrasonic or cold-air diffuser.


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