Candles, Diffusers and Incense: How to Use Aromatherapy Safely

lighting pure safe candles next to green plants

The therapeutic effect of flickering candlelight and a warm, pleasant aroma filling a room is undeniable: who doesn’t feel more relaxed after adding a candle to their bath, bedtime routine or everyday life? Add in the potency of some essential oils or incense, and aromatherapy emerges as a major tool in your wellness kit.

Aromatherapy is known to offer an array of benefits including helping with pain management, sleep quality, stress and anxiety, menstrual issues, menopause symptoms, digestion issues, fatigue, depression and immunity. Additionally, many studies of essential oil diffusion have shown positive effects on indoor air quality, especially in reducing airborne fungal contamination (source).

But are there negatives to using aromatherapy? When we burn candles and incense or diffuse essential oils, we need to be smart and safe. Read on to learn about potential concerns and safe practices for common aromatherapy methods.

Scented candles

Concerns: Most scented candles are made from paraffin, a petroleum-derived product, and burn off emissions chemically comparable to auto exhaust. Additionally, this exhaust-like offburn can settle in your home as a dark, greasy soot, staining linens and coating surfaces in toxicity.

The chemicals used to scent and dye candles are another potential issue: these compounds are not naturally derived and often contain some level of toxicity, so it’s best to avoid them. However, all this bad news doesn’t mean that you have to give up candlelight and warm, fresh scents!

How to do it safely: If possible, use flameless LED candles, which do a great job imitating flickering candlelight. Bonus points for being much longer-lived and less fire-prone than traditional candles.

If you’d rather stick with real flames, burn 100% Beeswax or 100% Soy candles. Unscented varieties still give off a sweet, subtle aroma that instantly make a space feel welcoming, and their chemical burn-off is non-toxic. Make sure that they have specific 100% designations: even when labels say “pure” soy and beeswax, the candles can legally still contain up to 49% paraffin, and the scents and dyes added to these candles are the same toxic compounds added to full-paraffin candles.

Lastly, try to avoid candles scented with essential oils. While essential oils are typically safe, burning the oils chemically changes them into different, toxic compounds that can be unhealthy. Oils are healthiest when diffused or applied topically in carrier oils.

Incense

Concerns: Burning incense is traditionally used in many cultures to prepare a space for worship, meditation or spiritual purity. Can you guess another substance traditionally used for ceremonial purposes? Tobacco. Unfortunately, the lung-damaging potential of incense and tobacco smoke is another thing they have in common. With normal use, airborne particulates from incense are less concentrated and less harmful than second-hand smoke, but this comparison is important to remember when considering health.

A second concern are the chemical dyes, fragrances and preservatives used to produce many incense sticks. So how can we preserve the spiritual and emotional benefits of incense without creating health risks?

How to do it safely: Burn incense in well-ventilated areas, and allow the airborne particles to settle or be cleared out before lighting a second stick (no chain-burning here!). Buy organic incense with traceable ingredients, and avoid burning while children or pets are in the room. Their lungs are much more vulnerable to smoke damage than adults’.

Essential oil diffusers

Concerns: Essential oils are becoming increasingly popular and for some good reasons, but there are still considerations to be made for their safe use. Because of their high potency, essential oils can have negative effects when misused. Overexposure can lead to allergic sensitization in susceptible individuals. Many essential oils are also known for their toxicity to cats, who lack an enzyme necessary to process several compounds found in high concentrations in the oils. Despite this, essential oil diffusion--when done properly--is the safest way to practice aromatherapy.

How to do it safely: The safety rules for essential oil use can be boiled down to these: dilution and duration. Most diffusers recommend 3-5 drops of essential oil per fill with water, so start with that. Later, experiment with adjusting the amount and seeing how little oil is necessary to bring you the positive effects you’re looking for. Avoid diffusing eucalyptus and peppermint oils, which are known respiratory irritants, diffuse in a well-ventilated area, and do not diffuse in the same space as small children or pets. 

Most importantly, limit the length of time you diffuse to about an hour at a time. Most of the health benefits of essential oil diffusion, including improved air quality and physiological effects, are realized within 30 to 60 minutes.

With these safety considerations in mind, you’re well on your way to better health and wellbeing via aromatherapy.

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