Support journalism that lights the way through the climate crisis

Goal: $100k

As October brings with it Breast Cancer Awareness Month, many of us are thinking about ways to embrace the season by engaging with overall wellness. Scented candles frequently find their way into our homes this time of year, but could be leading us down a path of potential adverse health effects.

Over the past few years, consumers' interest in scented candles has exploded with an emphasized shift from candles for décor to wellness purposes. Categorized with other “wellness” trends such as supplements and chia seeds, it is worth wondering at what point the fixation with the “clean girl esthetic” and wellness practices is rooted in this notion of being “unwell.”

In the 1950s, Dr. Halbert L. Dunn coined the term wellness, from which terms of health, well-being and wellness have distinctly been drawn. However, through the now estimated over $4-trillion industry, this image-conscious version of health has transformed into something that likely surpassed its originator’s initial vision.

Scented candles can have adverse effects on health, particularly for AFAB (assigned female at birth) or those with ovarian reproductive systems. Scented candles are comprised of chemicals, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and phthalates, which are used to prolong the fragrance’s longevity. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors that can disrupt hormone balance and lead to conditions like breast cancer, endometriosis miscarriage and reproductive harm. Gender norms and “wellness” marketing put women at higher risk of chemical exposure from wellness items, personal care products and markedly, scented candles.

Scented candles can also have a wide-reaching environmental impact. Most conventional candles are made from paraffin wax. This is a petroleum waste product that is chemically bleached and derived from crude oil, which creates highly toxic benzene and toluene when burned (both are known carcinogens on the list of toxic substances managed by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act).

Robert Crawford in the 1980s devised the term healthism at a time when illness was regarded as a personal responsibility. Cancer, diabetes and heart attacks were typically attributed to individual responsibility, rather than any potential environmental factors. As such, you did not have to worry about falling ill due to external factors beyond your personal control.

Healthism questioned this presumption of individualism, through everyday products such as scented candles, as a remedy for being “unwell.” It is worth noting, however, that many environmental factors are presently still not explored and considered in the majority of health cases. By illuminating the health risks associated with candles, we draw attention to the broader issue of environmental factors frequently overlooked in health care.

Unfortunately, the burden of purity politics is on the consumer to recognize the harmful effects of scented candles. Calls to opt for natural alternatives, such as beeswax or soy candles, can significantly reduce the negative impact on women's health and the environment, but often come with higher price tags, positioning them as items of indulgence rather than necessity and further perpetuating existing inequalities.

Here, classist ideals emerge through exclusivity. The luxury attached to esthetic candles reinforces the idea that certain sensory experiences are reserved for those who can afford them. The cultural value placed on creating a specific atmosphere or lifestyle through esthetics contributes to an environment where the ability to curate such experiences is perceived as a mark of higher social standing.

By illuminating the health risks associated with candles, we draw attention to the broader issue of environmental factors frequently overlooked in health care, write Anuja Purohit @anujapurohitx and Zeina Seaifan. #CEPA #cdnpoli

Governments and regulatory authorities have a crucial role to play in safeguarding the environment and public health. In Canada, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Preventing toxic exposures starts with stringent regulations on toxic substances to remove the burden of prevention from the consumer.

With the recent passing of Bill S-5, an act to amend CEPA and strengthen toxics regulations, this may be possible sooner rather than later. But there is still a long way to go before toxic fragrances and candles get swiped off the shelves.

While “wellness” practices have their place, it is important to critically reflect on how much of this is driven by profit, and, ironically, identify the potential health risks of “wellness culture” and the risks it poses on particular populations. Health, healthism, well-being and wellness are not synonyms. As the “dose makes the poison,” a glut of wellness may eventually lead to unwell practices.

Anuja Purohit is a law student at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law / Common Law. She has completed her Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with a minor in Environmental Studies (Wilfrid Laurier University) and a Masters of Environment and Sustainability (University of Toronto).

Zeina Seaifan is a recent master's graduate at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in environmental and social sustainability.