Is It Safe to Sleep with Candles Lit? (7 Dangers)

Dr-Babar-Naeem.

This article was written by Dr. Babar Naeem (MBBS, MRCPCH) – a licensed and practicing medical doctor – to ensure maximum factual accuracy and unique content.


Candles can promote relaxation and help you sleep – but is it safe to sleep with a candle burning?

It is not safe to sleep with a candle lit because as the candle burns towards the bottom, the container temperature may increase to the point where it could ignite the wax and start a fire that could spread to nearby items like bedding, books, and curtains.

However, there are several other risks that come with burning candles while you sleep – or otherwise leaving them unattended – as discussed below.

Related: discover the dangers of sleeping with incense burning here.

The 7 Dangers of Sleeping With Candles Burning

The Dangers Of Scented Candles

Below are the main dangers of sleeping with candles burning:

1: Risk of Fire

The biggest danger of sleeping with candles lit or otherwise leaving them unattended is the risk of fire.

Many candles are designed to extinguish themselves as they run out, but it’s possible that the container could heat up and ignite the surrounding wax – resulting in flames that could leap up and spread to nearby combustible items like books, magazines, pillows, and bedding.

There’s also a chance that the candle could be knocked over by yourself if it’s close to the bed or by a pet and start a fire.

If the container is made from glass, then it could shatter under the heat – which is why manufacturers often state that you should not leave a candle burning for more than 4 hours.

Another potential risk is that debris – such as a nearby curtain blowing in the breeze, a leaf falling from an indoor plant, or even a flying insect – could come into contact with the flame and then spread the fire.

Candles Burn Down 1000’s of Homes Each Year

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is a leading department in the United States that provides knowledge and information about fire and fire-related hazards.

The NFPA stated that between 2015 and 2019 around 7400 homes caught fire each year as a result of unattended burning candles.

These fires resulted in 670 injuries, 90 deaths, and $290 million of property damage each year [2].

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) states that in 2020, about 200 fires in London were caused by candle use.

Therefore, it is necessary to put out any burning candles before going to bed or use only flameless candles.

2: Candle-Related Injuries

There are a variety of injuries that can result from candles – including:

Burns

This is a common occurrence that can result from candle use.

Burns can result if a person accidentally touches a hot candle’s container, or if melted wax spills over part of the body.

Cuts

These can be caused by a broken or burst glass candle holder.

The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a report that up to 8900 candle-related injuries are treated in the emergency rooms of hospitals each year.

These injuries include lacerations resulting from candle holders, and burns resulting from hot wax, open flames, and hot candle holders [3].

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

There is a small risk of carbon monoxide poisoning that could result from inhaling the carbon monoxide that is released by a burning candle.

The risk of physical and psychological stress is also increased in people exposed to candle fumes.

3: Dehydration

The warmth produced by candle flames can desiccate the water present in the skin, and result in dehydration.

Hydrocarbons are the main component of wax; meaning it contains carbon and hydrogen atoms.

When you light a candle, the wax at the top melts, and turns into hot gas.

The hydrocarbons inside break down into hydrogen and carbon.

The liquid wax moves up the wick by capillary action, and reacts with the air to create light, heat, and carbon dioxide when it reaches the flame.

This heat melts more wax, and the combustion process continues.

According to experts, about one quarter (25%) of the energy produced by candle combustion radiates into the surroundings [5].

When this happens, the temperature of the area is increased.

Water moves out of the body through evaporation, sweating, and breathing, resulting in dehydration.

Therefore, it is essential to drink a lot of water when burning candles, to stay hydrated.

4: Allergies and Asthma

Sleeping in a room with burning candles can increase the risks of allergic reactions and asthma.

Allergic conditions result when a person is genetically susceptible to developing a marked inflammatory response to certain substances.

Many chemicals released while burning candles can act as triggers for the flare-up of asthma and other allergic reactions.

Fragrances are commonly used in the synthesis of candles that can also act as triggers.

Common allergic conditions that have been reported by patients sleeping in a room with lit candles include allergic rhinitis (runny nose, sneezing, and stuffy nose), conjunctivitis (itching and redness of the eyes), atopic dermatitis (hives, eczema, and skin rashes), and asthma (shortness of breath, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing).

It is difficult to treat these conditions medically if a person is continually exposed to candles.

So the best solution is to decrease the time spent in the presence of burning candles.

Click here to see the best anti-allergy mattresses.

5: Headache and Migraine

Sleeping with candles lit can increase your chances of getting headaches and migraines.

Burning candles releases toluene and benzene.

Toluene is an organic solvent that resembles alcohol in its effects on the central nervous system.

When a candle is burning, toluene enters the air through evaporation, and moves to the lungs when we breathe that air.

The effects of toluene depend upon the duration and quantity of exposure.

A small dose can cause fatigue, headaches, migraine, dizziness, and nausea.  

At high doses, it can cause numbness, poor coordination, insomnia, and loss of consciousness.

If it is ingested along with alcohol, the effects are multiplied, and a person can develop seizures, respiratory depression, staggering, and even death.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency states that toluene primarily affects the brain, resulting in headaches and sleepiness.

6: Developmental Anomalies in Newborns

The toluene present in burning wax is classified as a “reproductive toxicant” by the European Chemical Agency, as it can damage a growing fetus if inhaled by pregnant women.

The birth defects caused by toluene include premature delivery, cardiac defects, and limb defects.

Smoking and drinking not only increase the harmful effects of toluene, but also cause birth defects by themselves.

JA Bukowski reviewed the epidemiological evidence available about toluene and reproductive health, and found that six studies provide evidence of increased risk of spontaneous abortion due to toluene [6].

I would like to emphasize again that, although the dose of toluene present in candles is very small, it can add to the total toluene exposure of the body.

Everyday household items like paint, glue, nail polish, fragrances, and cigarette smoke also contain toluene.

If a cumulative dose of toluene from all these sources exceeds a certain level, it becomes toxic.

7: Damage to Lungs, Kidneys, and Liver

Exposure to toluene generated by burning wax can damage the lungs, liver, and kidneys.

When we are exposed to the soot of a candle, toluene enters the body through the air we breathe.

About 60 to 75% of the toluene is absorbed in the respiratory tract, and goes to the blood.

The liver converts the toluene into its metabolites, which are excreted by the kidneys as urine.

Toluene tends to damage all the structures that are involved in its absorption and excretion [7].

Lungs

Toluene is an irritant for the lungs, and can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, and pulmonary edema.

It irritates the mucus membrane present in the respiratory system, resulting in respiratory depression.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is a public health agency of the United States Department of Health, that monitors the harmful effects of various substances.

They state that when we are repeatedly exposed to toluene, fluid can build up in the lungs, disrupting breathing.

Kidneys

Kidney failure can result when a dose of toluene is very high.

Research has revealed that toluene can damage both the glomeruli and tubules of the kidneys.

Exposure to toluene induces necrosis of the tubules, and results in decreased urine output, more excretion of proteins, and ultimately, kidney failure.

If a person already has chronic kidney disease, toluene increases the chances of developing end-stage renal failure that doesn’t respond to the standard treatment options [8].

Liver

Also caused by extreme doses of toluene, liver involvement includes deranged liver function tests (ALT, AST, and ALP), jaundice, damage to the biliary tract, and hepatic failure [8].

7 Ways to Use Candles Safely For Better Sleep

Below are seven guidelines that you can follow to help you use candles safely to aid with your sleep and avoid the risk of fire and other injuries:

1: Do Not Light Candles Before Bed or When Sleepy

The most effective solution to avoid the danger of fire is to avoid lighting any candles before bed or if you are at risk of falling asleep – only have candles lit when you are awake and able to attend to them.

Whenever using candles while awake, you should ensure you adhere to the following candle safety measures.

Do Not Leave a Candle Burning for More Than 4 Hours

Candle manufacturers recommend that you should not allow a candle to burn for more than 4 hours continuously.

This is especially important if the candle is in a glass container because it reduces the chance of the container heating up to the point where it may shatter.

Ensure Proper Ventilation

Make sure that the room where your candles are lit is well ventilated.

When a candle burns in a well-ventilated space, minimal soot is produced, and all harmful gases are easily moved out of the room.

Remove Nearby Combustible Materials

About 60% of candle fires are due to the presence of combustible materials near the candle.

Therefore, all combustible materials like papers, books, furniture, flammable decorations, and bedding, should be kept far away from a burning candle.

Never Leave a Burning Candle Unattended

This advice is especially important in confined spaces, as about 40% of domestic candle fires result from unattended candles [9].

Choose Cotton Wicked Candles

Candles with 100% cotton wicks should be your preferred choice.

Candles with lead wicks can increase the risk of lead poisoning, and have been banned in the United States since 2003.

However, poor-quality candles can still contain some lead in their wicks, and should be avoided.

Follow Good Handling Practices

The European Candle Association (ECA) is an alliance of the most reputable candle manufacturing companies from 11 different European countries.

In 2009, the ECA issued some basic rules for handling candles.

These are summarized below [10].

  • Only use high-quality candles, made from premium quality materials.
  • Never blow out a candle; rather use a candle snuffer, or dip the wick into the melted wax to put the candle out.
  • If the edges of a candle get too high, carefully trim them with a sharp knife.
  • The ideal length of a wick should be around 10 to 15mm. You should trim the wick if it becomes too long.
  • The room should be properly ventilated after extinguishing candles

2: Use Candles with Soybean-Derived Wax

Using candles with plant-based wax rather than paraffin can minimize most of the health related side effects.

Wax is an integral part of the candle, providing fuel for the burning wick, and primarily consists of hydrocarbons.

Different types of substances are used to create wax, such as paraffin, soy, beeswax, gel, and coconut.

Paraffin Wax

Paraffin wax is the most commonly used ingredient for making candles, and is derived from petroleum.

As it is produced from the refining of oil, it excretes different chemicals, just like petrol or diesel.

The main advantages of paraffin wax are that it burns quickly, it’s cheap, and it’s easily available.

Soybean-Based Wax

This is a biodegradable and renewable type of wax, that is considered eco-friendly.

It produces less soot than paraffin wax, and is safe for ceilings, walls, curtains, and furniture.

It excretes almost no toxic compounds, like toluene or benzene, while burning, and is considered a clean-burning candle.

It doesn’t increase the risk of asthma, cancer, skin diseases, and other health disorders.

Moreover, it burns slowly, and lasts 30 to 50% longer than the paraffin candle.

Most experts recommend replacing paraffin wax candles with soybean wax candles.

You should keep in mind the soy wax’s contents, however.

Some candles contain a very small amount of soy, but are still labeled as soy candles.

Therefore, you should choose candles with 100% soy contents.

Beeswax

Beeswax is derived from the honey-making process of bees.

It is the oldest form of wax, having been used by humans to create light for centuries.

It is eco-friendly, cheap, and has a natural aroma.

3: Try Himalayan Pink Salt Lamps Instead

Himalayan salt lamps are attractive decorative pieces that are an excellent alternative to candles.

They are made from salt crystals found at the edge of the Himalayan Mountains, whereas actual Himalayan salt is harvested from the Khewra Salt Mine in Pakistan.

Salt lamps emit soft pink light that helps create a relaxing ambiance.

Benefits of using salt lamps include better sleep, increased energy, and better skin health.

Commercially available salt lamps are made by placing a light source inside a salt crystal.

This creates a glow in the room, adding to the beauty, while avoiding the side effects of candles.

Halotherapy

Halotherapy – or salt therapy – is a newly-proposed, drug-free treatment method that simulates the climate of a natural salt cave.

Scientific studies have shown that salt therapy is effective for patients with respiratory diseases, like asthma [11], chronic obstructive lung disease [12], and acute bronchitis [13].

It is also thought to act as an air purifier, removing harmful pollutants from the surrounding air.

4: Switch to Aroma Lamps and Diffusers

An aroma lamp or diffuser is also an excellent alternative to candles, as it promotes sleep and relaxation.

It is a simple device that releases essential oils into the air by converting them into tiny, breathable particles.

Essential oils are extracted from various parts of plants, like the flowers, leaves, or stems.

Commonly used plants include chamomile, lavender, peppermint, lemon, rosemary, and eucalyptus.

These can be applied over the skin, or inhaled, to receive the therapeutic benefits.

Essential oils offer many health benefits, like sleep induction, relieved anxiety, and promotion of relaxation.

Researchers at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University conducted a meta-analysis of 18 clinical trials, and concluded that using aromatic compounds, like essential oils, positively affected sleep.

The safety of this therapy was also established, as no adverse effects were reported [14].

Moreover, unlike candles, which increase the chances of getting a headache, aroma lamps help relieve headaches and migraine.

Another study conducted at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, analyzed the effects of inhaled essential oils on the quality of sleep.

They found that many studies established the hypnotic (sleep-promoting) effects of inhaled essential oils.

They also recommended that this therapy may be considered for people with insomnia [15].

Other benefits of essential oils include antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and mosquito-repellent effects.

In light of all of these benefits, it is safe to say that aroma lamps are an excellent alternative to candles, and can be used safely in the bedroom.

5: Use Scents for Relaxation and Better Sleep

Another alternative that offers the same benefits as candles, but avoids the side effects, is the use of scents at night.

The sense of smell is directly connected to the centers of the brain that control sleep and relaxation.

Smells stimulate hair cells present in the nose, that send a signal to the brain via the olfactory nerve.

This signal then travels to different areas of the brain, like the thalamus and amygdala, which control our emotions and sleep.

Scents have been used to promote sleep and relaxation for centuries.

The National Sleep Foundation conducted a survey to test this theory, and found that about 71% of the people in the United States get good, comfortable sleep while using fresh scents.

Lavender, jasmine, chamomile, and rose are among the most popular scents that have been in use since ancient times.

Lavender has been shown to have a sedative effect, and therefore improves the total duration of sleep, and reduces nighttime awakening.

It also has many other benefits, like reducing stress and anxiety, enhancing cognition, and reducing depression.

Scientific evidence has also confirmed the sleep-promoting effects of different scents, like jasmine and rose oil.

A randomized controlled trial conducted in Taiwan showed that aromatherapy improved sleep quality, and had a significant impact on improving quality of life [16].

6: Opt for Massage Therapy for Better Sleep

Massage therapy is another solution to sleep disturbance and anxiety that can be used instead of relying on candles to calm you down.

Massage therapy helps promote relaxation, by decreasing the production of cortisol, alleviating stress, and increasing serotonin.

It also promotes sleep and relaxation by diminishing pain.

Massage oil, or a good quality lotion, should always be used to protect the skin from the hazards of friction.

It is not always mandatory to visit a massage center to get a massage.

There are a variety of techniques available that can be performed easily at home, and still provide the same benefits.

You can request your housemate or spouse to apply oil or lotion to your head, neck, shoulders, and back.

There are different types of massage available, and you can choose the one that works best for you.

Swedish Massage

This is one of the more popular options that people choose.

It involves varying techniques, like long strokes, tapping, rolling, kneading, and percussion.

Swedish massage is considered a gentle form of massage, and aims at increasing relaxation by releasing muscle tension.

Most people develop pain in the lower back, neck, and shoulders, due to prolonged sitting in chairs, and using computers.

Swedish massage is designed to help loosen up the resulting muscle tension.

Deep Tissue Massage

This option uses far more pressure, and targets the inner layers of the muscles and connective tissues.

It is a rough form of massage, and may be painful or uncomfortable for some people.

It is often used for people with chronic pain.

Sports Massage

This is tailored for the needs of people who actively participate in sports and physical activities.

7: Use Dim Red LED Lights

Your sleeping environment should be completely dark for good quality sleep.

The presence of light can make the brain think it’s daytime, and impair the release of melatonin.

However, this may not be practical for some people, who prefer some light, and a view of their surroundings at night.

Using dim red lights at night is a good alternative for people who like to sleep with candles lit.

Scientific studies have supported the idea that using a red light at night is helpful for most people.

Total darkness is theoretically more effective in inducing sleep, as it works best with the natural sleep/wake cycle.

However, if a person is not able to sleep with all lights off, then it is better to sleep with a dim light on, rather than not sleeping at all.

This article discusses LED lights and sleep disruption in more detail.

Summary

Candles are commonly used for relaxation, mood elevation, and various religious events.

But sleeping with candles lit can result in accidental fire, skin burn, or breathing problems.

So it is not recommended that you sleep with candles lit.

Rather use candles only while awake, with strict candle safety precautions in place.

Other alternatives like dim lights, diffusers, scents, and Himalayan salt lamps, can prevent these risks, while providing the same benefits.


References

[1] “Report on the Ökometric Wax and Emissions Study,” Association of European Candle Manufacturers, 2008. https://www.eca-candles.com/pdf/Oekometric-Wax-1797_NCA_NL_42908.pdf.

[2] “Candles,” National fire protection association. https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/Fire-causes-and-risks/Top-fire-causes/Candles (accessed Feb. 25, 2022).

[3] “Hazard Report on Candle-Related Incidents,” United States consumer product safety commission, 1998. https://www.cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/pdfs/candle.pdf (accessed Mar. 06, 2022).

[4] G. Mastrangelo, E. Fadda, and V. Marzia, “Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and cancer in man,” Environ. Health Perspect., vol. 104, no. 11, pp. 1166–1170, Nov. 1996, DOI: 10.1289/ehp.961041166.

[5] “CANDLE SCIENCE,” national candle association. https://candles.org/candle-science/ (accessed Feb. 25, 2022).

[6] J. A. Bukowski, “Review of the Epidemiological Evidence Relating Toluene to Reproductive Outcomes,” Regul. Toxicol. Pharmacol., vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 147–156, 2001, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1006/rtph.2000.1448.

[7] “Toluene Toxicological Overview,” Public Health England. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/427529/Toluene_TO_PHE_130515.pdf.

[8] C. R. Camara-Lemarroy, R. Rodríguez-Gutiérrez, R. Monreal-Robles, and J. G. González-González, “Acute toluene intoxication-clinical presentation, management and prognosis: A prospective observational study,” BMC Emerg. Med., vol. 15, no. 1, p. 19, 2015, doi: 10.1186/s12873-015-0039-0.

[9] “Candle Safety Requirements and Recommendations,” national candle association. https://www.colorado.edu/firelifesafety/sites/default/files/attached-files/candle_safety_requirements.pdf (accessed Mar. 01, 2022).

[10] M. Pagels, J., Wierzbicka, A., Nilsson, E., Isaxon, C., Dahl, A., Gudmundsson, A., Swietlicki, E., Bohgard, “Particle emissions from candles are no health hazard,” European candle Association(ECA), 2009. https://www.eca-candles.com/2018/09/28/particle-emissions-from-candles-are-no-health-hazard-2/.

[11] A. V CHERVINSKAYA and N. A. ZILBER, “Halotherapy for Treatment of Respiratory Diseases,” J. Aerosol Med., vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 221–232, Jan. 1995, DOI: 10.1089/jam.1995.8.221.

[12] R. A. Cherenkov, E. A. Chernenkova, and G. V. Zhukov, “[The use of an artificial microclimate chamber in the treatment of patients with chronic obstructive lung diseases],” Vopr. Kurortol. Fizioter. Lech. Fiz. Kult., no. 4, pp. 19–21, 1997, [Online]. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9424823/.

[13] L. V. Borisenko et al., “[The use of halotherapy for the rehabilitation of patients with acute bronchitis and a protracted and recurrent course],” Vopr. Kurortol. Fizioter. Lech. Fiz. Kult., no. 1, pp. 11–15, 1995, [Online]. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7785211/.

[14] Y.-L. Lee, Y. Wu, H. W. H. Tsang, A. Y. Leung, and W. M. Cheung, “A Systematic Review on the Anxiolytic Effects of Aromatherapy in People with Anxiety Symptoms,” J. Altern. Complement. Med., vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 101–108, Feb. 2011, DOI: 10.1089/acm.2009.0277.

[15] A. S. Lillehei and L. L. Halcon, “A Systematic Review of the Effect of Inhaled Essential Oils on Sleep,” J. Altern. Complement. Med., vol. 20, no. 6, pp. 441–451, Apr. 2014, DOI: 10.1089/acm.2013.0311.

[16] Y.-H. Kao, Y.-C. Huang, U.-L. Chung, W.-N. Hsu, Y.-T. Tang, and Y.-H. Liao, “Comparisons for Effectiveness of Aromatherapy and Acupressure Massage on Quality of Life in Career Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” J. Altern. Complement. Med., vol. 23, no. 6, pp. 451–460, May 2017, DOI: 10.1089/acm.2016.0403.

Medical Disclaimer

This article not a substitute for medical or proper safety advice.

Image Attribution and Licensing

Main image: ‘Open books and black candleholder on cozy white bed’ by twenty20photos used with permission under the terms of Canva’s One Design Use License Agreement.