Clean up: VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and Home Fragrance

Sunday, September 08, 2013

I've been really getting into candles a lot since my return from Taiwan, but I've always been a huge fragrance fan, be it body fragrance or home. I've also always been peripherally aware that home fragrance, especially, is not exactly good for your health, though I've never done proper research to find out why.

Volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) are a hot topic when it comes to home fragrance, but turns out VOCs are present in practically all of our everyday surroundings. According to the EPA, VOCs are found in paint, aerosol sprays, waxes, cleansers and disinfectants, moth repellents and pesticides, correction fluids, air fresheners, laundry detergents, hobby supplies (like glue and adhesives), office equipment, and -- get this -- even dry-cleaned clothing.


The EPA says VOCs are "emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids" and "include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors."

Some of these health effects include the obvious, like eye, nose and throat irritation and headaches. But they can be much more serious: loss of coordination; nausea, liver, kidney and central nervous system damage; cancer.

To prevent or limit exposure, you should definitely increase ventilation if you are actively using a product that may contain VOCs. Store these products as far away from your living quarters as you can, and always follow the instructions carefully.

In terms of buying products that are lower in or contain zero VOCs, I've heard of both Low- and No-VOC paint, so it does exist. According to a study done at the University of Washington, Seattle, of 25 scented household products tested, 133 different VOCs were detected, with an average of 1 to 8 toxic or hazardous chemicals found in each product. 44% of the 25 products "generated at least one of 24 carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants, such as acetaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde, or methylene chloride."

In terms of home fragrance, formaldehyde has been said to be linked with the process of burning wax. Paraffin wax is said to be the most toxic, as paraffin is derived from petroleum (itself said to be contaminated). Gel candles are made from similar ingredients as that of paraffin candles, and should be avoided. Whether beeswax candles are "clean-burning" is up for discussion, but soy candles are said to burn very cleanly. By a "clean burn", most people mean that the wax melts evenly and the wicks do not give off too much smoke or soot, though smoke and soot is unavoidable in any candle.

Unfortunately, it seems that the standards for calling a candle a "pure beeswax candle" or a "pure soy candle" are not great. In the United States, if a candle is 51% of any ingredient, it can be labeled a pure (fill-in-the-ingredient) candle. Double check the ingredients and percentages before you buy.

The real culprit in candle-burning (and fragrance plugs and fragrance oils) is the fragrance itself. Most often, oils are used to scent waxes and, of course, fragrance plugs and fragrance oils. Since most fragrance oils are manufactured, they are likely to contain some VOCs. When these oils heat up or begin their combustion process, more soot will be produced or VOCs released into the air. One way to avoid this is fragrance your home with essential oils, or to burn an unscented candle.

I'm a fragrance fanatic, and even knowing what I do know about VOCs (which probably isn't a whole lot), I'm finding it difficult to break away from my candles and fragrance oils. But I'm going to begin to make a move towards using essential oils or making my own candles.

If you're concerned about VOCs, what steps have you taken towards improving the air quality inside your home? Have you found any decent alternatives, and if so, what are they? I'd like to know!

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  1. All Essential Oils contain VOCs, so fragrancing your home using essential oils will also increase the VOC count. Even products labeled "unscented" can contain high levels of VOCs. If you are serious about reducing your exposure to VOCs, then along with minimizing using any products containing them, get some air filters placed around your home. Many types of common houseplants are extremely effective air filters (e.g., spider plants, pothos), as are those adorable carbon filters/air purifiers you can find in bamboo bags. I like to make my own "air bags" using the activated carbon pellets you buy for fish tanks, toss in some Zeolite, and hang them around the house as decorations. (I love them, they work way better than baking soda for removing stinky odors in the fridge too). Whenever I use a product indoors that I know has VOC's, I now make sure to always keep a window or two open for better ventilation (and a fan blowing towards outside for the really strong stuff).



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