Are Air Fresheners and Scented Candles Harming Your Child?

Are Scented Candles and Air Fresheners Harming Your Child?

Scented candles and air fresheners are popular items that many families use inside their homes. They not only help decrease foul smelling areas (diaper pails, especially) but some people feel they help with relaxation as well. Recent reports have found their way to the internet regarding the potential harm from these items, some of which are exaggerated or misconstrued, whereas others have more merit. Naturally, parents may question whether these items may be harming their children.

Some of these internet articles have linked scented candles to cancer. This is an example of the media taking laboratory studies involving mice or single cells and inappropriately extrapolating them to humans in normal living conditions.

So, what’s the real story?

  • Candles and air fresheners contain a wide variety of different chemicals.
  • Very high level exposure to some of these chemicals in a laboratory setting may cause damage on a cellular level, i.e. cancer.
  • This is scary information when read on the surface, but it does not mean that casual use of these products will cause cancer. There is no credible scientific evidence that supports this link.

When used under normal circumstances, scented candles and air fresheners are generally safe. A search of the medical literature does not reveal substantial evidence linking casual use of these items with significant health effects in people without underlying medical conditions.

However, these items do release various chemicals into the circulating air of the indoor environment. Exposure to these chemicals, even in normal situations, can be irritating to the airways, particularly for people with underlying allergies or asthma. These are both common pediatric conditions, affecting roughly 20-30% of all children.

Allergies and asthma cause inflammation of the upper and lower airways, which makes them very sensitive. Any fragrant product, regardless of how ‘natural’ it is, can be irritating to their airways. This is especially true for aerosol sprays, which use propellants and chemicals to disperse small particles into the air. Inhalation of these particles can cause both chronic and acute symptoms, including asthma exacerbation. This is often a hidden source of triggers as many families may not realize the connection between use of these products and their underlying health.

It is generally advised to avoid use of fragrant products inside your newborn’s nursery or sleeping environment. Their lungs are still developing and exposure to aerosol irritants won’t provide any benefit. Anyone with a family history of allergies or asthma should exercise particular caution for their newborn, as they are at risk for developing these conditions as well.

As with anything, moderation is often the best course. If you enjoy use of scented candles and air fresheners, limit use throughout the home and avoid direct exposure. If anyone living in the home has chronic respiratory ailments such as asthma, you are better off avoiding these agents all together. If you have questions about your child’s asthma or allergies, please contact the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Allergy and Immunology Department at 614-722-5500.

David Stukus, MD
Dr. David Stukus is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Section of Allergy and Immunology, at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Dr. Dave, as his patients call him, is passionate about increasing awareness for allergies and asthma. His personal life is filled with fun and chaos as he is married to a Pediatric Emergency Room physician and they have 2 energetic children. His rare free time is spent following his beloved Pittsburgh and Ohio State sports teams. Follow Dr. Dave on Twitter @AllergyKidsDoc for great allergy/asthma tips!

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