Can smelling candles actually make you sick?

Rustic cabin. Apple cinnamon. Fresh peppermint.

These scents permeate homes across America – which makes sense given the candle industry in the U.S. alone stands at $2.2 billion. But are scented candles safe to constantly breathe in?

Experts caution that candles, like anything else you're burning, release chemicals into the air, which can be a problem for kids and/or those with lung issues. But also like anything else, assess your risk factors on an individual level before making decisions about your and your loved ones' health.

"Most candles are heavily scented with fragrances made up of hundreds of chemicals including some that can interfere with hormones or irritate the lungs," says Sarah Evans, assistant professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a member of the Institute for Climate Change, Environmental Health and Exposomics.

Are scented candles actually safe to constantly breathe in?
Are scented candles actually safe to constantly breathe in?

What chemicals do candles release into the environment?

Candles may release a number of chemicals into your home, from solid and liquid particulate matter – about 25 times smaller than the width of a human hair – to gases like volatile organic compounds.

"There's some evidence that suggests that for people who have preexisting lung conditions, or for other sort of susceptible individuals, such as children, that higher concentrations of this (particulate matter) material can lead to some negative lung effects and pulmonary effects," says Dr. Daniel Beswick, a surgeon in the otolaryngology – head and neck surgery department at the University of California, Los Angeles. If candle burning in addition to smoking and cooking are going on all at once, that's that many more chemicals in the air a person is exposed to.

"In general, whenever you're burning something, it's creating a chemical reaction," says Dr. Payel Gupta, national volunteer medical spokesperson at the American Lung Association. "And that chemical reaction, the more chemicals you put into whatever you're burning, the more we probably don't understand all the different chemicals that are being released into the air. And that can affect people's airways differently, especially if you have a chronic lung condition, your airways might be more sensitive to different chemicals. And so you just have to be wary of the different things that you're putting into your environment."

That said, burning a candle every so often shouldn't cause breathing problems. But many candles everywhere daily? "That's when you run into issues," Gupta says.

"I always tell people to be aware of the different things that they're doing in their environment if they're not breathing well," she adds. Breathing issues could include everything from asthma to chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).

Read up: Is your shortness of breath anxiety-related or could it be a heart condition? What to know

Is it OK to burn candles?

Scented candles have been shown to produce more volatile organic compounds than unscented ones, so they're a safer bet to light. Keep in mind, too, that while candles do release these compounds, they don't necessarily release so many chemicals as to exceed safe levels of exposure. But given your circumstances, you may want to consider avoiding candles entirely.

"Burning candles of any kind – including those made with natural ingredients – pollutes the air in your home with gases and small particulates that can be inhaled and travel deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream," Evans adds. "For these reasons, we recommend against burning any type of candles in the home. Instead, use battery-powered candles for ambiance, and open windows to let in fresh air and eliminate odors."

The more you know: Do air purifiers work? Here's what they do, and an analysis of risks versus benefits

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Are candles bad for you? What to know about chemical dangers