A Light Side Effect of the Pandemic

As of this writing, the coronavirus has taken more than 2.7 million lives. More than a hundred million others have fallen ill to the virus. Even those of us who have remained otherwise healthy have had to make changes, mostly ones we’re not fond of, due to the pandemic. There’s hardly an aspect of life that hasn’t been touched by COVID-19.

Even the candle industry was struck. But not in the way you think.

The Yankee Candle Company company was founded by a guy named Michael Kittredge in 1969 in the small Massachusetts town of South Hadley. That winter, Kittredge created a DIY holiday gift for his mother; he took some old crayons, melted them down into one big thing of wax, added a wick and some aromatics, and called the whole thing “Christmas 1969.” His mom loved it, but more importantly for our purposes, so did her friends. The concoction — a candle that gave off a scent as it melted — proved popular. So Kittredge decided to turn it into a business.

More than sixty years later, the Yankee Candle Company sells more than $800 million worth of scented candles, candle accessories, and other decorative stuff each year. A lot of people like scented candles, it seems. But in the spring and summer of 2020, some consumers noticed that Yankee Candle’s product seemed off a bit. Here are two reviews from their website; I took the screenshots in December of last year, so they’re now ten and 7 months old, respectively.

In either case, the complaint was the same: the reviewers were upset because their scented candles weren’t scented. 

That seems unlikely, of course — the whole point of a Yankee Candle is the scent. (They don’t give off a lot of heat, given that they’re just candles, and few people nowadays use candles as a primary source of light for a room.) But there was a more likely explanation, as some began to speculate: the coronavirus had caused the problem.

No, COVID-19 doesn’t affect candles. But one of the symptoms of infection is anosmia — the loss of smell. Those of us who noticed the reviews theorized that the reviewers’ candles were fine — but they weren’t. They, unknowingly at the time of the review, had COVID-19.

But again, that’s speculation. Kate Petrova, a research assistant and aspiring Ph.D. candidate, decided to put the data to the test. As she explained on Twitter, she “downloaded a random subsample of US-based customer reviews of the three most popular scented candles on Amazon” and then did the same for three of the most popular unscented candles on Amazon. What she found? “Since the beginning of 2020, customer satisfaction with scented candles has been dropping at a much faster rate compared to unscented candles.” Here’s her data, graphed.

The results were rather clear. As the Washington Post summarized, “before 2020, reviews of the top scented candles hovered between 4 and 4½ stars, year after year. Since January, however, those grades have fallen roughly one full star. Unscented candle reviews, meanwhile, don’t show the same pattern.” 

That seems unfortunate for Yankee Candle and their fellow scented candle-makers. But they but didn’t seem too concerned. The Washington Post reached out to Yankee Candle and another company called Village Candle for comment; spokespeople for both asserted that “they haven’t noticed an increase in customer complaints during the pandemic,” and implicitly, didn’t see an impact on sales attributable to this dip in reviews.

So if your scented candle seems defective, don’t complain to them. However, you may want to call your doctor.

Bonus fact: Candles can be used on the International Space Station in case of emergency — not for light, but for oxygen. They’re not made of wax, though. The “candles” are made of potassium perchlorate, a salt compound. Once lit, the salt breaks down into its component parts, releasing oxygen as a byproduct. Per Space.com, “one candle is one day’s worth of oxygen for one crewmember.”

From the Archives: Ignution: The bonus item is about candles. The main story is about nuts that explode.