Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning.
– William Arthur Ward
In recent years the world we live in is being strongly categorized into artificial vs. natural. Certain areas of our lives, especially beauty and nutrition, are being constantly bombarded with campaigns trying to convince us either to go au naturel or to consciously choose man-made products and ingredients. So whether you decide to follow the “back to our roots” and “we are what we eat” trend, save the ever so decreasing natural resources, or simply choose better options perfected by the human brain, it’s necessary that you understand the pros and cons of all the options.
The natural vs. synthetic battle is also present in the “world” of scented candles, mainly by putting a strong line between soywax and paraffin wax candles, but also by requiring for candle producers to stress the provenance of aromatic oils or character of wicks used in the production process. Every seller claims their candles are the only good ones, but truth be told, each and every type of ingredient comes with advantages and disadvantages
The ingredients obviously decide on the attributes of the candle; its scent throw or way of burning. Some offer a distinctive value to a candle, others are just a nice prop. Sometimes it’s all about the natural provenance of the ingredients, other times, the crucial issue is their quality and/ or the quality of the production process.
Before getting strongly influenced by media slogans, let’s get to know a bit more about the basic types of candles and their ingredients, and decide ourselves which aspect is important to us.
Until recently, paraffin was the only option for commercially produced candles, and it is still the most common one due to its universality, reliability and low price (it´s about 9 times cheaper than, for example, beeswax). Paraffin is versatile, comes in many different melt points, appropriate for many different applications, and it is easy to mix.
Paraffin is a byproduct of the petroleum refining process. To obtain it petroleum, or to be precise, parts of the oil that would otherwise be discarded, is treated with chemicals to bleach it and prepare for colouring and scenting. Apart from petroleum´s industry being generally bad for the environment (it is a non-renewable and non-biodegradable resource and it´s mining process is very harmful to the biosphere). According to the US Environmental Protection Agency some classes of paraffin when burned creates strong toxins and carcinogenic compounds. However, food-grade paraffin is approved of by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in food, cosmetics, and medical applications and it´s the type of paraffin commonly used for manufacturing candles.
I´d however restrain from considering it as an evil toxic substance and a complete no-go. Burning paraffin candles in correctly ventilated rooms and trimming the wick to the correct length (6mm/ 1,4in) in order to minimize the soot allows us to avoid its toxic influence. According to the National Candle Association the minuscule amount of soot produced by a candle (the natural byproduct of incomplete combustion) is similar to the soot given off by kitchen toasters and cooking oils and is chemically different from the soot formed by the burning of diesel fuel, coal, gasoline and other petroleum-related products. I personally prefer vegetable wax candles, do buy and use, however, all kinds.
Soy wax was developed in the early 1990. as an alternative to the petroleum-derived paraffin, and the natural, but expensive, beeswax. It is often marketed as “the natural” and “the correct” option for conscious candle lovers.
Keep in mind, that to make wax out of soy, it has to be chemically treated (first with hydrogen and nickel to harden the oil), often bleached and usually injected with preservatives, as without them, it goes rancid fast.
There is also the whole “is genetically modified soy safe?” issue.
Soy wax is often mixed with additives and hardeners or with other kinds of waxes in order to make it more resistant, moldable as well as to allow using certain types of fragrance oils, that don´t interact with pure soy wax molecules or lengthen the burn time (pure soy wax burns much faster than i.e. paraffin. Soy is also one of the strongest allergens, so soy wax candles might be not the best choices for sensitive people.
But then, soy in a sustainable, biodegradable resource and its obtaining does not negatively influence the environment. It is also cheap and comes in a variety of blends and melting points.
Soy candles, however, can never be certified organic. Only a very small percentage of all “soy candles” is actually made from 100% soy. Soy candle wax is almost always a blend of waxes that usually contain chemical additives.
There is one more characteristic of pure soy wax speaking to it´s advantage. While burning, soy wax does not reach temperatures as high as other waxes, making ir a safer option. This is also why most of the massage-oil-candles are based on soy wax.
|type of candle||liquid wax temperatureafter approx. 10min burning|
Palm Oil Wax
(also known as stearin)
Palm wax is a vegetable wax made from palm trees.
In order to harden the naturally obtained oil it is hydrogenized, sterilized, clarified, purified and processed further to prepare for colouring and scenting (parts of this process are conducted mechanically and with temperature, others, like bleaching, require the use of chemicals).
Palm oil is not genetically modified and carcinogen-free, however, in its production the environmental aspect has become an issue. Even though palm crops require a lower input of fossil fuels compared to soy, being in such high demand (even though non-food applications of palm oil constitute only about 25% of its harvest), Southeast Asia’s natural rain forests are being cleared in order to crate commercial palm fields, at the same time endangering the wildlife. Similar danger is foreseen to arise in the African palm tree grows.
It is more expensive than soy wax; it offers, however, the best burn time (and the burn is clean). Palm wax is very firm and does not have an “oily feel”, making it work very well in pillars and votives and is often mixed with soy wax in order to create a harder, yet, still fully vegetable wax.
Beeswax is the only fully natural wax and the one with the longest history. You know: the buzzing bees, the plants, Winnie the Pooh and all that stuff? Beeswax requires no chemical processing, just heat-controlled separating from the honey and forming. Due to its characteristics it is rarely coloured and scented. It does have its own natural light scent, depending on the flowers the bees where feeding on. The production of beeswax does not harm the environment and it is sustainable. Unfortunately, it does not offer a variety when it comes to aromatherapeutical properties often sought by candle lovers. Beeswax is obviously the most expensive wax, it offers though, a very long, clear and bright burn. I did also come across a hypothesis (even though I could not find any scientific studies confirming it), that burning beeswax may have a positive effect on our health, as it releases negative ions into the air, therefore reducing allergies and asthma.
Other natural waxes
Nowadays you can find candles made of coconut, cacao butter, bayberry wax and others. They are, however, rare, expensive and usually require mixing with different kind of waxes in order to achieve adequate (and consistent) consistency.
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