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Candles - a guide to wondrous waxes

The different types of candle waxes and which to buy

Author: Doreen Corbey January 3 2010

woman in bath with candles

Candles have been in my family for ages. As a child, I used to dip my fingers into the melting wax just by the flame! My uncle and aunt were one of the first people in England to open a shop devoted to candles, the "Candle Cavern", in a tiny picture-postcard village in Norfolk. It was quite a tourist attraction in the 70s and 80s, even having its own road sign (which is still there!).

We now take for granted the vast selection of candles on offer to us and, it doesn’t come as a surprise to know that women make up 90% of candle customers. (That might explain the upward trend for fragranced candles!) There are church candles, dinner candles, tealights, votives, candles in jars, coconut shells and bamboo containers and so on. There are also different varieties and qualities of wax.

Paraffin wax

Right now there appears to be an ongoing debate over whether paraffin wax is environmentally friendly. The vast majority of candles are made using paraffin wax, which comes from petroleum. Crude oil or fossil fuel is heated, the wax is separated from the crude mineral oils and goes through a refining process and you end up with, among other end products, paraffin wax.

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Among the criticisms of paraffin wax candles is that they release soot and toxins into the air. The truth is that there can be soot, but it is not the same as that coming from petrol or coal. The US National Candle Association (NCA) advises that if the wick is kept trimmed toa quarter of an inch, and the candle is not in a draft or air current, it should burn cleanly with little soot and smoke. There is also no evidence that paraffin wax, in use in candles for well over 100 years, contains anything toxic.

The quality of the wax and wick is also a significant factor. Buying cheap may not be cost-effective because the candle could burn too hot and fast plus low-quality wax and wick may indeed result in soot and smoke and a dark mark on the ceiling. I have had this problem particularly with mass-produced cheap tealights which give 1-2 hours of burning before they give out or the wick collapses. So the message is: opt for quality. This is especially true if you want a fragrance candle, as a superior one will give you a subtle aroma as opposed to the over-powering and sickly scents of some cheap candles.

Soy wax

The relatively new kid on the candle block is soy wax. It has many enthusiasts, because it’s renewable and is seen as cleaner and more ecological. Soy wax comes from soybeans which is a renewable source, unlike paraffin wax's origins in fossil fuel. Soy candles produce less soot than paraffin wax. It can be white soot or black but because there up to 90% less soot it is considered safer for allergy sufferers. Wax spills are comparatively easier to clean up with just hot soapy water. Soy wax burns slower and at a cooler temperature so the candles last better, up to 50% longer than paraffin wax.

Soy is a vegetable, grown in several countries; the soybeans are harvested and cleaned, and soy oil is a by-product of the process. Make sure you look for "eco" or "organic" soy so you know that no GM materials, pesticides or herbicides have been used, and that the wax is 100% vegetable. Because soy wax is not very hard, some manufacturers may add stearic acid or paraffin wax to the candle giving a blended wax as opposed to a 100% soy wax candle.

Whether you buy blended or 100%, ensure you keep the candle out of direct sunlight - because of its low melting point it may be affected by the direct heat. Soy candles are ideal for people like me who like to dip their hands into melted wax and there are now even candles specially made for this purpose called massage candles. The idea is, after burning for a while, you extinguish the flame and pour out the wax, which is then used like a moisturising oil!

Palm wax

Palm wax is another natural, vegetable base wax for candles which has advantages over paraffix wax. From the palm fruit, oils are extracted to become crude palm oil. At the end of a refining process you get cooking oil, palm oil for cosmetics and soap and palm wax. Candles made from this wax are virtually smokeless and have a clean burn. They are harder, with a higher melting point, than paraffin wax, so they last longer and the candle will stay hard and keep its shape even in hotter climates.

However, even though the palm fruit is a renewable resource, there is concern over the land clearing methods to make space for the palm planting. This is particularly widespread in Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia where jungle areas are destroyed, thereby destroying or endangering many species of animals. If you are looking for palm wax candles, do check that they come from a sustainable palm fruit plantation and an environmentally responsible supplier. Some candle manufacturers state their wax is RSPO approved; this is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an organisation funded by WWF.

The issue over land clearing is very serious but, unfortunately the palm wax used for candles is small matter compared to another end product: palm oil from unsustainable plantations which has many uses in the cosmetics and food industry, and sadly in chocolate.

Beeswax

Beeswax candles are not as easy to come by, probably due to the price and growing shortage of bees. Beeswax is secreted in the abdomen of the bee and is used to make honeycomb. The wax is taken from the comb by heating it in water, where the wax rises to the surface. In terms of value for money, beeswax candles burn longer and more slowly than other candle materials, they have a clean burn with no toxic release, and there is very little drip so less chance of wax spills.

Beeswax candles clean the air as they burn, so are fantastic for smoky atmospheres and can bring some relief for hayfever and asthma sufferers. The air around us is filled with billions of electrically charged particles called ions. The negative ions are good for us, positive ions are not. As beeswax burns, it emits negative ions which attach to the positive ions, so neutralising them, while increasing the count of beneficial negative ions in the air. Some people even go as far as to say that this can be detoxing and induce a state of wellbeing.

When buying beeswax candles, try to avoid white as the wax is more refined and is sometimes bleached. Also, candles should state they are pure or 100% beeswax otherwise you could be buying something that has as little as 10% beeswax.

Where to buy

Candles are obtainable almost anywhere, even in the supermarket! If you are concerned about materials that come from a renewable resource, choose soy, beeswax or palm. To seek alternatives to standard paraffin wax, you will need to go to specialist shops which are usually cottage industries. Candles from them will often be handmade and with added TLC, and if these companies are promoting environmentally friendly messages, their packaging will follow this ethos.

Another good thing is that many of these small suppliers, whether hidden away in suburbia or tiny village, are out on the internet and operating on a phone with a real person at the end of the line.

Soy candles
Massage candles
Beeswax
Palm wax
Handmade candles
Other links

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About the Author

Doreen has had a passion for massage since she was 15 years old. She still has that passion, and offers massage, specialist facials and other beauty treatments in her home-based salon in Surrey. With any energy left over she will devour all the beauty pages of all the magazines she can lay her hands on!

Doreen's homepage: Bellessence

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Comments

Posted on 03/02/10 18:53 by: anita pryor

I have come across makers such as Pure Light using coconut wax. Do you have any info? Is it possible to make a candle from coconut fat/wax, as used in the cosmetics industry?
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Posted on 03/02/10 21:17 by: Jin

Thanks for the link to Corfe Candles, I tried 2 of their massage candles, the Bliss and Relax.  They were gorgeous, I used them while I had a bath to let the wax melt and then my husband gave me a massage afterwards, my skin has never, ever felt so soft, they are extremely nourishing.  In fact I'm ordering one for my husband for Valentine's!
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Posted on 05/02/10 14:09 by: Doreen Corbey

Hello Anita, there are 2 types of coconut oil used in the beauty industry. There is the fractionated oil which has the solid waxes removed leaving an oil; then you have the virgin coconut oil which, depending on the room temperature, will turn either solid or liquid. I am not aware of this being used as candle material and I'm not sure it can be, because in its liquid form it is very light. I have seen coconut shells filled with soy or beeswax so I'm wondering whether these are called coconut candles.  I'd be interested to know...  Doreen.
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