April 28, 2018

A consumer guide to candles – Part 2 – Candle Wax

Natural WaxThanks for sticking with me, its time for part 2 of our consumer guide to candles and today I wanted to look at candle wax.

Candles are made from wax which is usually sold as blocks, flakes or pellets depending on what it is.  The three main choices for candle wax are;

  • Soy
  • Paraffin
  • Coconut

And each one of these can be made on their own or blended with each other (or have other ingredients added) to make different types of candles. There are other candle waxes including tallow, beeswax, rapeseed and many others but I am focussing on the three main ones used in larger production facilities.

Paraffin has been around for ages and until recently was the ‘go to’ wax for candle making professionally and for hobbyists. Most large candle makes (or chandlers) still use paraffin as it gives a superior throw (how well you can smell a candle; cold throw is when its unlit and hot is well, guess what, when its lit!). Paraffin makes a good hard candle and is best for moulding and carving candles but its ability to throw well and to perform consistently makes it the number one choice for many large-scale producers. Despite the push from smaller makers to use soy, the large-scale manufacturers have stuck to what works well and used paraffin but this is often blended with soy.

Look out for labels that say ‘mineral wax’ or ‘wax blend’ or ‘blended with vegetable wax’ to help determine which was is used. These can be found in US candles and also I think, in a certain Swedish retailer!

There are a great many stories out there about how bad paraffin wax is and how soy is good, but in reality there is very little to choose between them and the ethics of each are debatable. Paraffin wax is a by-product of the petrochemical/fuel industry which is then treated to make it white and acceptable for production. There is a school of thought that says that it is something that is discarded from other production methods and we should make sure we utilise all parts of fossil fuels otherwise we are wasting our resources. Other people believe it has carcinogenic properties and it should be avoided altogether.

Soy is a vegetable crop and is often genetically treated (especially in the US) which is not considered acceptable in Europe/UK. From an ethical standpoint it is questionable to grow vast amount of crops for candle making rather than for food and whilst it is a vegetable wax and could be considered to be sustainable, there are questions about its long-term production.

Soy wax is everywhere these days and is often used by smaller companies (like us!) to make and sell candles. Soy is a very soft wax and is a nightmare to work with; it is unpredictable and the hot throw can be weaker than that found in a paraffin candle even made with the same fragrance blend. Soy is also prone to tunneling, air pockets, craters and bumpy tops and generally, it doesn’t take colour as well as paraffin. It is known to soot less than paraffin giving a ‘green’ label which it may not really deserve.

We weighed up all the evidence and for us there was little to choose between the two. Given the main wax producers changed their waxes last year following a rule change by the FDA regarding hydrogenated fats (I think) we moved to our other wax, coconut.

This is made in largely the same process as for soy but in our experience it has a cleaner burn and performs better (although it is softer than soy and unsuitable for free-standing candles).  It also doesn’t travel well unless securely wrapped or inside jars/tins.

Coconut wax and coconut blends are relatively new and often used by green business and aromatherapists. Its soft and very tricky to wick but seems to perform better for us than soy.

All candles burn the same way – you light a wick, it burns, it melts the wax and the fragrance is released –  and all candles give off a proportion of carbon as they burn and some soot more than others.  Draughty areas can increase how much a wick soots and how unevenly it burns but in general, and in my opinion, paraffin does tend to produce more soot over a longer period of time than with soy. Although I still love the ability of paraffin to smell as strongly as it does!

So – there you go, it’s up to you which wax you prefer and whether what matters to you is the fragrance, the ethics, the production or the soot.

Next – essential oils vs fragrance oils

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