Cold winter nights call for warm blankets and cozy candles. But not all candles are the same. The next time you light a candle, check the label and see what kind of candle it is. Depending the ingredients, you may be giving your health a boost—or creating a harmful environment.
Most candles are made from paraffin. While paraffin candles are low in cost, they are made from a non-renewable resource. Paraffin is derived from petroleum, a fossil fuel. It is classified as a petroleum waste product and has to be deodorized and chemically bleached to be made into wax. According to the American Lung Association, when burned, paraffin candles release petro-carbon soot that contains 11 toxins, including benzene and toluene – both known carcinogens. This toxic soot stains walls and furniture and is circulated through air ducts.
Made from vegetable oil (soybeans), soy candles are natural and burn cooler than paraffin, which lessens the risk of serious burns from melted wax. Soy candles don’t emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or harmful toxins when burned, and they’re made from a renewable source (soybeans). They also do not increase the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, and they don’t require chemicals to create their scent. As a result, they burn cleaner and don’t produce black soot like paraffin candles do. They’re also vegan-friendly because they are free of animal byproducts, unlike beeswax.
Another perk? They burn 50-percent longer (talk about a money saver!) and they burn evenly. Compared to regular candles, soy wax candle makers claim that soy candles are much healthier for the environment (they are biodegradable), and their scent is stronger than their paraffin counterparts thanks to the lower melting point of soy wax. A larger amount of the liquid wax pool forms around the candlewick, from where the essential oils evaporate, leaving behind a lovely scent that lingers longer.
But it’s also important to note that the soy industry may contribute to deforestation as the world’s production of the bean has doubled over the last 20 years. One of the main victims of this increase in demand is the Amazon rainforest and other areas of Central America, where forests are cleared to make room for soybean fields. Also, when purchasing soy candles, keep in mind that 91-percent of the soy grown in the United States is genetically modified, so consider looking for a USDA-certified organic label.
Created via a natural process, coconut wax consists of coconut oil blended with other natural waxes. It burns clean and slowly and makes a powerful scent. The downside is that it is more expensive, but at least you know you’re not harming your health or bringing toxins into your home (that we know of, at least!). In addition, the natural fragrances like lavender that are mixed in with the coconut oil wax may have various therapeutic benefits, from inducing relaxation and improving one’s sleep to decreasing headaches and improving one’s emotions.
Palm wax (made from palm oil) burns clean and is biodegradable, but palm oil plantations have resulted in deforestation at the expense of endangered species. On June 24 2010, The Economist published an article titled, "The Other Oil Spill," an article that examined the Asian palm oil market in detail. Unfortunately they found an industry filled with many companies whose production methods infringed on the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (or RSPO) standards and Indonesian law. They discovered that while the RSPO is a respectable organization, it has virtually no control over the behavior of its members. What's worse is that the article reveals that even "certified" members of the organization (just 15 of 355 total members) only have to prove that a percentage of their supply is sustainable. So, even if you are buying from a certified grower, there is a good chance you're getting tainted oil.
Beeswax comes as a natural byproduct of the beekeeping industry, although beeswax candles aren't vegan if you’re looking for the candle to tick that box. Beeswax candles are also all natural, give off the faint smell of honey, and are hypoallergenic—meaning that they are ideal for those with allergies and sensitivities. The downside is that they tend to be pricier than the other waxes, and if you don’t check the label to make sure it says 100-percent pure beeswax, it may be combined with other waxes to reduce manufacturing costs.
“The components that go into giving a candle a unique smell are considered a trade secret, so manufacturers don’t have to list any of the ingredients used in their fragrance,” explains Katie Roering of Fontana Candle Company. “Instead, ‘fragrance’ is simply listed as one ingredient, while in actuality, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), many fragrances can contain as many as 5,000 ingredients!” Terms like “natural fragrance” have little meaning, as “natural” is an unregulated term. That’s why it’s so important to look for a complete ingredient list, ask lots of questions, and prioritize companies that value transparency and quality. Essential oils are extracted from plants, usually by cold pressing or steam distillation, and are a renewable resource. They contain highly concentrated, aromatic extracts from plants that often have therapeutic or medicinal benefits.
Quick Tip: Next time you’re candle shopping, be sure to check the label. If it doesn’t say 100-percent soy, coconut, or beeswax, then it most likely contains a wax blend of paraffin and others. In fact, many candles (even ones that claim they contain only soy or coconut wax) are not regulated, which means that even though they can contain as little as 25-percent soy or coconut wax, they will claim to be 100-percent.
Don’t forget to check the wick! Some studies showed that burning candles containing lead-core wicks can result in indoor air concentrations of lead above EPA-recommended threshold. Leads wicks were banned in 2003, which is great news because they used to filter lead into the atmosphere. You still have to look carefully at the wicks in your candles to make sure they’re truly natural. Candle makers will sometimes add metal to wicks, to help them stand up straight, but keep in mind that whatever is in your wick will ultimately be in the atmosphere. To avoid metal wicks, make sure your candle’s wick is made from a completely natural ingredient, like paper, cotton, hemp, or wood.
For a healthy, non-toxic candle, look for:
- Wax made from soy, beeswax, or other 100% vegetable wax
- A 100% paper, cotton, hemp, or wood wick
- No artificial dyes or fragrances
- Recyclable and/or reusable containers
- A company that is transparent and provides a complete ingredient list
"With countless options becoming more and more available to suppliers and consumers, finding a great-smelling, sustainable candle continues to get simpler. By protecting yourself, you’re likely protecting the planet in the process, all while creating a home atmosphere that’s cosy and inviting. Without the chemicals, your candle-burning habit is free to fill your home with warmth and give the Earth more space to breathe" (source).
Give your candle-burning habit free rein to fill your home with warmth and allow the Earth space to breathe but without the harmful chemicals.