There’s just something about the flicker of real candlelight that warms the very soul and magically transforms an ordinary space like no other. I suppose it’s because candles connect us to an ancient and primal need within humans; the quintessential quest for fire…after all, fire represents warmth, shelter, protection, light, comfort and food. Maybe that’s why candle sales account for about 2 billion dollars in the U.S. every year, with 7 out of every 10 American homes using and buying candles on a regular basis.
The Evolution of Candles
Non-wicked candles have been used in some form or another for approximately 5,000 years, from the crudest of materials—such as candlefish, which are so high in oil content, the dried carcass could be mounted on a stick or piece of bark and lit on fire, and would burn from end to end just like a candle—to slightly more sophisticated versions including strips of dried papyrus dipped in animal or vegetable fats. It is generally believed that candles as we now know them, with a plant fiber wick of some sort running through the center of a formed hunk of wax or fat, were developed by the ancient Romans sometime before 3,000 B.C. Originally, candles were purely a utilitarian necessity, serving the purpose of providing light within the home or lighting the way for travelers, but they also took on a certain mystique, playing a central role in sacred rituals for spiritual and religious ceremonies spanning multiple cultures and continents. The Jewish Festival of Lights (or Hanukkah), for instance, centers upon the lighting of candles, and dates back to 165 B.C.; there are also numerous references to candles in the Bible, and Constantine is reported to have used candles in Easter services back in the 4th century. Typically, candles were fashioned from available household materials, most often leftover tallow and animal fat, which when burned, produced foul, acrid smoke and soot. It was not until the Middle Ages that beeswax was discovered to be a viable alternative to candles made with animal fat, and with its sweet scent and clean burn, beeswax became the preferred candle material among Christian churches. To this day, only pure beeswax candles may be burned at certain services in the Catholic tradition.
During different points in history, somewhat lesser known wax alternatives such as those obtained from bayberry bushes and palm fruit passed in and out of favor, but the most notable changes to the craft and trade of candlemaking (or chandlery; a chandler is a candle maker), arrived around the 18th century, with the use of spermaceti wax, obtained from the blubber of whales during the height of the whaling industry. Around this same time, a method of extracting and refining a waxy heavy hydrocarbon substance from crude oil was developed, and with paraffin, the modern candle was born. Paraffin, at the time, seemed to be the answer to candle making; it burned relatively clean as compared to candles made from animal fats, and was cheap to produce, coming from a seemingly endless resource, petroleum. As the whaling industry finally declined, paraffin replaced spermaceti candles, and enjoyed a 150 year long reign. However, after the discovery of the electric light bulb in the late 1800s, the candle itself lost favor, and as power lines criss-crossed the countryside, candles were relegated to mere backup sources of light. It was not until a full century later that the candle experienced an incredible revival, becoming a favored symbol for romance, celebration, elegance and especially, for home décor.
Today, one can find candles in an infinite variety of shapes, colors, scents and sizes. Pillars, tapers, votives, tea lights, container candles, floating candles, candles with multiple wicks, gel candles, painted candles, carved candles, candles shaped like fruit or food or figurines; if you can dream it, there’s a candle for it. Candles bring beauty and glamour to any occasion, but what most people do not realize is the ugly truth hidden behind the magic; modern paraffin candles contain harmful, carcinogenic (meaning, causing cancer) chemicals and contaminants that are vaporized and released into our homes and directly into our lungs every time we burn them.
Aside from being a non-renewable by-product of petroleum, paraffin wax itself is actually not an ideal candle medium. It is soft, very pliable and burns at a relatively low melting point, making it prone to losing its shape. It is only with modification by other petrochemicals and solvents such as copolymers, microcrystalline wax and polyethylene that the ideal properties are achieved, and which are probably relatively inert as long as, ironically, the candle is never burned. Upon lighting a candle, however, the wax becomes a liquefied hazardous fuel which is then only partially consumed by the flame at the end of a wick. The remaining unburned additives are vaporized and unleashed into the air of the surrounding environment, and those compounds which are not immediately breathed in by nearby inhabitants then settle into fabrics, textiles, onto walls, into heating ducts and other surfaces in the form of soot. This soot, according to the American Lung Association, contains 11 documented toxins, two of which are known carcinogens—toluene and benzene. Furthermore, the actual colorants and synthetic fragrances used to make most candles more appealing are also made from petrochemicals, coal tars and synthetic chemicals that create even more contaminants in the air.
Pretty scary stuff, I know. But don’t give up your candle habit just yet. The good news is that there are wonderful, natural, healthier and greener alternatives out there, and I’m going to break down the options for you, so that you can make more informed purchasing and candle burning choices.
The Break Down: What is a Candle?
Essentially, a candle consists of only two parts: Wax (the fuel) and Wick (an absorbent string of plant fiber). Yet the art and science of making these two aspects work in perfect harmony to create a controlled and predictable consumption of energy (flame) is where all the magic really happens. There is a delicate balance, a beautifully choreographed dance, all orchestrated by the chandler, who must create the optimum delivery of fuel to flame. Too small a wick to too much wax results in a drowned wick, while too large a wick to too small a candle diameter will wreak smoky, sooty havoc, no matter how clean the wax or fuel. Other factors, such as added color and scent, also affect a candle. Despite what most home candle making kits would lead us to believe, merely dipping a bit of random wicking into wax will produce a candle by the strictest definition of the word, but to have it burn properly and efficiently is the challenge. Though a candle, in the strictest sense of the word, can be as uncomplicated as a fish on a stick, the art of and science of making modern candles is a truly complex and fascinating craft due to the seemingly limitless options considering the simplicity of their components. Which wax to use? How large a wick? What type? And will the candle be scented? Will it be colored? Every single variation changes the dynamics of the whole.
Waxing Poetic: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral
Which wax to choose? Waxes can be derived from animal fats, plants and even minerals. The most readily available wax is paraffin, which of course is a petroleum byproduct and is neither renewable nor sustainable. Therefore, if you care about the health of people and our planet, you’ll want to choose a wax that is sustainable, renewable, and burns cleanly. And this narrows the choices considerably.
Beeswax: The purest, cleanest candles are made from beeswax, period. Beeswax requires no refinement or modification other than simple filtering, and is a renewable resource as long as we still have bees around. Natural beeswax is golden in color and emits a gentle, sweet, honey-like scent. There are refined, de-scented and bleached versions of beeswax for those who wish to color and add their own scents to candles, but I feel that this defeats the purpose of using beeswax. If you decide to go with beeswax candles, be aware that beeswax is somewhat costly, and certified organic beeswax is very expensive and can be hard to come by, though it is the only option to have a truly organic candle at this time. Beeswax is a semi hard, long-burning, high-temperature wax which complements nearly any décor and occasion. When purchasing beeswax candles, look for rich, golden color and for the characteristic honey scent. Be aware that beeswax is not considered vegan; bees are not necessarily harmed or killed in order to obtain the wax, but most strict vegans eschew the use of any byproduct of animals or insects.
Bayberry: Bayberry wax can be obtained by boiling the leaves of the bayberry bush, and actually enjoyed a brief period of popularity in candlemaking during the colonial era in the New World. Bayberry wax is a totally natural, clean burning, vegan, hard wax from a renewable resource and bears a wonderful semi-sweet, eucalyptus-like scent, but it is difficult to extract and consequently very expensive due to the small amount of wax yielded in processing, limiting its commercial viability. Therefore, bayberry candles are usually made by small artisans and handcrafters, especially in the New England region. Bayberry wax is grayish green in color and, because of its natural aroma, limits scent and coloring options in candles.
Palm: Palm wax comes from the fruit (coconuts) of the oil palm and is a naturally derived (though refined), vegan, hard wax from a technically renewable resource, however—and this is a big however—the wax comes at a high environmental cost due to commercial plantations of oil palms being planted after the clearing of vital and irreplaceable rainforests of Southeast Asia. If you choose to use palm wax candles, try to make sure they are made from certified organic and fair trade crops, which are usually grown responsibly and sustainably upon established plantations, rather than freshly cleared tracts of virgin rainforests.
Soy Wax: And now we come to my personal vegetable wax favorite. Soy wax is arguably the greatest innovation to come to candlemaking in the last two centuries. Although this wax is not naturally occurring and requires some processing with human help, its commercial viability and relatively low environmental impact far outweigh any drawbacks. Soy wax is a vegan, clean burning, non-toxic wax created from hydrogenated soybean oil, and sometimes is blended with other natural vegetable waxes and oils, depending on the manufacturer. It accepts color and scent well, burns at low temperatures and has the added benefit of being biodegradable. Most soy wax is so inert, technically, we could eat it, though of course this is not recommended. If there’s an accidental spill of wax from a soy candle, cleanup is a mere matter of hot water and soap. It is important to note that, though soy wax can be made from certified organic soybean oil, the process of hydrogenation disqualifies the finished soy wax product for organic certification, so despite claims made otherwise, there is currently no such thing as certified organic soy wax candles. The soy wax we use at WoodSprite is made from non-GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) soybean oil and is grown without pesticides or herbicides right here in the good ol’ USA, so it supports our farmers and also requires less energy in shipping.
To the uninitiated, a wick seems like a fairly straightforward device in the form of a simple bit of string, but modern wicking is available in a staggering variety of materials, styles and forms with a different purpose for each. For those looking for a healthy, greener wick, however, the best choices are unbleached cotton or hemp.
Cotton: Ordinary cotton is the most common wick material, because it is soft, absorbent and abundantly available. However, cotton is also one of the more heavily polluting conventional crops in the world, requiring tons and tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides each year. Furthermore, the process of bleaching the cotton adds more pollution to our fresh water lakes, rivers and streams. Happily, unbleached cotton wicking is becoming more widely available, though certified organic cotton wicking, which uses fewer or no chemicals in the agricultural process, is so far, difficult if not impossible to find. Hopefully, as the demand for certified organic crops continues to increase, an organic cotton wick will soon become more widely available. In the meantime, when looking for cleaner candles, be sure that the wicking material is at least made from unbleached cotton.
Hemp: Sustainable, strong, versatile and quickly renewable, hemp fiber is a wonderful alternative in fabrics, textiles and even wicks. However, the range and availability of hemp wicking choices is still rather limited, and I find that the quality is not as consistent as with unbleached cotton wicks. As hemp is recognized for its superiority and becomes more widely commercially available, I think we’ll see more candles using hemp wicks in the future.
Some wicks are braided around a stiff strand of metal or fiber, called a core, especially in container or votive candles where the larger pool of liquefied wax is prone to pulling over and drowning the flame. Many of you may remember hearing about the dangers of lead core wicks in candles several years ago due to the health hazards associated with burning them, so most large candle companies moved to zinc or paper core wicks. While burning zinc core wicks is less hazardous than those made with lead, I personally believe that any vaporized heavy metal is probably not a good idea to breathe in, so for me the only choice, if you’re going to use a cored wick, are those made with a paper core.
A more recent addition, and my personal preference, is the coreless wick. These consist of cotton fiber braided with a fine strand of stiffer fiber (usually kraft paper) which gives the wick structure and rigidity while at the same time reducing carbon buildup (known as “mushrooming”) on the flame tip. These coreless wicks can be used in either container, votive or pillar candles.
Making Good Scents
The popularity of scented candles and more recently, “aromatherapy” candles, has been a huge boon to the candle industry. Not only do we want our candles to light up our living spaces and special occasions, but the connection between memory and scent makes candles the perfect way to evoke a desired mood or feeling, or simply to make our homes smell good. However, what few people know is that most scented candles are made from synthetic complex aromatic compounds derived from harmful, sometimes carcinogenic chemicals—some just as hazardous and toxic as those released when burning paraffin. Furthermore, the term “aromatherapy” has been so widely misused and abused, even fewer consumers have any understanding of what it actually is.
I could easily write an entire book on aromatherapy—and many others already have—but the most important point to know is that the practice and use of aromatherapy is not, in fact, only about aroma (admittedly, the term itself is a part of the problem). Aromatherapy makes use of the living, healing essences of real plants (in the form of flower, fruit, root, bark or stem), mostly from herbs, in order to heal, support and mend the body through physiological means. These living essences are extracts called Essential Oils, which is another misnomer because these so-called oils are actually more similar to alcohol (which is also distilled). These Essential Oils are fragrant, but they are more than just fragrance—carrying with them all the healing properties of the plants from which they are obtained. Lavender, often used for its clean and calming scent for the mood, is actually also incredibly calming for upset skin, assisting in speedier recovery from traumas such as burns or scrapes, as well as other wounds. When we burn a candle which is infused with true lavender essential oil, the aromatic aspects as well as the healing chemicals of the lavender plant are released into the air around us, and as we take in its essence through our lungs, upon our skin, into our homes, we are allowing those healing properties to infuse our own bodies. A synthetic replica cannot do this. Synthetic fragrance oils are chemical aromatic compounds which attempt to mimic the scent of lavender (but can never truly duplicate), but fragrance oils contain none of the other healing properties of lavender. So often, unwitting consumers who buy a scented candle looking for its aromatherapeutic benefits, instead receive a dose of heavy chemicals which not only do not heal, but actually can harm.
When looking for natural scented candles, always make sure to look for the term “100% Pure Essential Oils” on the label and be aware that these will likely cost more than their chemical candle counterparts. If a manufacturer is using real Essential Oils, they will be proud to state that fact. If a label says “fragrance” anywhere on the label, it is most likely synthetic.
One last note on candle scents: Look out for candles being marketed as “triple scented” or other such claims. Because the amount of scent needed to fragrance any given candle varies so widely depending on multiple factors, there is no such thing as a standard scent ratio or amount—it is ultimately just a matter of preference from one candlemaker to the next. Terms like “triple scented” are meaningless.
Another very common factor I see people overlook when considering a natural candle is colorants. Currently, there are no commercially available, totally natural candle colorants on the market, anywhere. So, even if you find a candle that is made of beeswax or soy wax, and it has an unbleached, non-metal wick, and it is scented with pure essential oils, if it is a bright lavender color, you may want to keep looking. That bright color can only come from chemical dyes obtained from coal tars and petroleum distillates, which again, include a number of contaminants which are vaporized and released into the air around you when the candle is burned.
It is possible to color candles by using some natural plants, such as spices and herbs, however, the colors achieved are generally rather earthy in tone (not bright lavender) and often fade quickly when exposed to daylight. Some essential oils contain a bit of natural color—for instance, Patchouli is a lovely, dark brown, and Sweet Orange is a gorgeous gold—and while I can appreciate the appeal of a bright, rich colored candle, I’ve come to truly love the muted pastel hues that our soy candles take on just from the pure essential oils we use to scent them.
Finally, I’d just like to take a moment to cover the most standard candle types because it’s a question I’ve been asked many times over my 10 years of candlemaking.
Pillars: Pillar candles are molded or sometime rolled from sheets of a harder wax because they are intended to stand alone and support themselves as they burn down. Pillars should always be burned on a heat-safe candle plate, but require no further containers or holders.
Tapers: Beautiful, elegant tapers may be dipped or molded, but because of their tall, narrow profile they need to be burned in taper holders.
Votives: Votives seem to cause the most confusion in the candle world, because they resemble pillars in that they are a molded, yet they are not a standalone candle. Votives should actually be thought of as a container candle or container refill, because they are designed to liquefy to the edges of the container in which they are held, taking on the shape of that container. Votives are most efficiently burned in a snugly fitted votive holder or cup which is slightly wider at the top than the bottom, as this will ensure that every bit of wax is consumed and you’ll get the most burn time from your candle.
Containers: Container candles are typically made from a softer wax that is intended to adhere well to the inside of the vessel into which it is directly poured, and like a votive, should create a large liquefied pool of wax fully to the edges of its container.
Tea Lights: Tea lights are also a form of container candle, and like a votive, though they are often molded, must be held within a cup or holder to contain the liquefied wax.
No matter which candle you choose, of course, always, always, always enjoy your candles with safety in mind—never leave a burning candle unattended, keep them away from flammables such as drapery, and out of the reach of children or pets. Remember to keep your wicks trimmed—wicks that are too long or which have a large buildup of carbon (like a mushroom cap) burn inefficiently and will produce soot or smoke no matter how clean or green the wax used.
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