TL;DR Some of the most popular candle materials are made with ingredients that are non-renewable, harmful to the environment, and even emit carcinogens. Every aspect of a candle, from the wax to the scent to the wick, is equally important in determining if a candle is safe to burn. To avoid inhaling pollutants or carcinogens, make sure you’re purchasing candles that are made with pure ingredients (like soy wax, essential oils, 100% organic cotton wicks, and wood wicks).
Candles are a great way to give your home a cozy vibe. But do you know what makes a candle sustainable? Or which wax has the best benefits? The world of candle materials can be secretive and hard to understand. But don’t worry, we’ll do our best to demystify it for you!
Humans have been enjoying the soft flicker of candlelight for over 5,000 years, with its origins tracing back to the Ancient Egyptians who soaked reed cores in melted animal waxes. The Ancient Romans, in 3,000 BC, used rolled papyrus and melted beeswax or animal wax, also known as tallow. Early Chinese candles were made using wax from indigenous insects, mixed with seeds on molded paper tubes, and finished with a rice paper wick.
A myriad of waxes and wicks have been used to create candles over the centuries, but what are modern humans using in their homes? While we still utilize and enjoy the same waxes ancient people used, like beeswax, newer waxes like soy wax have grown in popularity, hailed for their sustainable qualities and clean burn.
What Is Soy Wax?
Soy wax is naturally derived from soybeans, and is extracted after the beans are cleaned, cracked, and removed from the shell. The beans are then rolled into flakes to extract the soybean oil. Once the oil is extracted, the flake remnants can be used in animal feed, ensuring that there is no waste involved in the wax production process.
How Is Soy Wax Sustainable?
Soy wax is known for being a healthier and more eco-friendly alternative to common paraffin wax candles that you’re likely to find on the drug store shelf. Paraffin wax is made from petroleum which isn’t sustainable nor healthy when it is breathed in.
Soy wax is a great wax alternative because it’s derived from a renewable source. Shakira Mongul — the owner of Ritual and Fancy, a candle company in Portland, Oregon — sells only pure soy candles that are free of any synthetic ingredients. Mongul also sources her soy wax from soybean farms that refrain from over-harvesting. Preventing over-farming is important, because it ensures quality and the health of both the soy plant and soil. Soy wax is slow-burning, lasting longer than commercial candle waxes, and doesn’t emit any harmful chemicals when burned.
“Another benefit of soy wax is that when it burns, it’s a neutral burn for the environment,” Mongul said. “It’s not releasing any nasty carcinogens into the environment, your home, or your space in general.”
As a vegetable-based wax, soy is also an agricultural staple in the United States and a locally sourced material for Mongul’s candles. With soy readily produced and harvested within the states, utilizing its wax has a reduced carbon footprint compared to using other waxes, like the very popular paraffin wax, which is commonly sourced from China. Paraffin wax is not safe to inhale because the wax releases cancer-causing carcinogens when burned, and paraffin wax candles are prone to sooting, which is when candles produce unclean black smoke that leave black marks on the sides of the candles’ vessels.
Despite sooting, the harmful chemicals emitted, and the environmental impacts of production, paraffin waxes are still an extremely popular material for candle makers and candle companies because they are easy to infuse scents into and are far less expensive.
Small Batch Brands Using 100% Soy Wax
Ritual and Fancy uses only 100% soy wax made from renewable sources. The owner of Ritual and Fancy, Shaikra Mongul, gets her soy wax from a supplier that sustainably produces their soy by refraining from over-harvesting, which ensures a higher quality product. Each Ritual and Fancy candle also features a slow-burning wood wick and one-of-a-kind organic pressed flowers that adorn the top of the candle that Shakira grows herself, at her home outside of Portland.
Fragrance Oils vs. Essential Oils
In scented candles, the aromas come from fragrance oils or essential oils that are incorporated and mixed into the wax. Essential oils are highly concentrated compounds that originate from plants and contain the plant’s “scent and flavor, or ‘essence’”. Fragrance oils, however, are synthetic compounds that are infused into an aromatic oil.
“Your typical fragrance oil is made in a lab with chemicals that are designed to smell like whatever they want it to smell like, and those synthetic chemicals often make us sick,” Mongul said. “They’re not good to breathe in, and they have pollutants that can lower the air quality in your home.”
While both types of oils may smell like calming lavender, bright citrus, or soothing rose, only the essential oils will have the natural ingredients that produce the healing aromatherapy that go with the lovely scents. Fragrance oils also tend to have a stronger scent and can cause headaches for individuals who are sensitive to strong smells. Pure essential oils never contain additives to make the scent artificially stronger.
Mahasin Phillips — founder and CEO of Atmosphere Threesixty, a company that sells Reiki-attuned candles — said using pure essential oils in her candle line is extremely important because of their natural healing benefits.
“With plant medicine, the different flowers and oils are being expressed from the flowers in a natural way,” Phillips said.
Small Batch Brands Using Pure Essential Oils
La’ F.E.M. hand pours all their candles with a curated blend of soy and coconut candle wax. Each candle is scented using only perfume-grade, all-natural essential oils to produce relaxing scents like citrus, eucalyptus, sea salt, and cedarwood. To top it all off, the minimalist, recycled glass jars the candles come in can be reused to hold jewelry, matchsticks, and more. Enjoy a relaxing atmosphere without any nasty parabens, sulfates, or phthalates.
Wooden Wicks vs. Cotton Wicks
A candle’s wick is just as important as its scent or its wax. The two most popular types of candle wicks are wooden wicks and cotton wicks.
Wooden wicks are thin strips of wood that are placed in a candle and burn like a traditional wick. They’re also known for providing a slower, lower flame compared to a cotton wick’s tall flame. Wood wicks make candle wax last longer and help to release the scent from the wax evenly over a longer period of time, making it ideal for candles infused with pure essential oils. Wood wicks also emit minimal amounts of carbon and soot, providing a clean burn that doesn’t lower the air quality of your home.
Cotton wicks are the most common type of wick used in candles — especially commercial candles. They’re typically braided and are known for being easy to light and relight. When compared to wooden wicks, cotton wicks tend to take longer to evenly melt wax since the flame will stay perched at the very end of the wick.
Wooden wicks are considered a more sustainable wick for a myriad of reasons. A single tree can produce a large number of wooden wicks to be burned and enjoyed, while cotton growing and manufacturing needs a substantial amount of water. Mongul said that Ritual and Fancy’s candle wicks are made of sustainably sourced, pulverized fruit trees and have a burn time of around 45 to 55 hours.
Another benefit of wooden wicks is their soothing, ambient crackling. Phillips said that she chose wooden wicks for Atmosphere Threesixty’s candles because they provide a calming background noise that’s ideal for keeping you grounded during meditation or moments of reflection.
Cotton wicks can also be very harmful if they have a thin strip of metal braided into the core. Cotton wicks with a metal core, also known as metal wicks, have been banned by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission since 2003, but candles using cotton wicks containing zinc or even lead cores are still readily available for purchase. Although inhaling zinc and lead can cause serious health issues, metal cores are still included in some cotton wicks, because they help increase the wick’s burn time and keep the wick standing up straight and out of the wax. It can be difficult to differentiate between an organic cotton wick and a metal wick, so read the candle’s label carefully to ensure the wick in your candle is 100% organic cotton.
What Is a Reiki Candle?
Atmosphere Threesixty’s candles are not only made with 100% pure and natural ingredients, but each candle includes a Reiki-attuned, clear quartz pointed crystal submerged within the wax. Phillips, who has been practicing the healing arts for over six years and Reiki for over three years, attunes each quartz crystal herself.
“Reiki is about universal, pure energy, and when you have a candle that’s been attuned, it creates an atmosphere of healing and reconnection,” Phillips said. “When using Reiki-attuned candles with clear quartz, you are connecting to the divine and amplifying loving and healing intention.”
Phillips said her candles are an extension of her Reiki practice and she uses them to help create a sacred space within her home. It’s important for her to be aware of what she’s putting in her environment, and she said that if you want to heal, you need to make sure you’re surrounding yourself with pure ingredients. She emphasizes that her choice to only use pure essential oils and virgin coconut soy wax is to make sure that she is surrounding herself and her customers with only organic, holistic, and clean ingredients.
Phillips chooses her candle’s essential oil combination based on the healing energies associated with the plant and sets intentions within the crystal to amplify its inherent healing properties to create an atmosphere of healing, calm, and harmony.
“The reason why it was so important to me with this particular line of candles to include a clear crystal quartz point is because clear crystal quartz is known as the master healer,” Phillips said. “Using the pure essential oils, being that it’s plant medicine, all things of the earth hold their own subtle energies, and they connect to our subtle body energy.”
Why Is It Important to Purchase Candles with Sustainable Materials?
As beautiful as those candles at the grocery store, drug store, or big box store might be, they could contain harmful materials like metal wicks, be made of mostly paraffin wax, or laced with chemical fragrances of unknown origins. Ingredients like these are extremely common despite the potentially disastrous effects on your health, your home’s air quality, and the environment.
By purchasing candles from small brands and makers dedicated to the sourcing of sustainable, natural, and safe ingredients, you will know the candle you’re burning is a healthy choice for you, your family, your pets, and the Earth.
“Props to anyone shopping exclusively for sustainable products, so that we will be able to see a better future, and future generations can enjoy this beautiful world,” Mongul said. “Good job to everybody who’s shopping with a conscious conscience.”