SOY vs PARAFFIN, ESSENTIAL vs FRAGRANT OILS
SOY WAX VS OTHER WAXES
Most people would be surprised to learn that the majority of commercially available scented candles are made with paraffin wax and synthetic 'fragrant oils'. Paraffin wax is a by-product of the petrol industry, and is widely believed to give off toxic fumes and soot when burned. Tests completed in the US in 2001 revealed that paraffin wax contained 11 compounds which are classified as dangerous, some even classed as carcinogenic. One compound, carbon tetrachloride, can lead to liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage when experienced in chronic amounts. The American Lung Association has issued warnings regarding the burning of paraffin candles as a common, unrecognised cause of poor indoor air quality. Yet commercially mass-produced candles (pillars, jar candles and tealights in particular) tend to still be made from paraffin wax.
Even "safe" beeswax candles are not necessarily what they seem. Often they are blended with large amounts of paraffin wax - as long as they contain a percentage of natural beeswax it is legal to label them as a beeswax candle, regardless of the other additives - there's no governing law that insists on disclosure regarding what percentage of the candle is beeswax, and what is made from paraffin or other additives.
Palm wax is another type of wax that is quite misunderstood. Because it's considered to be 'natural' it's often seen as preferable to petro-chemical based paraffin waxes. However it's now becoming more widely accepted that the demand for palm oil is causing all kinds of havoc in countries where large areas of tropical forests and other ecosystems with high conservation values have been cleared to make room for vast monoculture oil palm plantations – destroying critical habitat for many endangered species, including rhinos, elephants and tigers. In some cases, the expansion of plantations has lead to the eviction of forest-dwelling peoples. (Source: WWF). When palm wax is used in candlemaking it's very important to be sure that the palm products are farmed in a renewable and environmentally responsible way.
Bearing all of this in mind, Soy Wax is considered by many to be one of the safest and environmentally friendly options for current use in candles. Soy wax is a relatively new natural - and renewable - alternative to paraffin, based on soy bean oil which is hydrogenated to solidify the wax at room temperature. Soy wax is generally believed to be very clean burning, with no soot and fewer CO2 emissions in comparison to candles made of paraffin wax. Soy wax also lasts up to 50% longer in burning time over paraffin wax candles of the same size, making it better value for money when buying or making candles. As with palm wax, there are concerns being raised over soy cultivation beginning to cause deforestation in some of the countries that are cashing in for the new demand of the product, so making sure your soy wax comes from a responsible source is increasingly more important. When buying candles made of soy or palm wax, do check that the manufacturers are also employing responsible methods.
ESSENTIAL vs FRAGRANT OILS
( See also our other detailed article on Essential & Fragrant Oils)
The next issue is the fragrances used to scent candles. Many people buy scented candles to get the benefits of aromatherapy when burning them. Aromatherapy is the use of natural plant-based pure 'essential oils', which carry various therapeutic benefits for both the body and the mind. However the majority of scented candles are scented using synthetic Fragrant / Perfume oils, which are simply synthetic copies made up of a combination of chemicals, with the intention of emulating a certain scent. You'll find these for a couple of dollars each in your local discount store, alongside candy-flavoured scents you won't usually find as a natural essential oil, such as Peach, Coconut or Strawberry. These kind of 'fragrant oils' are also found in the candlemaking industry, with literally thousands of fragrances available - some sounding like natural plants or flowers, others with 'perfumey' names like 'bubblegum', 'baby powder' or 'Chanel No 5 Type'. These synthetic oils have absolutely no therapeutic qualities, and many are also believed to be toxic or even carcinogenic, though in low enough readings to be approved as legally 'safe' to sell. There are many names for these, most of which try to make the product sound less chemical and thus more desirable - terms such as parfum, perfume, scent, fragrance, fragrant oil, essence. They're all pretty much the same - synthetic, and these have no place in the realm of aromatherapy as they have no therapeutic benefit whatsoever. So ultimately if your candle is made using synthetic perfumes, then it won't have any therapeutic value - you might be relaxed just by the fact that you've sat down to light a candle, but a synthetic 'relaxing' scent won't actually do anything other than give off an artificial fragrance.
SO WHAT DO I BUY? CAN I MAKE MY OWN NATURAL CANDLES?
If you're looking for a natural candle, first check which kind of wax is being used, and then either opt for unscented (see below on how to naturally scent your own) or do your homework to ensure only natural essential oils are used to scent the candle, rather than fragrance or perfume. Candles scented with essential oils are not only more natural and less likely to cause headaches etc, you'll also get the aromatherapeutic benefits that essential oils are renowned for. These may cost a little more as the Essential Oils are more costly to produce, but the reward in knowing exactly what you and your family are breathing in is worth it.
To make your own aromatherapy candles from existing candles, buy an unscented natural candle, light the wick and allow it to burn for long enough to produce a pool of melted wax around the wick. Blow out the flame and drip a few drops of pure essential oil/oils into the pool (try to avoid getting the oils on the wick). You can then either relight the candle, which will warm the oils and diffuse them into the air, or allow the wax to cool and it will be ready for next time you light it. When first using an oil for this method do only use a few drops at a time to ensure there is no fire risk. Always take care around candles, keep out reach of small children and pets, and never leave a lit candle unattended.
To make your own natural soy candles from scratch is incredibly easy and very rewarding, particularly as soy wax is such an easy medium to work with and is now readily available by the kilogram. Soy wax melts at a fairly low temperature so doesn't require specific equipment - you can make your own double boiler using a large saucepan and a smaller jar or pot inside it, with some boiling water. All you need to purchase is some wax and an appropriate wick (length and thickness) for the jar, container or tealight cup you want to use, and you can make your own unscented candle. You can also add pure essential oils as the wax is cooling, to scent your own aromatherapy candles. Colour chips are available but not necessary, and these are simply melted into the wax as it melts. Wax, wicks, containers and other candlemaking accessories are easy to find - just look on the internet for your most local natural candle supplier and you're ready to go. Most candle supply companies will also supply specific directions on how to make your first candle - a really fun and rewarding hobby that even the kids can join in.
Once you've discovered true natural candles, and appreciated the natural benefits of pure essential oils, it will be very hard to go back to the mass produced artificial candles that you've used in the past.