Wax is the largest component of candles, so it’s worth looking into; particularly considering that you burn them in your home and/or work space.
While paraffin has been the cheap wax of choice since the late 19th centure, soy wax has recently moved into second place due to its “natural” credentials. However, if you do some research, you’ll discover that there’s a much better choice for candles: coconut wax—let's look at why.
What is wax anyway?
Ask the science textbook, and you’ll find that wax is a flammable, carbon-containing solid that becomes liquid when heated above room temperatures; in short, it’s the fuel for the candle flame. As the flame gets hot, molten wax is vaporized and combusted—producing heat and light.
If the definition above sounds broad, that’s because it is. In fact, there are a surprising number of waxes out there. They can range from the familiar (paraffin, beeswax) to the obscure and weird (rice bran wax). Wax can be developed from a myriad of things around us; the question is: what is the best one for making candles?
What about candle waxes?
The earliest wax candles are thought to have been created around 5000 BC by the Egyptians, who dipped papyrus reeds in Beeswax (produced by honey bees). Since then, alongside beeswax, a number of other waxes have come to be popular for candle-making, namely: Paraffin Wax (derived directly from petroleum), Palm Wax (derived from palm oil), Soy Wax (derived from soybean oil).
The main factors that led to the usage of these waxes: ease of production, low costs, pleasant aesthetic, good scent properties, and effective burning.
Why don’t we use one of these waxes?
You’ll notice that sustainability did not feature in that list of key candle-wax properties. When we came to sourcing a wax for our candles, we put sustainability on equal footing with other wax properties, and found a frustrating picture.
Paraffin wax may be very low cost and known for its wonderful burning and scent properties, but as a product of the oil industry it is the very definition of unsustainable. Furthermore, there is some discussion around whether there may be negative health effects associated with burning paraffin candles at home. One 2009 study found that burning paraffin candles can release harmful chemicals such as toluene. But this study has been called into question by the National Candle Association, particularly because it has not been published in a scientific journal. After reading a lot of studies, on either side of this topic, our sense is that paraffin candles are likely not a significant health hazard; that you would need to burn a lot of paraffin candles for them to cause you serious concern. But since paraffin wax has so many substitutes, there’s little need to use it.
Palm Wax was initially heralded as the holy grail of the candle industry. With a pleasant, aesthetic, ‘feathered’ effect, and a similar burn quality as that of paraffin, palm wax was once viewed as the sustainable solution to paraffin use. However, a 2009 investigation by the Economist (“The other oil spill”) discovered that, even with the creation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), deforestation practices were rampant and endangering many species of animals as demand for palm wax skyrocketed. Even today, it’s considered almost impossible to source truly sustainable palm oil products—in fact a new Greenpeace report in 2018 makes for very sad reading.
This is unfortunate, because palm oil is a potentially sustainable crop. Currently most palm oil is grown and harvested in an unsustainable and destructive manner, wreaking havoc on the local ecosystem, communities, and the climate. However, this has nothing to do with the inherent qualities of palm (which actually scores higher than most other oil sources in many respects), and everything to do with poorly managed industries and supply chains. It is completely possible and desirable to have a fair-trade and organic palm oil supply. However, as of today it still appears impossible to source truly sustainable palm oil products.
Soy Wax doesn’t have ideal burn qualities; it burns slowly, but it has trouble throwing scent and can also look unsightly. It is cheap though, due to the fact that soybean oil is a byproduct of the huge soybean industry led by agricultural giant Monsanto (now Bayer). Environmentally-minded groups like the WWF have raised concerns about deforestation (mainly in South America) associated with increasing soy demand. And more fears surround the risk of monoculture farming and the unhealthy amounts of pesticides and fertilizers used to grow soybeans en masse—and the contamination of drinking waters that occur as a result. Here in the United States, 94% of soy agriculture is genetically modified to require increasingly large, and increasingly unsustainable amounts of pesticides. In talking to wax formulators and others in the industry, we found out it is impossible to source soy wax that is verifiably 100% non-GMO, despite what some candle labels claim. Finally, the more we read about Monsanto’s cartoonish evil corporation antics, from their treatment of farmers to their mob-like tactics for handling PR crises, the more we yearned for an alternative.
Beeswax comes from the hives of honeybees. Beeswax in many regards is one of the more sustainable options. It has a characteristically honey-like scent, and a golden color. This makes it wonderful as a standalone candle wax, but challenging to incorporate into scented candles. Bleached (white) beeswax is available, but presents issues with ‘scent trapping’—leading to sadly scented candles with very little scent throw. Like everything, beeswax can be done unsustainably. Some people have also brought up to us the potential issue of colony collapse disorder, so we think it better to leave bees to be bees.
“You still haven’t mentioned coconuts!”
With this frustrating set of discoveries and no quality sustainable wax fit for our purpose, we began researching and buying every type of wax there was (yes, even rice bran wax). After a long search we found our answer: coconut wax—a wax created from a majority of ‘high-melt’ coconut oil blended with other natural waxes to create a beautiful burning candle. The more we looked into the coconut oil used in the wax, the more we liked what we saw:
That said, it’s still not perfect: currently all coconut waxes contain some soy wax, which we're working to remove. For these past two years, we’ve been working on developing this solution, working with fair trade and organic certified producers. In the meantime, we believe coconut wax is the best option available on the market.
If you’re interested in more details on our coconut wax read on here.
Questions, ideas, candles! TheLab@KeapBK.com.