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 for many years, 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). Virtually any kind of oil can be made into a wax; 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. Further recent studies, such as this 2009 study by South Carolina State University, have shown that burning paraffin candles indoors can create unhealthy airborne chemicals. So that’s not going to work for us.
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.
Soy Wax doesn’t have ideal burn qualities; it burns slowly, but it has trouble throwing fragrances 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 giants such as Monsanto. Environmentally-minded groups like the WWF have raised concerns about deforestation associated with the burgeoning 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.
Beeswax comes from the hives of honeybees. It has a characteristically honey-like scent, and a golden color. This makes it wonderful as a standalone candlewax, 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. Also our bee friends have been having a hard time of it lately with colony collapse disorder, so better to leave bees to be bees.
“You still haven’t mentioned coconuts!”
With this frustrating set of discoveries and no 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. Currently all coconut waxes contain a small amount of soy wax, which we're working to remove. The more we looked into the coconut oil used in the wax, the more we liked what we saw:
If you’re interested in more details on our coconut wax read on here.
Questions, ideas, candles! TheLab@KeapBK.com.