WAX IS THE LARGEST COMPONENT OF CANDLES AS WELL AS THE FUEL THAT ALLOWS THEM TO BURN, SO WHEN WE STARTED KEAP, WE DECIDED TO LEARN AS MUCH AS WE COULD ABOUT THE HISTORY, CHEMISTRY, AND SOURCING OF WAX.
Paraffin was the chandler's wax of choice since the late 19th century due to its plentiful supply as a byproduct of the oil industry. Recently, soy wax has become more popular in craft candle making due to its “natural” credentials. On the hunt for a truly sustainable option we settled on a lesser-known alternative: 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. Practically speaking it is the fuel for the candle flame. As the flame of a candle melts the wax around it, molten wax is drawn up the wick by capillary action, vaporized, and combusted, thereby producing heat, water, carbon dioxide, and light.
If the definition of wax above sounds broad, that’s because it is. Waxes are biosynthesised by a variety of plants and animals. They can range from the familiar (paraffin and beeswax) to the obscure (avocado wax and rice bran wax). Wax can be extracted from a myriad of natural materials around us.
The question we asked ourselves was: which is the best one for making candles?
WHAT ABOUT CANDLE WAXES?
The earliest wax candles are thought to have been created around 5,000 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), and soy wax (derived from soybean oil).
The main factors that led to the usage of these waxes in modern candles over others: ease of production/extraction, low costs, pleasant aesthetic, scent-throw properties, and effective burning.
You’ll notice that sourcing and sustainability did not feature on this list of key candle wax properties. When we started sourcing wax for our candles, we wanted to find one that would both perform at the highest possible standard and support a healthy and regenerative future for people and planet. With these criteria in mind, we found the most common waxes painted a frustrating picture.
Paraffin wax may be very low cost and known for its strong burning and scent properties, but as a product of the oil industry it is the very definition of unsustainable. In addition, they are notorious fast burners: the paraffin candle looks big on the store shelf (which makes us perceive it as having more value) and by burning down fast makes us need to re-purchase sooner. All of this is good for the companies selling them, and not as good for those of us buying them.
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; you would need to burn a lot of paraffin candles for them to cause you serious concern. But since paraffin wax is linked to the world’s most destructive industry, we sought to find a viable, higher quality alternative.
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 alternative. 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 Greenpeace report from 2018 and a New York Times investigation make for very sad reading on the matter.
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. We believe it will soon be possible to find palm wax from a company that manages its palm oil production in a manner that supports local farmers, encourages biodiversity, and enriches the planet for future generations. We just aren’t there quite yet.
Soy wax doesn’t have ideal burn qualities; it burns slowly, but it has trouble throwing scent and can also look unsightly with its characteristic crumbly texture. Due to the fact that soybean oil is a byproduct of the huge soybean industry, led by agricultural giant Monsanto (now Bayer), it is a cheap wax. Environmentally-minded groups like the WWF have raised concerns about deforestation (mainly in South America) associated with increasing soy demand, and recent fires in the Amazon have been heavily linked to the soy and cattle farming industries.
There is also reason to be concerned about the toll of industrial, monoculture farming and the unhealthy amounts of pesticides and fertilizers used to grow soybeans en masse—and the contamination of drinking waters that occurs 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. The resource intensive and linear model of monoculture is quickly depleting what once seemed like the unlimited water bounty of the Ogalalla Aquifer in the Midwest1. The consequences of this despoiling are far-ranging and affect weather patterns across our nation and beyond, compounding the effects of climate change.
Technically speaking, it is possible to grow soy in a different manner that supports rather than depletes its ecosystem.
However, 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 and sustainably farmed, despite what some candle labels claim. Finally, the more we read about Monsanto’s cartoonishly evil corporation antics, from its treatment of farmers to its mob-like tactics for handling PR crises, the more we viewed buying soy wax as untenable.
Beeswax comes from the hives of honeybees, and it is in many regards 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. Beeswax is also 3-4 times more expensive than other waxes due to the low yield and related expenses of maintaining bee colonies.
Nonetheless we spent a few years trying to create a beeswax and beeswax + coconut oil based scented candle. Our conclusion is that it is impossible to make a decently scent-throwing candle with just those two ingredients. Based on our conclusions, scented candles on the market that claim to be either a “beeswax blend” or “coconut beeswax blend” are either adding chemical additives to boost scent throw, or are simply blends that contain a small amount of those ingredients but are primarily paraffin or soy wax. You might think these are misleading claims, and, well, suffice it to say there is no legal requirement for producers to disclose a full list of their wax ingredients.
Finally, just like other waxes here, beeswax can be harvested unsustainably. Some people have also brought up to us the potential issue of colony collapse disorder. While we do see beeswax as a potentially sustainable input if harvested under certain conditions, for all the reasons above we think it better for us to leave bees to be bees.
“YOU STILL HAVEN’T MENTIONED COCONUTS!”
With this frustrating set of discoveries and no wax fitting our desire for something beneficial for people and planet, we began researching and buying every type of wax we could find on the market (yes, even that mysterious rice bran wax). After a long search, we found our answer: coconut wax, a wax created from a majority blend of “high-melt” coconut oil and other plant-based waxes. The more we looked into the coconut oil used in the wax, the more we liked what we saw:
— Coconut oil is obtained via a simple extraction process.
That said, coconut wax is still not perfect. Currently, all coconut waxes tend to be blended with soy wax to help increase the melt point. Coconut wax can be very soft, so it can also cause trouble with melting in the summer.
And most importantly, if there is one thing to take from this post, it’s that absolutes like “soy is better than palm” are a misleading creation of marketers trying to offload surplus crops of monoculture, or to create a sensation around a product that doesn’t have any substantive ability to differentiate itself. Developing sustainable supply chains is much more nuanced, and unfortunately—whether it’s candles or food or virtually anything we consume—the devil is in the details.
Because of this, we aren’t satisfied with our current wax. We think that what we have is the best available (within an industry that by and large is fairly small and benign). For now, it’s the only wax where we don’t know for sure that it is grown in a degenerative manner. But like with any of the options available to candle makers, we also don’t have transparency into how exactly this product was grown.
For these past five years, we’ve been working on developing and sourcing a better solution. Our goal has been and remains to work directly with fair trade and organic-certified producers of natural oils and waxes to create the first certified wax for scented candles with a net benefit to the planet. That would mean that for every candle we make and you enjoy, we know we’re helping support a thriving, fertile, and regenerative future. None of this is easy or quick, but after five years, we think we’re close.
In the meantime, we believe that coconut wax is the best option available on the market for candle makers looking to balance product quality with sustainable sourcing practices.
If you’re interested in more details on our coconut wax read on here.
Thanks for taking the time to read and here's to better candles!
— The Keap Team