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 prevalent in craft candle making due to its “natural” credentials. On the hunt for a truly sustainable option, we settled on lesser-known alternatives: from 2015 to 2022, we used coconut wax, and as of Summer 2022, we will have fully transitioned to using regenerative palm wax.
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 biosynthesized by a variety of plants and animals around us and can be extracted from an exciting myriad of natural materials. They can range from the familiar (paraffin and beeswax) to the obscure (avocado wax and rice bran wax).
Learning about this range of waxes prompted us to ask ourselves: 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 BCE by the Egyptians, who dipped papyrus reeds in beeswax (produced by honey bees). Since then, alongside beeswax, several other waxes have come to be popular for candle making, namely:
- Paraffin wax (derived directly from petroleum).
- Soy wax (derived from soybean oil).
- Coconut wax (blended from coconut oil and other waxes).
- Palm wax (derived from palm oil).
The main factors that led to the usage of these waxes in modern candles over others are ease of production/extraction, low costs, pleasant aesthetic, scent-throw properties, and effective burning.
You’ll notice that sourcing and sustainability were not featured 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 the planet. With these criteria in mind, we found the most common waxes painted a frustrating picture.
Paraffin wax may be 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, it is a notorious fast burner: the paraffin candle looks big on the store shelf (which makes us perceive it as having more value), but burning down faster 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 adverse 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, mainly because it was not published in a scientific journal. After reading a lot of studies, on either side of this topic, we sense 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 grave concern. But since paraffin wax is linked to the world’s most destructive industry, we sought to find a viable, higher-quality alternative.
Soybean oil is a byproduct of the enormous soybean industry. This industry, led by agricultural giant Monsanto (now Bayer), yields a cheap wax. 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. 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. This resource-intensive and linear monoculture model 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. It is technically possible to grow soy differently, supporting rather than depleting its ecosystem.
However, in talking to wax formulators and others in the industry, we found it 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 beeswax and beeswax + coconut oil-based scented candles. We have seen "coconut beeswax blends" on the market, but there are no legal requirements to disclose ingredients in a wax, so it's impossible for us to know what other additives or waxes are enabling scent-throw for these waxes. From our conversations with wax suppliers, the go-to additives for these blends are paraffin, soy wax, and stearic acid. We concluded that making a decent scent-throwing candle with just those two ingredients is impossible.
Finally, just like other waxes here, beeswax can be harvested unsustainably. Some people have also brought up the potential issue of colony collapse disorder. While we see beeswax as a potentially sustainable input if harvested under certain conditions, we think it better to leave bees to be bees for all the reasons above.
With this frustrating set of discoveries and no wax fitting our desire for something beneficial for people and the 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 initial answer in 2015: coconut wax.
Coconut wax is a wax created from a majority blend of “high-melt” coconut oil and other plant-based waxes. The candle industry has traditionally overlooked it because it is two times more expensive per pound. Coconut oil is obtained via a simple extraction process; the wax burns slowly and throws scent extremely well.
As of 2020, we began seeing more cheap blends coming out as“coconut wax blends.” According to suppliers, unless something says “All-coconut” or “100% coconut,” then you can be sure that it’s a small amount of one ingredient blended with a majority of other materials they don’t want to include in the wax name.
Most coconut oil supply currently comes from Southeast Asia, where the deforestation practices linked with large-scale monocrop plantations were not yet widely associated with the coconut industry, as far as we could see from news reports.
The more we looked into the coconut wax, the more we liked what we saw as a starting point for Keap. That said, coconut wax was still not perfect. All coconut waxes tend to be blended with other waxes, such as soy wax, to help increase the melting point. Coconut wax also tends to be very soft and causes 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 paraffin” are misleading since so much depends on how the wax is farmed or extracted. Whether it’s candles, food, or virtually anything we consume, finding accurate solutions requires an intimate understanding of each step in the production path. You don’t see many companies acknowledging this reality since overcoming it requires a committed, long-term investment in these supply chains, and a huge amount of effort and investment in expertise.
Because of this, we weren’t satisfied with our coconut wax. It was the best wax available to us as a new start-up candle company. It was the only wax where we felt pretty certain it was not produced in a degenerative manner. But like all other options available to candle makers, we didn’t have transparency into how this product was grown and processed precisely.
Thus, since 2015 we have worked on developing and sourcing a better solution. Our goal was 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. This means that for every candle we make and you enjoy, we’re collectively helping support a thriving, fertile, and regenerative future.
After seven years, in early 2022, we finally found a solution!
REGENERATIVE PALM WAX
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 coconut wax, 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. To this day, it’s challenging to source truly sustainable palm oil products.
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 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.
In 2019, we traveled to North America’s biggest natural products show, ExpoWest, in the hopes of finding some inspiring companies to learn from and work with. We were not disappointed. We learned about the work of one of Dr. Bronner’s key palm oil suppliers, Natural Habitats, and the growing movement toward regenerative farming practices.
Natural Habitats help grow and produce organic oil palms in Ecuador. They do this through methods that transform previously deforested farmland into healthy forest ecosystems. Their oil palm has gained the most stringent certifications associated with healthy farming practices, from regenerative organic and fair trade to Non-GMO and Fair for Life. Unlike traditional large-scale monocrop plantations, Natural Habitats focuses on driving a future where oil palm farms help support the surrounding places, people, and environments.
We now understand that oil palm can be cultivated in a way that leaves the planet and people better off and has opened our minds to palm’s potential. Rather, we must move away from the destructive methods used to cultivate it. Regenerative palm farming offers us a blueprint for the immense potential to change the world through restorative farming practices via the production methods we support, not just the ingredients we buy. There are more profound lessons in this, too, about rethinking how we operate our company and about our own individual impacts.
With this spirit, we have worked tirelessly to take Natural Habitats’ palm wax and figure out the best methods to use it in all our scented candles. Finally, after many years of experimentation, we found ways to make a workable candle with this precious ingredient. As of June 2022, we’re ready to move ahead with this new ingredient as the basis for all our candles, and we’re incredibly excited to start pouring our candles with this wax. You can learn more about our palm wax choice here.
If you’re curious about palm’s surprising potential to be a meaningful solution to the environmental crisis, we’ve covered this topic in much more detail here. We highly encourage you to read this to learn more — not just about the palm industry, but about the exciting transitions towards regenerative agriculture happening in the world and what we can learn from this as a society.
Thanks for taking the time to read, and here's to better candles!
— THE KEAP TEAM
1. The Ken Burns documentary 'The Dust Bowl' offers a great backstory on this situation.