What is the deal with sustainable candle wax?

by Sumaya Steele

Candles have long had special purposes for people all around the world, used not only to provide light but for spiritual worship. Today, candles are popular ornaments and used to help relax the mind and body. The possibility that our latest obsession may be harming our health has recently come to the forefront of debates. Increasingly fashionable in the last few years, the existence of candles can be traced back to around 500 BC, when Romans used tallow candles, often gifted during a festival celebrating the god Saturn. Candles were also used in ancient China as a measure of time. In ancient India, cinnamon was boiled to make wax for candles used in religious ceremonies. It is thought that these were the earliest scented candles.

Many candles sold globally today contain paraffin wax, which is a petroleum by-product of crude oil. When paraffin wax burns, it releases huge amounts of particulate pollution, which is a main ingredient in air pollution. Wicks made of metal and artificial scents also bring a host of problems. Wicks containing metal produce toxic soot. Finding a sustainable option isn’t simple, but there are alternative types of candle wax that can be used that are less harmful to the environment and ourselves. 

Palm wax is often advertised as being more sustainable, but there are still issues surrounding the use of these, such as the extraction of palm oil. The main downside to this is that vast areas of land are needed to grow oil palm trees, and in order to clear this land, significant deforestation takes place. Forest fires that are started to clear space release high levels of carbon dioxide and black carbon (soot) into the air, exacerbating global warming and destroying biodiversity. 

However, is ditching palm oil the solution? In the environmental sphere, the view is that this would negatively impact communities who rely on palm oil as a source of income. The industry employs about 6 million people around the world, many of who are farmers reliant on palm oil to provide for their families. The alternative is to aim to produce palm oil more sustainably. Businesses are coming up with ways to make palm oil sustainable. Palm oil companies have recently begun to follow policies involving no deforestation, no peat development and no exploitation (NDPE). These are reflected in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification system. The RSPO takes into account on-going discussions on ways to produce palm oil more sustainably. Palm wax candles are still a great option, provided the palm oil in the wax is produced sustainably. 

Another alternative to paraffin wax candles is beeswax. Beeswax is a natural, renewable and biodegradable type of wax, and even neutralizes toxins in the air. However, it is not vegan, so may not be the preferred choice for everyone. Vegetable waxes including soy, rapeseed and coconut wax provide an alternative option. Soy wax has a pure burn, which means that it produces no toxic fumes, making it safe to use. It is made from a renewable source, and is biodegradable. It is also thought to burn for longer and does not stain permanently if spilled. 

While beeswax, soy wax and palm wax candles provide great alternatives to paraffin wax candles, it is also wise to be aware of how to burn a candle properly:

  1. The first time you burn a candle, make sure you burn it until the wax is fully melted
  2. You should always burn the candle so that it becomes flat
  3. Limit burning time when using candles
  4. Choose candles that have a short wick, to minimise the amount of soot produced
  5. Or cut the wick of the candle to make it shorter


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