Let's talk about candles...
I like candles. A lot. I always have. If I am completely honest about who I really am, at any moment in my post-pubescent life I would tell you that my ideal activity would be lying in a hot bath, listening to Enya with candles all around me. Well, in my search for the most ethical, eco-friendly everything, I had to think about candles too. Turns out there's a lot to think about.
What's out there in the market in terms of candles today?
- paraffin (including gel candles),
- plant wax (generally soy, sometimes coconut or others, or blends)
Thankfully the days of tallow (beef fat) and spermaceti (whale oil) illumination are over. I mean, that couldn't have smelled great, right? Not to mention the ethical and gross factors.
No. 1 | PARAFFIN
Most candles you see in stores today are made from paraffin. Pretty much every generic or cheap candle is paraffin. Probably most of the candles in your home are paraffin. Birthday candles? Paraffin. Your Yankee Candle Co. pumpkin candle that you love so much? Paraffin. That pretty one from the grocery store? Paraffin. That gift from your mom? Paraffin. You get the picture.
But do you know what paraffin is?
"Paraffin wax is a petroleum by-product that is created from the sludge waste when crude oil is refined into gasoline."
That sounds really nice, doesn't it?
I feel like every year I'm surprised by something else I found out was a petroleum by-product. According to Ranken Energy Coorporation, one 42-gallon barrel of oil creates 19.4 gallons of gasoline. The rest (over half) is used to make things like vasoline (aka. petroleum jelly, so yes, that should have been obvious to me), mineral oil (nothing mineral about it), plastic (you probably know that by now), those gel candles I mentioned earlier (made from mineral oil), asphalt and tar, fertilizer, linoleum, perfume, insecticide, soaps with surfactants listed in the ingredients (At least some surfactants have been banned from products in Europe (source), vitamin capsules, motor oil, nail polish, deodorant, antihistamines, ink, lipstick, house paint, hair color, heart valves, shaving cream, aspirin, glycerin. And much more of course. (source)
There are two reasons why I believe we should stay away from burning paraffin candles.
In my opinion, we should be trying to curb our use of non-renewable fossil fuels.
The burning of paraffin candles could be a health risk.
Health risk, you say? Why?
"According to the EPA’s research, burning several candles exceeded the EPA’s standards and posed an increased risk for cancer because of the acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, toluene, benzene and acrolein levels. All those chemicals, along with many others are not healthy or good for our bodies and most especially our lungs. Paraffin wax candles also produce soot .... caused from the flickering flame. 'When soot is airborne, it is subject to inhalation. The particles can potentially penetrate the deepest areas of the lungs, the lower respiratory tract and alveoli (Krause, 1999).' " (source)
I heard someone once say that a paraffin candle burning in the house, though it may smell like fresh laundry, is the equivalent to a diesel truck idling in your living room. That's an image I just can't forget.
If you want to stay away from paraffin candles, you need to buy only candles that tell you what wax they're using. It may say soy or beeswax or another type of vegetable wax, but if it says nothing it is paraffin.
No. 2 | SOY
Soy candles are the most well-known "better than paraffin" candle option. You'll find soy candles in nice boutiques and even some conventional stores these days as they become more popular. If you're an average American like me, you can tell a soy candle when you look at the price tag and cringe. What can I say? We're used to cheap, paraffin prices. That doesn't mean soy candles are expensive, it just means they're not cheap. It's hard to see the difference sometimes, but I believe it's there.
Soy is better than paraffin, but not my favorite alternative as the title to this post suggests. Soy is better than paraffin for one reason: It's not bad for your health. You can inhale soy wax and it won't kill you (not that we know of yet, however. wink) But there's a simple reason why it's not the best choice: It's not great for the environment. It's not great for farmland. Farmers. People who eat fish. People who drink water from the tap or from a well. Et cetera.
Soy is one of the most genetically modified crops in the United States. If you know much about GMOs, you've probably heard that genetically modified crops and seeds have more chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers) dropped on them than conventional crops (and obviously organic crops.) They are produced to survive a helluva lotta synthetic chemicals. It's their job. (source, source)
Soy just happens to be one of the most genetically modified crops in the U.S. with 94% of soybeans planted in 2016 being genetically modified varieties. (source)
This is obviously a hot-button issue with absolutely polarizing and emotional opinions from so many people, so I don't want to tell you what to think. But if you already don't love the idea of GMOs, don't like the politics behind it, or already know you'd like to stay away from the whole thing but haven't thought about it in terms of candles before, here you go.
For me, it comes down to synthetic chemicals and monocropping. I don't love either, so I buy organic or local whenever I am able. I've never seen an organic soy candle, but if you have let me know. I'd buy that over paraffin any day.
No. 3 | BEESWAX
As the title suggests, beeswax candles are what I prefer and what I use at home and at my massage practice. Here's why.
1. Beeswax candles do not support the fossil fuel industry, you don't have to worry about GMOs (yet), you have more of a variety of candle types, and you have the ability to support local, ethical farmers and artisans.
When I endorse beeswax candles, I am endorsing naturally colored and scented beeswax candles. If you find them scented or colored, they have probably been bleached and deodorized with petrochemicals.
Yes, beeswax costs more than paraffin or soy. As with most things that are better for you or more ethical, the price goes up. The good news? "Beeswax candles last up to three times longer than paraffin wax candles and twice as long as soy candles of the same size." (source)
You really have to watch your source for beeswax candles. As an animal activist could tell you, bees are usually treated terribly not to mention their numbers are decreasing at scary rates due to modern farming practices. The queens are shipped in tiny boxes to the farmer, their wings are clipped so they can't escape the hive, and are killed after a year/season when a new queen brought in, all so the hive does not move away, their natural tendency. (source)
When looking for a good source, local and smaller is usually better. I find my candles at Central Oregon Locavore. Their beeswax candles are made in coastal Washington by Leah and Joshua Paquette of Gathered Sunlight. They are a small, caring business and have a heart for nature, bees, upcycling, and recycling. If you are not local to Central Oregon, I suggest you search your own co-op, natural foods store, or farmers market for a good option. There are many larger producers, more easily found perhaps, and if you cannot find a more local option, they are a great option. Here in the Pacific Northwest you'll see candles by Big Dipper Wax Works out of Seattle. They have a great story and enthusiasm for quality 100% beeswax candles.
As always, this post is meant to inform not to critique. Do not be offended if you have paraffin candles in your home - we all have at some point or another. I work at Whole Foods part time where we sell many candles and none of the options include paraffin wax. I totally understand when people send candles back when they realize how much they are. I've witnessed it. I've had countless people say, "How much are the birthday candles? ...Oh, I'll just get the cheaper ones across the street." I totally get it. We're not made of money.
In my opinion, being informed is never a bad thing. Know the science. Know the stats. Know the facts. Know the opinions. Know enough to know why there's a price jump. Then look into your wallet and make your choice.