Better Burn: Beeswax and Soy Wax Candles

Choose the right candles for a healthy glow.


| November/December 2011



big dipper votives

Big Dipper Wax Works’ beeswax votives are made with cotton wicks.


Photo Courtesy Big Dipper Wax Works

Editor's Note: Since the publication of this article palm oil has been linked to deforestation, human rights violations and is considered a major part of human-induced climate change. For more information please visit the Rainforest Action Network.

From candlelit dinners to the flicker of flames next to the bathtub, candles create a warm glow electric light can’t replicate. But, depending on their makeup, the candles setting the mood in our yoga studios and perfuming our kitchens could be compromising our health.

Most conventional candles are made of paraffin, a petroleum byproduct, and scented with synthetic fragrances, which often contain hormone-disrupting phthalates. According to a  study reported by LEAD Action News, scented paraffin candles emit the same fumes as diesel exhaust—known neurotoxins and carcinogens such as toluene and benzene, and hydrocarbons linked to asthma, allergies, and skin, eye and lung irritation. What’s more, studies have found that the superfine soot emitted by burning candles penetrates deep into the lungs where it can cause irritation and damage. Scented paraffin candles in enclosed containers (such as glass jars) are the worst soot offenders. Finally, although use of lead in candles has mostly been eliminated, some inexpensive imported candle wicks may still contain and emit lead—a bioaccumulative neurotoxin that’s especially dangerous for children. 

Fortunately, several candle options can safely illuminate your space. Pure beeswax candles with cotton wicks (not dipped in paraffin) are a healthy choice. Compared with their petroleum-derived counterparts, beeswax candles burn at a lower temperature, produce less soot and last longer. Find a local source, and you’re supporting local beekeepers, too.

Soy wax candles made with pesticide-free, non-GMO soy are a clean, renewable choice (non-organic soy is a pesticide- and water-intensive, genetically modified crop). Because soy is less firm than paraffin, most soy wax candles come in glass containers. Palm oil candles also burn cleanly, but palm tree plantations are often responsible for the destruction of rainforests, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia.

If you’re looking for scented or colored candles, use extra caution. Choose candles scented with pure essential oils (labels should say 100 percent essential plant oil, not fragrance). Essential oils offer natural scents rather than chemical imitations. Also ask manufacturers about the makeup of candle dyes. Beeswax candles are naturally honey-colored. Some companies offer “naturally dyed” candles, though they often don’t report what the ingredients are. If you want to be absolutely sure your candle doesn’t contain synthetic dyes, it may be best to choose white/undyed. 





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