Pinpoints of light shining out from the blackness of early nights is one of my favourite sights during winter. There is something primeval about the need to illuminate our environs, it lifts the spirit and is a great source of joy for me. Nowadays such a vision is typically created with fairy lights but we’ve been creating the same effect for centuries prior with the humble candle.
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Candles were traditional made with animal fat or beeswax but when the oil industry began paraffin wax, a by-product of the industry, became readily available and has largely overtaken the market. I have recently come across articles on the negative impact of paraffin wax based candles on indoor air quality. A presentation given to the American Chemical Society Symposium in 2009 suggested that paraffin based candles may be releases harmful amounts of indoor pollutants into the atmosphere. I’ve seen the press release about this presentation reported over and over again online, particularly in the ‘green news’ sphere but can’t find a link to the full report, which is concerning. I did find a very well written response to the report from the American National Candle Association, which mentions that the research hadn’t been peer-reviewed. Scientific research is built on general consensus and this is done by way of peer review. It’s a simple but effective mechanism to prevent quackery gaining credence. If this research has yet to be peer-reviewed I would suggest taking its findings with a pinch of salt.
That said, burning anything releases particles into the atmosphere a study led by scientists at Copenhagen University conducted on mice found that exposure to particles from burning candles causes greater damage than the same dose of diesel exhaust fumes (source: study cited in article mentioned on website livelovefruit.com).
Candles are made from 2-3 main ingredients, the wax, the wick and sometimes the fragrance. In addition to these ingredients chemicals can be added to increase fragrance retention, burn rate, solidity. It’s very important to know what additives, if any, have been added to the candles you buy.
Paraffin wax (sometimes called mineral wax) is what’s used in most run-of-the-mill candles. As paraffin is a by-product, i.e. form of waste, of the oil industry some consider it to be ‘greener’ than other forms of wax but its said to burn quite quickly which would reduce its sustainability factor.
Beeswax is the most traditional material used to make candles and may people love its warm natural smell when burned. I’ve read some claims that burning beeswax candles produces negative ions, which are good for your health, but despite extensive searching I have yet to find any study that confirms this to be true. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a pleasant candle all the same. When buying beeswax candles, consider the source of the beeswax. Imported beeswax will have a much higher carbon foot print than locally sourced wax. Also if buying it for a gift make sure the recipient isn’t vegan. Here are some Irish makers of beeswax candles
- Clare based Herbs and Candles are made by hand with organic herbs and locally sourced beeswax. Their products are also zero waste and plastic free.
- Brookfield Farm make candles from wax from bees on their own farm in Tipperary. They tell me they’re plastic-free too.
- Waterford based Trish’s Honey Products make candles from wax from their own hives and other Irish beekeepers.
- Leitrim based Beeswax Candles make candles from beeswax without chemicals and sell them through stores nationwide. Unfortunately they don’t quote the source of their beeswax on their website.
- Meath based Warm Candle is another maker of 100% pure beeswax candles and you can buy their candles from their website.
- Wicklow fragrances make candles from 100% pure raw Irish beeswax and organic hemp wicks.
- We Make Good sell gorgeous egg and pear shaped beeswax candles (plus taper styles) made by Camphill Community in Dunshane, an organisation that supports people with intellectual disabilities to reach their potential through traditional crafts and community.
- UK based Aerende retails beeswax candles made by by residents at Camphill Community’s Botton Village, who have learning disabilities.
Soy wax has become popular in recent years particularly for vegans but as with most things soy crops aren’t always sustainably grown and are currently a huge contributor to deforestation around the world. Certified sustainable soy is available in the US but even with that imported wax is going to have a higher carbon footprint than locally sourced alternatives. Also most soy crops are genetically modified (GM), which may be an issue for people opposed to such practices. I’ve also read that soy candles are frequently mixed with palm oil to make it firmer or chemicals to make it retain fragrance better so check before you buy. There are tonnes of artisan makers of soy wax candles and if you throw a stone at any craft fair this Christmas you’re bound to hit half a dozen. When buying soy candles ask if
- they’re palm oil free,
- if the soy was certified as being grown sustainably,
- if genetically modified seeds were used (if that’s of concern to you)
- if use synthetic or natural fragrances have been used and
- which additives have been added to the wax or candle during manufacture.
Rapeseed wax is a relatively newcomer to the market and being grown in the UK / EU has much lower carbon footprint than imported alternatives. As well as being natural and animal-free, it is also GM-free crop, unlike soy. I found two suppliers of rapeseed candles
- Killarney Candle Makers use rapeseed oil grown on their own farm to make their candles in Ireland
- Celtic Candles do a blended candle
Palm Wax/Oil is a recent entry into the market. It’s often blended with soy wax to make it more solid. I have heard that ‘organic plant-based wax’ on sale is palm wax so check before you buy. Being imported this product will most likely have a higher carbon footprint than locally made waxes and their are concerns over the credibility of certification schemes for ‘sustainable palm oil’.
One Irish company offering vegan and cruelty free candles made from RSPO certified palm oil are FieldDay based in Co Down. Their cartons are printed with vegetable inks on PEFC board from sustainable, responsibly managed forests and their plastic bottles are made from recycled plastics. They also support the charity Ulster Wildlife.
Blended Wax has started to pop up from a few companies, including;
- Celtic Candles, who make candles from a blend of soy, palm and rapeseed, fragranced with natural oils and in a recycled jar with a recycled wooden lid.
- pyFU, who make vegan candles from GM-free sustainably sourced soy, rapeseed, and coconut, that come in a brown glass jar with a metal lid inside a cardboard box. They also use plastic-free recycled-cardboard packaging for orders.
Recycled Wax is another new development on the candle scene and to be honest I only know of one company using it, the aptly known The Recycled Candle Co in the UK. They collect used candles from restaurants and businesses local to them and melt, clean, colour and scent to make new candles
Wicks can be made from timber or waxed cotton. The less expensive candles can have wire inserts in them which some fear leads to noxious chemicals in the air. If you do opt for candles with wooden wicks make sure they’re certified as sustainable, i.e. FSC certified.
Fragrances in candles can be synthetic or natural. It’s up to you which you prefer but it seems strange to me that people would purposely choose to fill their home with air-borne chemicals when we’re looking at a cancer rate of 1 in 6 in Ireland. Still each to their own.
Candles in containers are becoming increasingly popular in recent years, particularly with the move away from the more rigid paraffin wax candles to softer soy or rapeseed wax candles. The production and disposal of these containers need to be considered when buying candles. Sure a lovely ceramic pot can be reused but by whom? If you don’t actually need another ceramic pot or can’t send the container back to the candle maker for reuse then buying a candle in one is not the most sustainable option.
If you do opt for perfumed candles it’s worth making sure that the country of origin for the candles or the fragrance don’t support animal testing. This excludes all candles from china where testing of cosmetics on animals is required by law!
Ps – You might also like this article on Toxin-free Home Fragrances