Sustainable Ethical Candles

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 byproduct of the industry, became readily available and has largely overtaken the market. I have recently come across articles on the negative impact of parrafin 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

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 but if you’re gifting them make sure the recipient is not vegan. Also consider the source of the beeswax used, imported beeswax will have a much higher carbon foot print than locally sourced wax. 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.
  • 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. 
  • 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

Palm Wax 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 concerns over its role in deforestation of tropical rain forests and the credibility of certification schemes for ‘sustainable palm oil’ it might be one to avoid for now.

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.

It’s worth noting that limonene which is naturally present in citrus fragrances converts to formaldehyde, a know carcinogen, when used indoors.

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!



Published by livinglightlyinireland

I am a reformed interior architect that now campaign for and write about sustainable living in Ireland.

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