What is wax anyway?
Ask the science textbook, and you’ll find that wax is a flammable, carbon-containing solid that becomes liquid when heated above room temperatures; in short, it’s the fuel for the candle flame. As the flame gets hot, molten wax is vaporized and combusted—producing heat and light.
Paraffin is the most commonly used candle wax today. Beeswax, soy wax, palm wax, gels, and synthesized waxes are also used in candle-making for the U.S. market, as are blends of waxes. Waxes burn with a yellow flame due to the presence of carbon.
How do they make candle wax?
For most of recorded history candles were tallow (a by-product of beef-fat rendering) and beeswax until the mid 1800s at which point they were made mainly from spermaceti (spurring larger demand for whale oil), and stearin (initially manufactured from animal fats but now produced almost exclusively from palm waxes).
Virtually any kind of oil can be made into a wax; the question is: what is the best one for making candles?
How did they make candles in the Middle Ages?
Middle Ages. Most early Western cultures relied primarily on candles rendered from animal fat (tallow). A major improvement came in the Middle Ages, when beeswax candles were introduced in Europe. Unlike animal-based tallow, beeswax burned pure and cleanly, without producing a smoky flame.
What about candle waxes?
The earliest wax candles are thought to have been created around 5000 BC by the Egyptians, who dipped papyrus reeds in Beeswax (produced by honey bees). Since then, alongside beeswax, a number of other waxes have come to be popular for candle-making, namely: Paraffin Wax (derived directly from petroleum), Palm Wax (derived from palm oil), Soy Wax (derived from soybean oil).
The main factors that led to the usage of these waxes: ease of production, low costs, pleasant aesthetic, good scent properties, and effective burning.
Why don’t we use one of these waxes?
You’ll notice that sustainability did not feature in that list of key candle-wax properties. When we came to sourcing a wax for our candles, we put sustainability on equal footing with other wax properties, and found a frustrating picture.
Paraffin wax may be very low cost and known for its wonderful burning and scent properties, but as a product of the oil industry it is the very definition of unsustainable(the sludge left in the pipes when they are done making gasoline. Paraffin wax, colourless or white, somewhat translucent, hard wax consisting of a mixture of solid straight-chain hydrocarbons ranging in melting point from about 48° to 66° C (120° to 150° F). Paraffin wax is obtained from petroleum by dewaxing light lubricating oil stocks.
Further recent studies, such as this 2009 study by South Carolina State University, have shown that burning paraffin candles indoors can create unhealthy airborne chemicals. So that’s not going to work for us.
Paraffin-based candles emitted toxic chemicals like toluene and benzene. The soot/fumes are similar to that released from a diesel engine and can be as dangerous as second-hand cigarette smoke. This can contribute to serious respiratory issues like asthma.
Palm Wax was initially heralded as the holy grail of the candle industry. With a pleasant, aesthetic, ‘feathered’ effect, and a similar burn quality as that of paraffin, palm wax was once viewed as the sustainable solution to paraffin use. However, a 2009 investigation by the Economist (“The other oil spill”) discovered that, even with the creation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), deforestation practices were rampant and endangering many species of animals as demand for palm wax skyrocketed. Even today, it’s considered almost impossible to source truly sustainable palm oil products. This is why I do not use Palm Candle Wax.