Candles do more than produce light; they are lit for celebration, ritual, fragrance and romance, all reasons why consumers are buying up votives, pillars and tapers in record numbers. In 2002, U.S. candle sales reached $2.3 billion, up by more than 10 percent from the past year, according to the American Candle Association.
What does a naturals retailer need to know about candles? They seem harmless enough, a simple wax with a cloth wick. But throughout the years, candles have been made with not-so-healthy materials, including tallow and lead, which can fill a room with noxious fumes and scar walls with soot. Today, natural candle manufacturers are discovering ways to create bright- and long-burning candles with nontoxic materials.
What’s In A Wax
Humans have been searching for the ideal candle medium for about as long as they’ve been using fire. Early candles were simply tallow—animal fat—with a piece of cloth for a wick. Later innovations included spermaceti oil from whales, bayberry wax and beeswax. When paraffin was introduced in the late 19th century, it revolutionized the candle industry. The petroleum byproduct produces odorless, long-burning candles at a fraction of the cost of other materials.
Whether or not paraffin is a healthy candle wax is a matter of debate. Some people question whether a gasoline byproduct and a nonrenewable resource should be on naturals shelves. Others say highly refined paraffin burns cleanly and, when combined with other healthy materials, is an affordable option for quality natural candles.
“We use paraffin because we are a candle company and it’s a great wax,” says Dave Cacciamani, vice president of Morrisville, Vt.-based Way Out Wax. Its pillar candles contain food-grade, 100 percent biodegradable paraffin, beeswax, vegetable wax and hemp seed oil. “We’ve been researching for over six years now to get a good paraffin-free pillar and not had anything that’s come close to satisfactory for us in terms of appearance and burn quality,” he says.
Paraffin-free pillar candles can even be dangerous, Cacciamani says. “Without paraffin, a pillar candle can be brittle and get fractures, increasing oxygen to the flame and causing a blowout where wax can go everywhere and be a fire hazard.”
Many naturals companies make paraffin-free container candles because consistency is not an issue. Way Out’s container candles are primarily soy along with other vegetable waxes. The container candles come with lids for easy transport and are scented with pure essential oils.
For some manufacturers, paraffin is not a wax option. “Paraffin is carcinogenic,” says Tami Bazies, owner of Portland, Ore.-based Greenspace Candles, which makes 100 percent paraffin-free container candles. “It creates a lot of petrocarbon soot, which is ugly and can damage furniture and wall paint.” She says the company does not offer pillar candles because soy wax doesn’t work well enough in the stand-alone form.