Soy vs. Paraffin; When did candles get so scary?

A few months ago I was inspired to try my hand at candle making and I started doing some research. Initially I just wanted to know how difficult the process might be, the financial investments I would have to make and whether it was something I actually wanted to do or not. I found a lot of tutorials and tips, but I also found a lot of articles and claims that had me sleepless over the many paraffin candles I’ve burned in my lifetime. Okay, so I wasn’t really sleepless over it, but I did hesitate to burn any of the non-soy candles I still had at home.

The claims said that paraffin is basically a chemical nightmare and soy a wax gift from the gods while beeswax is undeniably perfect. So what are the facts? I use soy for the candles that I make and did my best to purchase a wax that would ensure they would be as “clean” as possible. I am loving my soy candles, but wanted to do some detailed research before I started scaring customers with claims that might not be true about other candles . So here is what I’ve found.

Paraffin

I think what worries people, myself included, is that paraffin wax is derived from crude oils (fossil fuels) and is petroleum based. How do they do it? The process begins with a “slack wax” which is a mix of oil and wax, a by product of lubricating oil. The wax is heated, mixed with solvents and then cooled, creating crystallization. The wax crystallizes, leaving behind oil. It’s separated into solid and liquid streams, and after distillation, you are left with a “product wax”. The lower percentage of oil remaining in your paraffin wax, the more refined it is considered to be. It might be processed even further to remove colors and odors.

A lot of companies and candle makers are claiming that paraffin candles create more soot when burning and that’s proof of a problem. But it’s not really about the soot, which I’ll discuss in a minute. The real concern to many is that the paraffin wax can produce emissions of alkans, alkenes and toulene, but claims are that there is such a minimal amount of these chemicals being released while your candle burns, that most people won’t be affected.

Soy

Soybeans are harvested, cleaned, cracked, de-hulled and rolled into flakes. The oil is extracted from the soybeans either by being pressed or by using a solvent. Each company has their own “recipe” which they of course keep hush- hush. The hydrogenation process involves using a hydrogen solution that will convert some of the fatty acids from unsaturated to saturated, meaning it solidifies the oil to create a wax.

The argument against soy being a cleaner option than paraffin is that 90% of soybean crops are affected by GMO’s and grown using pesticides. However, some wax manufacturers process their waxes to further filter out any GMO & GMM materials as well as herbicides and pesticides.

Beeswax

Beeswax is a waxy substance that bees secrete after they consume honey and they use it to create their honeycombs. Once cleaned and filtered it can also be used for candles. Pretty simple no? So here’s the tricky part with finding 100% beeswax candles that might actually be of some benefit to you and your home. “Pure” and 100% are not the same thing; apparently candles labeled as “pure” only need to contain 51% beeswax, and can be mixed with any number of other ingredients. So check labels and sources carefully.

The claims according to many sites I’ve checked are that while burning, beeswax candles emit negative ions, whereas pollen, dust and pollutants all carry positive charges. These positive charges allow the stuff that makes us wheeze and sneeze to stay suspended in the air. So the negative ions from the beeswax candles neutralize them and they are no longer a problem. Many people with allergies claim that burning these candles can lower or even eliminate their symptoms.

Some FAQ’s from the NCA

When everyone is on the defensive about the candles they are making, selling and using, where do we find the facts? Here are some answers from the National Candle Association to a few of the most common concerns that I have found spanning the web. (These are the exact questions and answers without my opinions added in.)

  1. Is paraffin wax toxic? No. Paraffin wax – like all candle waxes – is non-toxic. In fact, paraffin is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in food, cosmetics, and medical applications. Food-grade paraffin is commonly used for manufacturing candles.
  2. Are candles made with “natural” ingredients or essential oils safer? A natural ingredient, as opposed to a manufactured or synthesized ingredient, is not necessarily any safer. In fact, scores of natural ingredients are known to be extremely toxic to humans in very small amounts. NCA members are committed to manufacturing candles that use ingredients known to be safe and approved for use in candles, whether “natural” or synthesized.
  3. (Remember that whole soot issue? Here’s the explanation.)What causes a candle to smoke, and what can I do to correct it? A well-made candle will create virtually no smoke when burning properly. Consumers often incorrectly believe their candles are sooting because of the wax type, fragrance, colorants or additives used in the candle’s formulation, but sooting is primarily due to flame and combustion disturbances. If the wick becomes too long, or an air current disturbs the flame’s teardrop shape, small amounts of unburned carbon particles (soot) will escape from the flame as a visible wisp of smoke. Any candle will soot if the flame is disturbed. To avoid this, always trim the wick to ¼ inch before every use and be sure to place candles away from drafts, vents or air currents. If a candle continually flickers or smokes, it is not burning properly and should be extinguished. Allow the candle to cool, trim the wick, make sure the area is draft free, then re-light.   
  4. Should I be concerned about lead wicks in candles? No.  The likelihood of purchasing a lead-wicked candle in the U.S. is very low. Lead wicks have been officially banned in the United States since 2003, and before then they were primarily limited to inexpensive imported candles. NCA members voluntarily agreed to not use lead wicks in 1974, and long supported the elimination of lead wick use.

So with all of the facts and claims laid out before you, which wax do you choose to burn in your home? Or are you ready to throw up your hands and never burn another candle again? I honestly think it comes down to personal choice and preference, for buyers and makers alike, but I will share my final thoughts and opinions with you on what I will be making and using at home.

I am a big fan of using as natural as possible ingredients and items in my every day life and shrinking my carbon footprint as much as possible. I’m by no means perfect, but I do my best day by day. So for those reasons, paraffin is out for me. I really don’t want to contribute to fossil fuel consumption any more than I already do for the sake of candle burning, and I really don’t love the idea that my candles could be emitting toxins into the air, no matter how minor.

I love how well my soy candles have been burning and the fragrance from them is lovely. But beyond that, they burn cool and spills are so easy to clean up. A big plus when you have kids, pets, or tend to be a bit clumsy at times. Also, I am all about supporting our farmers and local growers and soybeans have that in their corner for my vote. Over 80% of soybeans are grown in the US. Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota being the leading states in cultivation.

I have purchased and burned small beeswax candles, and I really enjoyed how clean they burned with minimal and super easy clean up. Again, I love using items that are as close to nature as possible when I can, and it doesn’t get much closer than beeswax. As far as the claims to eliminating pollen and dust and cleansing the air, I will put that to the test this Spring when my daughter and I start getting the sneezes.

The biggest thing I’ve learned through this research is that, as always, it is really important that you know where stuff is coming from. Lead wicks have been banned in the US, but do you really know what’s in those cheap dollar store candles? If you’re really looking for authentic and quality products you may need to spend a few dollars more than you would at a big box store. And a tip on that note: shopping with local makers and artisans will give you a chance to ask the questions that are important to you. Happy burning!

 

 

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