Candle conundrums

Along with yoga, candles seem to offer a ready solution to the pressures of modern life. They promise a quick mood change: workaday to romantic, harried to harmony.

But navigating the world of candles, and making sure that you aren’t creating more problems than you are solving, can be tricky.

In the good (?) old days, candles were made of paraffin wax (unless you happened to keep bees as a hobby). Indeed, as a kid I spent many hours creating various shaped and perfumed candles from paraffin wax for my poor, long-suffering mother.

But, as you all no doubt know, paraffin is a waste product from the oil industry and is really no good for us at all. It burns `dirty’, leaving black soot and possibly formaldehyde and benzene in your house and your air. Perfumed paraffin candles are the worst: more oily, more toxic and more sooty (not to mention the cloying chemical fragrance).

What is more, cheap candles often contain lead in their wicks. The lead is supposed to help them burn more evenly. Unsurprisingly, this is not at all good for you, especially if you are young or pregnant.

For reasons known only to itself, and its dwindling number of staff scientists, Health Canada has not banned lead in candles. It does, though, offer advice about how to spot the toxin. Just untwine that wick a bit (hope the candle is not shrink-wrapped), see if there is a metallic core and, if so, rub it against a piece of paper. A grey mark indicates lead. Simple!

[A concern-assuaging aside here: Ikea candles (who hasn't bought those big bags of tea lights?) do not contain lead, though most are made from paraffin wax.]

If you want to eschew paraffin, there are three options: palm wax, soy wax and beeswax. All are marketed as eco alternatives, which is a tad misleading, to say the least.

Palm plantations in south east Asia are notorious for causing deforestation and habitat loss (see my posting on lipstick). And bringing the raw materials for candles half way across the world is not a green solution.

Soy, by contrast, can be grown domestically. But this is not always the case. If soy wax is imported from Latin America, the problems of deforestation can be just as acute as with palm oil.

Soy candles are cleaner and longer burning than paraffin wax, drips can be cleaned up with soap and water and works well with perfumes. But, on the negative side, much soy is genetically modified (doesn’t bother me hugely: others feel strongly about this) and its cultivation tends to involve lots of pesticides and insecticides as well as causing soil degradation.

Soy candles are also very soft and have a low melting point. They may go rancid and cannot be made into tapers or pillars (unless adulterated, and the suspicion is that much soy wax is, indeed, adulterated). Lastly, the wax yield of soy is low, around 10 times lower than that of palm, so you need much more land to grow the soy, to make the wax, to pour the candle, to make you relax. Not ideal.

If you do want to go the soy route, be sure to choose a local maker – In Canada there are several options including Pine Creek Hollow (Ontario) Willow Tree (Saskatchewan) or Natura (Alberta) – and ask where their soy comes from.

Last, but by no means least, there is beeswax, the longest burning and most natural wax. Fans claim it smells of honey. As an apiarist’s daughter (yes, bees as well as pigs), I think beeswax candles smell of beeswax. That is a lovely, heady smell, richer than honey, by far. The wax is usually yellow, varying with the residual impurities from honey extraction, but can become almost white when fine-filtered.

The main concern about beeswax is the price (typically high…see this post on why there is no such thing as cheap beeswax).

Bees don’t seem to mind having their wax taken away, despite the effort they put into making it. (For a fascinating description of how this miracle happens, see here.) But it does take approximately 6-8 lbs of honey to sustain a bee to make a pound of wax. This is is why beekeepers often leave the wax cells (having sliced off the top and extracted the honey) so the bees can reuse, rather than rebuild their honeycomb from year to year. This maximizes honey yield. Breeding cells are now melted down more often than they used to be due to high levels of disease amongst bees and a desire to keep everything clean, according to my father (thanks, Dad!).

Anyway, as you can see, I could go on about bees and wax, as well as pesticide use and the nightmare of bee colony collapse, forever. But I will stop.

For a good summary of the merits of different types of wax, see this site, which also sells nice beeswax candles. And if you are addicted to tea lights, remember that the aluminum holders are readily recyclable. Or if you choose the plastic ones, you can reuse them with cup-less tea light refills.


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