Decode the different types of candle waxes with our handy guide. Learn about what wax is, the history of candle making, which burns best and more! As you know, honesty & transparency is at the heart of what we do at Rowbert, so here's a no frills, unbiased overview of the different types of candle waxes, including their benefits and pitfalls.
What is candle wax?
The wax is essentially a candle’s fuel. For a candle to burn, the wick needs fuel, which comes when the candle wick is lit, which melts the wax. The wick then absorbs the liquefied wax, which enables the flame to stay lit. The flame provides sufficient heat to sustain the candle as it burns, causing the wax to continuously melt, keeping the fuel running and the candle lit.
The history of candle wax
Romans were the first recorded creators of candles, used to worship the birth of the goddess Artemis on the 6th day of each lunar month. They made dipped candles, which were made from tallow, a rendered form of animal fat that is solid at room temperature.
Beeswax candles were also around in the Middle Ages, which compared to tallow, would burn cleaner and without a smoky flame. However, they were expensive and very few people could afford them in their homes, so they were most commonly found in churches.
Moving into the 18th/19th century, candle wax was made from spermaceti, an oil that comes from a cavity in the head of the sperm whale. Due to the increase in whaling, and the sheer volume attainable, spermaceti was the first candle wax substance to be available in mass quantities. It was in the late 18th century that paraffin properly came onto the scene, more on this later. Paraffin was used to make inexpensive candles of high quality. It burned cleanly, and left no unpleasant odour, unlike tallow candles. The only drawback was the burn time. Paraffin, in its solo state burns extremely quickly due to the very low melting point. This was soon solved by the introduction of stearin, a compound derived from animals fats and tropical plants like palm, which acts as a hardening agent, increasing the burn time.
Modern candle wax
With the ever-increasing focus on sustainability and natural sources, we now have lots of new options available for candle wax that we didn’t before. Soy, rapeseed & coconut have joined beeswax and paraffin as the main players in today’s candle making society.
Let’s take a deeper look at each wax...
This is what we use for Rowbert candles! Soy wax is still relatively new to the field, only invented in 1996. It’s a form of vegetable wax derived from soybean oil. To get to the oil, soybeans are harvested then cleaned, dehulled, cracked, and rolled into flakes. The oil is then extracted from these flakes and hydrogenated, a process where the unsaturated fatty acids present in the oil are saturated. This alters the oil’s melting point, making it solidify at room temperature and ready for candle making.
Many newer candle brands choose to work with soy wax because it’s considered more environmentally friendly compared to traditional paraffin wax. It burns slower, so your candle lasts longer and burns cleaner as it emits less soot. It’s also got good sustainability credentials as soy beans are natural, renewable and biodegradable.
However, as with anything there are some downsides to soy wax. Soy wax candles generally have a subtler scent throw as soy wax doesn’t hold as much fragrance. Environmentally speaking, while it’s a better choice compared to paraffin wax there are also fears about in the increasing popularity of soy wax resulting in deforestation, and the use of pesticides and fertilisers used to grow soy beans.
Paraffin wax, also known as Mineral Wax, is a very popular candle wax used by many high street brands today as it holds a lot of fragrance and has a strong scent throw. So if you like your scented candle to pack a punch, this could be the one for you.
Paraffin is a byproduct of petroleum, more commonly known as crude oil. Crude oil is a fossil fuel and produces massive amounts of energy when combusted. Paraffin is made from the remnants of this process, which would otherwise go to waste. However, crude oil isn't renewable and is therefore highly unsustainable.
There have been many claims that paraffin emits highly toxic chemicals, even cancer causing carcinogenics when it's burnt. However this study by the South Carolina State University is heavily refuted by the European Candle Association particularly because it has not been published in a scientific journal. After reading a lot of studies, on either side of this topic, our sense is that paraffin candles are likely not a significant health hazard; that you would need to burn a lot of paraffin candles for them to cause you serious concern. But since paraffin wax has so many substitutes, there’s little need to use it.
Beeswax has been around the longest and has so many uses today including furniture polish, cosmetics, beard wax and more recently beeswax wraps which are an eco-friendly alternative to cling film.
Beeswax is formed by worker bees, which secrete it from glands in their abdomen. Freshly secreted wax is actually completely colourless. The dark yellow tone comes from frequent contact with pollen that the bees collect to make honey.
You don't often find candles that are made purely from beeswax, as it has a distinctive honey aroma that can sometimes interfere with a candle's scent. Plus, it's a very hard wax that struggles to burn without tunnelling so isn't favourable for container candles, but better suited for pillar candles. It is usually used as a natural additive to softer wax such as coconut or soy, to help the candle retain more fragrance. However, many candle brands today are choosing not to add beeswax as they prefer to offer a vegan product.
Beeswax has been popular for century's as it burns super clean, with hardly any smoke or soot. There are also claims that beeswax can actually purify the air, due to the negative ions it releases when burning. Things such as dust, spores and other air pollutants usually have a positive charge, so when they're met with a negative charge they become too heavy to remain airborne. They usually then fall to the floor where they're less likely to be breathed in, and then they're cleaned up.
Coconut wax is the new kid on the block. Produced by pressing the oil out of the coconut meat, it is then filtered and cleaned, leaving 100% natural and biodegradable coconut wax.
It's more expensive but the benefits are definitely worth it. Coconut wax has an exceptional hot and cold throw and burns super clean. There's also bonus eco-points as harvesting the oil is an organic process with coconuts themselves being a sustainable high yield crop.
However, when it comes to candle making coconut wax is very soft and therefore cannot hold a large amount of scented oils. It usually needs aid in the form of rapeseed or beeswax to harden it up. As with other cash crops like bananas and coffee, there are also concerns about the wages farmers are paid, and getting transparent information about the fair trade background of coconut wax origins can be difficult.
Rapeseed, also known as Canola Wax, is also a relatively new wax on the candle scene. The wax comes from the oil that is pressed after harvesting the plant. It has a great hot throw, excellent fragrance retention and brilliant burn times.
As with coconut wax, it has good eco-credentials as it's sustainable, biodegradable and there's no GMO or pesticides needed to aid the growth of rapeseed. Plus, it's becoming a more popular choice over soy wax, especially in the UK, as it can be grown and harvested locally, reducing our carbon footprint.
So there you have it! Who knew there was so much to know on candle waxes? I learned so much writing this blog so I'm definitely sure you did too. Got thoughts? Do let me know what you think!