There’s just something about the
flicker of real candlelight that warms the very soul and
magically transforms an ordinary space like no other.
I suppose it’s because candles connect us to an ancient and
primal need within humans; the quintessential quest for
fire…after all, fire represents warmth, shelter, protection,
light, comfort and food. Maybe that’s why candle sales
account for about 2 billion dollars in the U.S. every year, with
7 out of every 10 American homes using and buying candles on a
The Evolution of Candles
Non-wicked candles have been used in some form or
another for approximately 5,000 years, from the crudest of
materials—such as candlefish, which are so high in oil content,
the dried carcass could be mounted on a stick or piece of bark
and lit on fire, and would burn from end to end just like a
candle—to slightly more sophisticated versions including strips
of dried papyrus dipped in animal or vegetable fats. It is
generally believed that candles as we now know them, with a
plant fiber wick of some sort running through the center of a
formed hunk of wax or fat, were developed by the ancient Romans
sometime before 3,000 B.C. Originally, candles were purely
a utilitarian necessity, serving the purpose of providing light
within the home or lighting the way for travelers, but they also
took on a certain mystique, playing a central role in sacred
rituals for spiritual and religious ceremonies spanning multiple
cultures and continents. The Jewish Festival of Lights (or
Hanukkah), for instance, centers upon the lighting of candles,
and dates back to 165 B.C.; there are also numerous references
to candles in the Bible, and Constantine is reported to have
used candles in Easter services back in the 4th century.
Typically, candles were fashioned from available household
materials, most often leftover tallow and animal fat, which when
burned, produced foul, acrid smoke and soot. It was not
until the Middle Ages that beeswax was discovered to be a viable
alternative to candles made with animal fat, and with its sweet
scent and clean burn, beeswax became the preferred candle
material among Christian churches. To this day, only pure
beeswax candles may be burned at certain services in the
During different points in history, somewhat lesser
known wax alternatives such as those obtained from bayberry
bushes and palm fruit passed in and out of favor, but the most
notable changes to the craft and trade of candlemaking (or
chandlery; a chandler is a candle maker), arrived around the
18th century, with the use of spermaceti wax, obtained from the
blubber of whales during the height of the whaling industry.
Around this same time, a method of extracting and refining a
waxy heavy hydrocarbon substance from crude oil was developed,
and with paraffin, the modern candle was born. Paraffin,
at the time, seemed to be the answer to candle making; it burned
relatively clean as compared to candles made from animal fats,
and was cheap to produce, coming from a seemingly endless
resource, petroleum. As the whaling industry finally
declined, paraffin replaced spermaceti candles, and enjoyed a
150 year long reign. However, after the discovery of the
electric light bulb in the late 1800s, the candle itself lost
favor, and as power lines criss-crossed the countryside, candles
were relegated to mere backup sources of light. It was not
until a full century later that the candle experienced an
incredible revival, becoming a favored symbol for romance,
celebration, elegance and especially, for home décor.
Today, one can find candles in an infinite variety of
shapes, colors, scents and sizes. Pillars, tapers,
votives, tea lights, container candles, floating candles,
candles with multiple wicks, gel candles, painted candles,
carved candles, candles shaped like fruit or food or figurines;
if you can dream it, there’s a candle for it. Candles
bring beauty and glamour to any occasion, but what most people
do not realize is the ugly truth hidden behind the magic; modern
paraffin candles contain harmful, carcinogenic (meaning, causing
cancer) chemicals and contaminants that are vaporized and
released into our homes and directly into our lungs every time
we burn them.
Aside from being a non-renewable by-product of
petroleum, paraffin wax itself is actually not an ideal candle
medium. It is soft, very pliable and burns at a relatively
low melting point, making it prone to losing its shape. It
is only with modification by other petrochemicals and solvents
such as copolymers, microcrystalline wax and polyethylene that
the ideal properties are achieved, and which are probably
relatively inert as long as, ironically, the candle is never
burned. Upon lighting a candle, however, the wax becomes a
liquefied hazardous fuel which is then only partially consumed
by the flame at the end of a wick. The remaining unburned
additives are vaporized and unleashed into the air of the
surrounding environment, and those compounds which are not
immediately breathed in by nearby inhabitants then settle into
fabrics, textiles, onto walls, into heating ducts and other
surfaces in the form of soot. This soot, according to the
American Lung Association, contains 11 documented toxins, two of
which are known carcinogens—toluene and benzene.
Furthermore, the actual colorants and synthetic fragrances used
to make most candles more appealing are also made from
petrochemicals, coal tars and synthetic chemicals that create
even more contaminants in the air.
Pretty scary stuff, I know. But don’t give up
your candle habit just yet. The good news is that there
are wonderful, natural, healthier and greener alternatives out
there, and I’m going to break down the options for you, so that
you can make more informed purchasing and candle burning
The Break Down: What is a Candle?
Essentially, a candle consists of only two parts: Wax
(the fuel) and Wick (an absorbent string of plant fiber).
Yet the art and science of making these two aspects work in
perfect harmony to create a controlled and predictable
consumption of energy (flame) is where all the magic really
happens. There is a delicate balance, a beautifully
choreographed dance, all orchestrated by the chandler, who must
create the optimum delivery of fuel to flame. Too small a
wick to too much wax results in a drowned wick, while too large
a wick to too small a candle diameter will wreak smoky, sooty
havoc, no matter how clean the wax or fuel. Other factors,
such as added color and scent, also affect a candle.
Despite what most home candle making kits would lead us to
believe, merely dipping a bit of random wicking into wax will
produce a candle by the strictest definition of the word, but to
have it burn properly and efficiently is the challenge.
Though a candle, in the strictest sense of the word, can be as
uncomplicated as a fish on a stick, the art of and science of
making modern candles is a truly complex and fascinating craft
due to the seemingly limitless options considering the
simplicity of their components. Which wax to use?
How large a wick? What type? And will the candle be
scented? Will it be colored? Every single variation
changes the dynamics of the whole.
Waxing Poetic: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral
Which wax to choose? Waxes can be derived from
animal fats, plants and even minerals. The most readily
available wax is paraffin, which of course is a petroleum
byproduct and is neither renewable nor sustainable.
Therefore, if you care about the health of people and our
planet, you’ll want to choose a wax that is sustainable,
renewable, and burns cleanly. And this narrows the choices
Beeswax: The purest, cleanest candles are made from
beeswax, period. Beeswax requires no refinement or
modification other than simple filtering, and is a renewable
resource as long as we still have bees around. Natural
beeswax is golden in color and emits a gentle, sweet, honey-like
scent. There are refined, de-scented and bleached versions
of beeswax for those who wish to color and add their own scents
to candles, but I feel that this defeats the purpose of using
beeswax. If you decide to go with beeswax candles, be
aware that beeswax is somewhat costly, and certified organic
beeswax is very expensive and can be hard to come by, though it
is the only option to have a truly organic candle at this time.
Beeswax is a semi hard, long-burning, high-temperature wax which
complements nearly any décor and occasion. When purchasing
beeswax candles, look for rich, golden color and for the
characteristic honey scent. Be aware that beeswax is not
considered vegan; bees are not necessarily harmed or killed in
order to obtain the wax, but most strict vegans eschew the use
of any byproduct of animals or insects.
Bayberry: Bayberry wax can be obtained by boiling the
leaves of the bayberry bush, and actually enjoyed a brief period
of popularity in candlemaking during the colonial era in the New
World. Bayberry wax is a totally natural, clean burning,
vegan, hard wax from a renewable resource and bears a wonderful
semi-sweet, eucalyptus-like scent, but it is difficult to
extract and consequently very expensive due to the small amount
of wax yielded in processing, limiting its commercial viability.
Therefore, bayberry candles are usually made by small artisans
and handcrafters, especially in the New England region.
Bayberry wax is grayish green in color and, because of its
natural aroma, limits scent and coloring options in candles.
Palm: Palm wax comes from the fruit (coconuts) of the oil
palm and is a naturally derived (though refined), vegan, hard
wax from a technically renewable resource, however—and this is a
big however—the wax comes at a high environmental cost due to
commercial plantations of oil palms being planted after the
clearing of vital and irreplaceable rainforests of Southeast
Asia. If you choose to use palm wax candles, try to make
sure they are made from certified organic and fair trade crops,
which are usually grown responsibly and sustainably upon
established plantations, rather than freshly cleared tracts of
Soy Wax: And now we come to my personal vegetable wax
favorite. Soy wax is arguably the greatest innovation to
come to candlemaking in the last two centuries. Although
this wax is not naturally occurring and requires some processing
with human help, its commercial viability and relatively low
environmental impact far outweigh any drawbacks. Soy wax
is a vegan, clean burning, non-toxic wax created from
hydrogenated soybean oil, and sometimes is blended with other
natural vegetable waxes and oils, depending on the manufacturer.
It accepts color and scent well, burns at low temperatures and
has the added benefit of being biodegradable. Most soy wax
is so inert, technically, we could eat it, though of course this
is not recommended. If there’s an accidental spill of wax
from a soy candle, cleanup is a mere matter of hot water and
soap. It is important to note that, though soy wax can be
made from certified organic soybean oil, the process of
hydrogenation disqualifies the finished soy wax product for
organic certification, so despite claims made otherwise, there
is currently no such thing as certified organic soy wax candles.
The soy wax we use at WoodSprite is made from non-GMO
(Genetically Modified Organisms) soybean oil and is grown
without pesticides or herbicides right here in the good ol’ USA,
so it supports our farmers and also requires less energy in
To the uninitiated, a wick seems like a fairly
straightforward device in the form of a simple bit of string,
but modern wicking is available in a staggering variety of
materials, styles and forms with a different purpose for each.
For those looking for a healthy, greener wick, however, the best
choices are unbleached cotton or hemp.
Cotton: Ordinary cotton is the most common wick material,
because it is soft, absorbent and abundantly available. However,
cotton is also one of the more heavily polluting conventional
crops in the world, requiring tons and tons of chemical
fertilizers and pesticides each year. Furthermore, the process
of bleaching the cotton adds more pollution to our fresh water
lakes, rivers and streams. Happily, unbleached cotton
wicking is becoming more widely available, though certified
organic cotton wicking, which uses fewer or no chemicals in the
agricultural process, is so far, difficult if not impossible to
find. Hopefully, as the demand for certified organic crops
continues to increase, an organic cotton wick will soon become
more widely available. In the meantime, when looking for
cleaner candles, be sure that the wicking material is at least
made from unbleached cotton.
Hemp: Sustainable, strong, versatile and quickly
renewable, hemp fiber is a wonderful alternative in fabrics,
textiles and even wicks. However, the range and
availability of hemp wicking choices is still rather limited,
and I find that the quality is not as consistent as with
unbleached cotton wicks. As hemp is recognized for its
superiority and becomes more widely commercially available, I
think we’ll see more candles using hemp wicks in the future.
Some wicks are braided around a stiff strand of metal
or fiber, called a core, especially in container or votive
candles where the larger pool of liquefied wax is prone to
pulling over and drowning the flame. Many of you may
remember hearing about the dangers of lead core wicks in candles
several years ago due to the health hazards associated with
burning them, so most large candle companies moved to zinc or
paper core wicks. While burning zinc core wicks is less
hazardous than those made with lead, I personally believe that
any vaporized heavy metal is probably not a good idea to breathe
in, so for me the only choice, if you’re going to use a cored
wick, are those made with a paper core.
A more recent addition, and my personal preference, is
the coreless wick. These consist of cotton fiber braided
with a fine strand of stiffer fiber (usually kraft paper) which
gives the wick structure and rigidity while at the same time
reducing carbon buildup (known as “mushrooming”) on the flame
tip. These coreless wicks can be used in either container,
votive or pillar candles.
Making Good Scents
The popularity of scented candles and more recently,
“aromatherapy” candles, has been a huge boon to the candle
industry. Not only do we want our candles to light up our
living spaces and special occasions, but the connection between
memory and scent makes candles the perfect way to evoke a
desired mood or feeling, or simply to make our homes smell good.
However, what few people know is that most scented candles are
made from synthetic complex aromatic compounds derived from
harmful, sometimes carcinogenic chemicals—some just as hazardous
and toxic as those released when burning paraffin. Furthermore,
the term “aromatherapy” has been so widely misused and abused,
even fewer consumers have any understanding of what it actually
I could easily write an entire book on aromatherapy—and
many others already have—but the most important point to know is
that the practice and use of aromatherapy is not, in fact, only
about aroma (admittedly, the term itself is a part of the
problem). Aromatherapy makes use of the living, healing
essences of real plants (in the form of flower, fruit, root,
bark or stem), mostly from herbs, in order to heal, support and
mend the body through physiological means. These living
essences are extracts called Essential Oils, which is another
misnomer because these so-called oils are actually more similar
to alcohol (which is also distilled). These Essential Oils
are fragrant, but they are more than just fragrance—carrying
with them all the healing properties of the plants from which
they are obtained. Lavender, often used for its clean and
calming scent for the mood, is actually also incredibly calming
for upset skin, assisting in speedier recovery from traumas such
as burns or scrapes, as well as other wounds. When we burn
a candle which is infused with true lavender essential oil, the
aromatic aspects as well as the healing chemicals of the
lavender plant are released into the air around us, and as we
take in its essence through our lungs, upon our skin, into our
homes, we are allowing those healing properties to infuse our
own bodies. A synthetic replica cannot do this.
Synthetic fragrance oils are chemical aromatic compounds which
attempt to mimic the scent of lavender (but can never truly
duplicate), but fragrance oils contain none of the other healing
properties of lavender. So often, unwitting consumers who
buy a scented candle looking for its aromatherapeutic benefits,
instead receive a dose of heavy chemicals which not only do not
heal, but actually can harm.
When looking for natural scented candles, always make
sure to look for the term “100% Pure Essential Oils” on the
label and be aware that these will likely cost more than their
chemical candle counterparts. If a manufacturer is using
real Essential Oils, they will be proud to state that fact.
If a label says “fragrance” anywhere on the label, it is most
One last note on candle scents: Look out for candles
being marketed as “triple scented” or other such claims.
Because the amount of scent needed to fragrance any given candle
varies so widely depending on multiple factors, there is no such
thing as a standard scent ratio or amount—it is ultimately just
a matter of preference from one candlemaker to the next.
Terms like “triple scented” are meaningless.
Another very common factor I see people overlook when
considering a natural candle is colorants. Currently,
there are no commercially available, totally natural candle
colorants on the market, anywhere. So, even if you find a candle
that is made of beeswax or soy wax, and it has an unbleached,
non-metal wick, and it is scented with pure essential oils, if
it is a bright lavender color, you may want to keep looking.
That bright color can only come from chemical dyes obtained from
coal tars and petroleum distillates, which again, include a
number of contaminants which are vaporized and released into the
air around you when the candle is burned.
It is possible to color candles by using some natural
plants, such as spices and herbs, however, the colors achieved
are generally rather earthy in tone (not bright lavender) and
often fade quickly when exposed to daylight. Some
essential oils contain a bit of natural color—for instance,
Patchouli is a lovely, dark brown, and Sweet Orange is a
gorgeous gold—and while I can appreciate the appeal of a bright,
rich colored candle, I’ve come to truly love the muted pastel
hues that our soy candles take on just from the pure essential
oils we use to scent them.
Finally, I’d just like to take a moment to cover the
most standard candle types because it’s a question I’ve been
asked many times over my 10 years of candlemaking.
Pillars: Pillar candles are molded or sometime rolled
from sheets of a harder wax because they are intended to stand
alone and support themselves as they burn down. Pillars should
always be burned on a heat-safe candle plate, but require no
further containers or holders.
Tapers: Beautiful, elegant tapers may be dipped or
molded, but because of their tall, narrow profile they need to
be burned in taper holders.
Votives: Votives seem to cause the most confusion in the
candle world, because they resemble pillars in that they are a
molded, yet they are not a standalone candle. Votives
should actually be thought of as a container candle or container
refill, because they are designed to liquefy to the edges of the
container in which they are held, taking on the shape of that
container. Votives are most efficiently burned in a snugly
fitted votive holder or cup which is slightly wider at the top
than the bottom, as this will ensure that every bit of wax is
consumed and you’ll get the most burn time from your candle.
Containers: Container candles are typically made from a
softer wax that is intended to adhere well to the inside of the
vessel into which it is directly poured, and like a votive,
should create a large liquefied pool of wax fully to the edges
of its container.
Tea Lights: Tea lights are also a form of container
candle, and like a votive, though they are often molded, must be
held within a cup or holder to contain the liquefied wax.
No matter which candle you choose, of course, always,
always, always enjoy your candles with safety in mind—never
leave a burning candle unattended, keep them away from
flammables such as drapery, and out of the reach of children or
pets. Remember to keep your wicks trimmed—wicks that are too
long or which have a large buildup of carbon (like a mushroom
cap) burn inefficiently and will produce soot or smoke no matter
how clean or green the wax used.
WoodSprite Organic Body
WoodSprite Organic Body
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