Did you know that beeswax is not regarded as being vegan, but paraffin wax is? It’s bad practice to blow a candle out (it should be snuffed), and a scented candle can ruin the taste of your meal?
Using plants, whale fat and beef tallow, we have been bathed in candlelight for 5000 years. The first candles were the cores of reeds taken from the Nile, soaked in wax. Since then, our relationship with pillar candles, and the myriad of tapers and oil lamps used through the ages, has been fraught with tension.
Any open flame, even the diminutive romantic burn of a votive or the bling of a cake candle, has lethal potential. Additionally, the wrong choice of candles is an acknowledged source of indoor air pollution. So, before we strike up, what are candles made of, and how can we select and handle them with enough care to make them a seasonal treat rather than igniting a threat?
No candle should be left burning unattended — at all. That’s it. It doesn’t matter how well supported it is, how it’s contained, whether you’ve rudely daubed molten wax down on the rosewood side-board to settle a fat taper, or the candles are glowing seductively on the edge of a bath. Never, never, ever. Place any candle or container on a temperature-safe surface. Most fires connected with candles and matches start in bedrooms, and hot wax alone can cause second-degree burns. Don’t be tempted into a tipsy “50 Shades” bit of S&M. You could spend Christmas red-faced and blistered in A&E. If you cannot behave around the authentic article — go fake or wind up some LEDs in a glass vase.
Battery-powered, flame-less guttering, flickering lovely candles are highly convincing and offer no hazard whatsoever. Kids and any real flame? Candles and matches should be secured away from their reach. Don’t be tempted to put small tapers on the tree — lovely (we lit the tree this way for about 15 minutes on Christmas Day in Sweden). It’s terrifying to even think about now — lethal on an atrophying spruce (nature’s fire-bomb), strangled in glitter, set on carpeting.
Many of traditional, real candles are made with paraffin wax, a non-renewable, bi-product refined from crude oil produced by the petrochemical industry. They may include “pure, natural fruit extracts” but so do many powerful bleach-rich loo cleaners. If you don’t see the ingredients stated — assume a standard, shop-bought candle is made with paraffin wax. Cheap and cheerful, and technically naturally sourced, paraffin candles are generally coloured and fragranced with synthetic chemistry including parabens, and phthalates. Once lit, some of these ingredients and the wick itself are rendered into gases which include traces of benzene and toluene (suspected endocrine disruptors), and tiny, specs of dusty particulate matter.
Paraffin wax also suffers from regular “sooting”, burning with a dirty, occasional black plume of smoke. With naturally themed, atmospheric titling and lush illustrated labelling heaving with fruits, flowers and spices, it’s easy to forget what you’re actually buying is not an environmentally friendly product. Paraffin wax cannot be recycled. Our super-sensitive olfactory system contains extremely powerful pleasure centres, but don’t be led around by your nose. Check the specifications of the product.
Beeswax is a much-loved material for candle-making, but it does have its detractors. Beeswax does not contain animal proteins, but because of the commercial handling of bees, with culling and selective breeding in larger operations, it is not considered a vegan product. The Vegan Society describes its making as “cruel and exploitative”: “Mass breeding of honeybees affects the populations of other competing nectar-foraging insects, including other bees” (vegsoc.org).
Responsible, bee-keepers think differently. I grew up with a grandmother who treated her honey-hounds like tiny deities (no wing clipping of the queen or other nefarious practices). Keepers nurture colonies that would not otherwise have existed, remove the honey and beeswax in a way that regenerates the hives, and gently done, it is ultimately an Earth-friendly process. It’s in the interest of the keeper that their bees are content. In further defence of beeswax, it does not require further fragrance — delivering one of the most soul-stirring, sweet and memory-infused scents on Earth, even before it’s lit.
Soy wax is the favoured candle wax for many small-batch handmade candle makers. The soybean is grown commercially, but as a vegetable-based wax, without any dodgy additional ingredients to tint or scent it, it can be burned without releasing potential carcinogens into domestic spaces. Its production does demand the use of heavy machinery (it’s more widely grown than palm for example), so its eco-credentials are far from immaculate.
Makers can check out the agricultural practices and intensity of their soy supplier, and many boast that the product is carbon neutral (nothing combusted is truly carbon-neutral at the point of use — but let’s face it, the candle provides a very small flame). Other waxes you may come across in blended small-batch candles include coconut, rape seed and palm oil. Though a natural product and in on paper, sustainable and renewable, production of palm waxes are connected with the slash-and-burn practices of deforestation and habitat degradation in the Americas. Ask where the oils used in the candle are sourced.
Natural scents including essential oils or materials scattered on the top of the candle are used in combination with bespoke, eco-friendly soy candles. The amount of essential oil used in candles is generally a blend no greater than 10%-11%, so they are considered safer than synthetic perfumes stirred into paraffin wax. Some people are sensitive to even tiny amounts of certain essential oils — they are quite powerful if misapplied. Check what’s in the candle is not likely to set you off even before it’s even lit in a group of six down the middle of your Christmas dinner table. Synthetic, calming fragrances no matter how heady and convincing, do not deliver the healing benefits believed to be enjoyed by users of natural, essential oils.
There are wicks and wicks, and we are looking for either a wood wick or a lead-free, cotton wick — self-trimming and primed with a natural wax coating. If you’re burning a candle with essential oils largely for its scent or holistic hit, wood burns lower, slower and delivers the scent over a longer period. They soot a little and crackle, something that some users delight in. The first time you light any new pillar candle, especially a big one, it will not burn well. It takes several hours to get that even burn and full “melt-pool” we’re looking for as the wax slides down to a liquid. Blowing your candle out, can spatter hot wax over surfaces and will create soot and smoke. Buy a little snuffer with a ring for your finger or a handle, to stem the oxygen and elegantly and cleanly put it out.
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