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Which Wax? Candle Making Pros and Cons

On these February mornings when the foggy dawn threatens to cloud one’s clarity, I often turn to the warm flame of a candle as a beacon of the coming spring. Humans have been lighting their way through winter for thousands upon thousands of years. The wax has changed based on the resources available regionally, from indigenous insects (China), the fruit of the cinnamon tree (India), animal fat (Europe), and the berries of bayberry bushes (early colonial America). In the late 18th century, the extraction of everything whale from the global ocean yielded a candle wax called spermaceti, a wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil.[1]

All of the waxes above had their pros and cons. Spermaceti burned brighter and beeswax burned sweeter (imagine the smell of animal fat slowly melting and you’ll see why this was a well-received innovation). This article will introduce you to the origin of the waxes that the Portland Homestead Supply sells and the pros and cons of the waxes they supply for candle-making.

The Homestead Supply sells five varieties of wax: three soy-based waxes, beeswax, and Candelilla wax. They do not sell paraffin wax, which is what holds the exotic smells of the majority of candles on the market, like Bath and Body Works Cherry Blossom Sangria or Brazilian Blue Waters candles. Paraffin wax is a material extracted as a byproduct of the crude oil refining process. Isla Wilson, candle making extraordinaire and employee of the Homestead Supply, said, “Paraffin contains a lot of dodgy chemicals, mainly formaldehyde and benzene. When you burn paraffin, it emits those chemicals into the air. I chose to work with soy and beeswax because I want to create natural candles that are not toxic, and are safe to burn around the entire family and pets.”

The waxes that the Homestead Supply sells for candle making are all sourced from renewable resources, making them both safe to burn and sustainable in the long-term to produce. Let’s start saucing about soy.

SOY WAX

The Homestead Supply carries three varieties of soy wax, all sourced from a company called EcoSoya. The varieties are EcoSoya PB (Pillar Blend), Ecosoya CB Xcel (X-CEL Container Blend) and Ecosoya CB-Advanced (Advanced Container Blend). While there are other good soy waxes on the market, EcoSoya wax is unique because it is made from domestically grown, non-GMO soybeans, which undergo intensive manufacturing processes to remove any presence of pesticides, herbicides, or Gentically Modified Materials (GMM).[2] The EcoSoya waxes listed above are not technically 100% soy candles because they have botanical oils added to them, which are supposed to enhance the quality of the wax burning.

If you are interested in adding scent or color to your candles, soy is the wax for you. As Isla, owner of Wee Mindings, said, “I really enjoy working with soy because I personally love fragrant not overpowering candles, and soy holds fragrance really well.” Isla mentioned that different soy waxes exist for different applications. If you are adding low flash point essential oils, like lemon, you can’t add them into a 150-degree soy wax because they will just evaporate. Thus, if you are contemplating adding fragrance to your soy candle, you need to consider which the flash point of the essential oils you want to use and what soy wax would correspond. Another benefit of soy is that is a very clean burning vegetable wax. Thus, the inevitable candle making mess will be easier to clean up than if you use beeswax, which is much trickier to clean.

BEES WAX

The Portland Homestead Supply gets their beeswax from a large beekeeping business based out of Eastern Washington and Montana. The owners, Joe and Jode Messenger, have been keeping bees commercially since 1994. When I inquired about their beekeeping philosophy, Jode said simply, “To keep our bees alive. It gets harder and harder each year as we progress.” Bees are in trouble across the United States, under attack by mites, pesticides, and an increasing lack of food as monoculture agriculture dominates our horizons.[3] Thus, it is no surprise that beeswax is the most expensive wax available.

Although beeswax is expensive, its virtues are plentiful. As Jode Messenger said, “Beeswax is not hazardous or carcinogenic. It is solvent-free and contains no additives.” Although you cannot dye beeswax brilliant colors like you could a soy or paraffin candle, Jode brought my attention to the joy of the spectrum of natural colors of beeswax candles. She told me that last year’s wax was a darker wax because the bees fed predominately on alfalfa. This year, the bees have been making honey mostly from clover, which produces a lighter wax.

The Messenger’s operation is not organic because they travel with their bees, allowing the bees to pollinate apple trees in Washington and cherry and almond tress in California during different seasons. Joe and Jode cannot monitor what plants each individual bee pollinates and thus cannot guarantee that the honey and beeswax they produce is 100% pesticide free.

Beeswax is lovely because it’s ancient (the oldest candle in human history), is arguably the most environmentally friendly of all waxes, burns longer and brighter than other waxes, and releases sweet smelling honey and floral notes. I have heard that beeswax, when burned, emits negative ions that improve air quality by neutralizing the positive ions of pollutants.[4] When I asked Jode about this, she had no concrete answer about the effect of burning beeswax on air quality or decreasing the effects of allergies. However, she did mention that ingesting local honey, imbued with pollen that is particular to the region, will help decrease allergies. Below is a infographic that simplifies the differences between soy and beeswax to help you choose which you would like to work with!

The Pros and Cons of Soy and Beeswax

CANDELILLA WAX

The Portland Homestead Supply also sells candelilla which is wildcrafted in the United States. Candelilla wax is extracted by boiling the wax-coated stems of Candelilla shrubs, which are native to Northern Mexico and the bordering dry southern states of the USA.[5] Candelilla wax is more expensive than most waxes, but is a great vegan alternative to beeswax. Candelilla wax is mainly used in making cosmetics, like lip balms and soaps, but can also be used to make candles.

If you want more information about the way different waxes act during the process of candle making, I suggest you take Isla Wilson’s candle making class at the Portland Homestead Supply. Or simply start experimenting and take notes on what works and what doesn’t! We still got a few months of drizzly Portland spring to make it through, so here’s to happy candle making.

 

[1] http://candles.org/history/

[2] http://www.ngielements.com/about-ecosoya/

[3] http://science.time.com/2013/08/09/the-trouble-with-beekeeping-in-the-anthropocene/

[4] http://empoweredsustenance.com/beeswax-candles-and-allergies-an-effective-solution/

[5] http://www.lushusa.com/on/demandware.store/Sites-Lush-Site/en_US/Lushopedia-Start?iid=10507