Before I start writing this article let me state that I love candles. I’m obsessed with them. When you open the cupboard in my living room you may or may not find a (very organized, I’ll have you know) stash of all the types of candles that you could possibly imagine.
I come from a household where candles = happy times. Whenever we sat together as a family my mother would light all the candles she had displayed around the room, especially around Christmas. Candles are irreversibly at the center of cozy times for me, they remind me of warmth and laughter and music. They made the darker seasons a happy time, rather than a miserable one. Apart from that, I am quite sensitive to artificial lighting and prefer any natural light source.
That being said, there is a significant question that’s weighed on me for the past few years. Is burning candles sustainable? Instinctively, I have a tendency to think that anything pre-industrial is green. Now this is not entirely wrong, except that candles used to be made of things like pig fat back in the day. And we all know we use whatever is cheapest to produce now.
So, in order to answer this question we have to take a look what candles are made of.
Your everyday cheap candle
Most candles you buy at regular retailers are made from paraffin wax (derived from petroleum); a biproduct of the production of gasoline. In other words these are made from a fossil fuels and are per definition non-renewable. They also have one of the lowest burning times.
Burning these pollutes our atmosphere, which isn’t quite the cozy vibe I’m going for when burning my precious Yankee® candles.
Another common candle are gel candles. These are also often made of petroleum. Plus, there’s some on the market with non-degradable glitter, which straight-up burns plastic that you then breathe in.
There has also been many concerns with the potential health risk that burning petroleum candles poses, but more on that later.
Let me start off by saying that beeswax is obviously not vegan and therefore isn’t a sustainable candle option for everyone. However, it is a long-lasting and biodegradable product, and lucky for us, most bee farmers love and care for the health and safety of their colonies. If you didn’t know, these colonies are responsible for pollinating many of our flowers and crops and are a vital part of a sustainable eco-system. On top of that, they can be sold completely package-free. These are the ones I burn nearly daily.
Soy wax is another option that doesn’t pollute our atmosphere, and is therefore a better choice than paraffin. It burns slow and is often much cheaper than beeswax candles. The problem with soy candles is that it often also contains palm oil, which isn’t usually produced sustainably. Soy isn’t always produced sustainably either (as it requires a lot of farmland and equipment). Another thing to consider is that these cannot be sold package free due to the materials’ soft consistency.
Other wax alternatives
There is an array of other natural alternatives. Whether these alternatives can be considered sustainable depends on whether or not the production is done sustainably.
– Palm: often responsible for mass deforestation, it can however be produced sustainably.
– Rapeseed: often sustainably farmed.
– Coconut: clean but expensive.
– Stearin: made from clean plant and/or animal fats.
The internet rabbit hole of ‘toxic candles’
So I did an hour (or 3) of research on the toxicity of candles to your health and the short answer is; we don’t know if burning candles is toxic for your health. The only solid conclusion I can draw is that if a candle gives you a headache, don’t burn it (duh), and try to buy candles which are unscented or scented with essential oils.
Some studies have shown that paraffin candles release the toxins benzene (which is linked to cancer) and toluene (which causes headaches amongst other things). However, there is wildly contradictory information out there and most studies done on the subject are inconclusive. For this reason I will refrain from giving myself an official scientist badge, but if you feel like losing track of your sanity for a few hours I happily invite you to fall down the hole too and draw your own conclusions, we’d love to hear them. 😉
Turns out candles aren’t a simple topic, so, as always, be kind to yourself and remember that doing your best is the best you can do. Buy beeswax candles if you can afford it! If you are vegan or have a tighter budget, soy is your next best option. If you really love that one paraffin candle, buy it. Just don’t make it a habit. Moderation is key!