Beeswax Candles vs. Paraffin Candles

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Do you know what most commercial candles are made of? The 6 billion dollar candle industry uses massive amounts of paraffin every year. Paraffin is a petroleum wax and it's not natural or sustainable. Why is it still used for making candles, and how does it compare to natural beeswax candles?

The explanation for why paraffin is so widespread in the candle industry is simple: it's cheap and available. Paraffin comes from petroleum, and therefore it's neither sustainable nor environmentally-friendly. But since it's easy to produce, corporations prefer to use it instead of greener and more pleasant alternatives.

Paraffin wax is composed of long-chain hydrocarbons and is produced in oil refineries form petroleum, where these hydrocarbons are separated and purified. The refining process can achieve various levels of purity, depending on the use of various adsorbents and catalysts. The amount of the residual contaminants (often very toxic, such as aromatic olefins, benzene or acrolein) determine the grade of the paraffin product.

Low grade paraffin candles may have a lot of contaminants, while high grade are more pure. The highest grade is the Food Grade Paraffin Wax, used in the food industry. (By the way, did you know that we actually consume large amounts of paraffin wax, for example in hard candies and as the component of the chewing gum? It is just called “aliphatic hydrocarbons”)

One would expect that the paraffin wax used in the candle making should be as free of the residual toxic contaminants as possible, but We do not sufficiently test our food for toxic ingredients, so what can be expected from cheap candles massively produced from paraffin wax coming from uncertified oversees sources? One conclusion is therefore straightforward: paraffin candles can be of very different quality, depending on the purity and quality of the paraffin wax.

We need to beware of cheap and uncertain sources of paraffin candles, because they most probably have high levels of toxic contaminants. Moreover, these sources tend to use colorants and dyes that contain toxic pigments, for instance lead-containing pigments and dyes. Obviously, the use of a lead wick inserts is an absolute “no”, although it was still quite common not long ago.

The question remains – how does the high-grade paraffin wax compare to natural waxes, such as beeswax and soy wax? Are the toxic contaminants detectable in the paraffin candles and still dangerous? The answer is -- yes, and it is confirmed by various scientific studies. The most comprehensive study of the air pollution caused by burning various types of candles was prepared in 2001 by the US Environment Protection Agency, subsequently published in the EPA Report "Candles and Incense As Potential Sources of Indoor Air Pollution: Market Analysis And Literature Review". It was concluded that when candles are burned, they emit trace amounts of organic chemicals, including acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, acrolein, and naphthalene. The amounts may significantly differ depending on the quality of the paraffin used, but in some cases it exceeded the acceptable levels. Also, scented candles are apparently the major source of candle pollution and soot deposition.

On the other hand, a comparative study of the combustion products of various types of candles confirmed that paraffin candles produced measurable amounts of various pollutants, while the candles made of beeswax generated the least. It was also observed that the gel candles were even worse than the paraffin candles. (Atmospheric Environment Volume 40, Issue 12, April 2006, Pages 2128-213). Beeswax candles are actually reported to have a calming effect on insomnia, aggravation and anxiety.

Learn more about the amazing properties of beeswax: read our article "Beeswax - an ancient marvel".