Soy Wax vs Paraffin
There are several different types of wax that can be used in candles and we’ve come a long way in our understanding of what is healthy and what is not (we used to burn whale fat at one point). The three main types of wax used for candles are soy, petroleum and beeswax, but since beeswax is quite literally made by bees, it is limited in supply and quite expensive, so it is likely that when you pick up a candle, it is either made from soy wax or petroleum wax.
Lets take a look at the differences between these two. Does one burn better than the other? Is one safer than the other? Is there a price difference? The answer to all those questions is a resounding YES and if you are a candle lover the research will definitely be worth your while.
Let’s start with petroleum-based wax (also known as paraffin wax). This is the most common candle material across the world, for two reasons. It is cheap, and it burns at a reasonably high temperature, making it firm. If you buy a candle that doesn’t state what sort of wax it is made of, or a taper or pillar candle (pillar candles are candles that don’t have their own container and are free standing) – then they are likely to be made from paraffin wax.
Paraffin wax is made from the sludge that remains at the bottom of a barrel of crude oil. Everything of value – from gasoline to asphalt – is extracted from the crude oil and then the sludge is refined to produce a waxy substance. This is then industrially bleached to change it from black to white and this bleaching process leave dioxins in the wax. Dioxins are highly toxic to the body but easily absorbed. They sit in fat cells and it is extremely hard to get rid of them. They are associated with reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, interference with hormones and cancer.
After it is bleached paraffin wax has acrolyn added to make it more solid. Acrolyn is completely harmless… unless it is burned, releasing carcinogenic toxins such as benzene and toluene into the air. Long-term exposure has been shown, in medical studies (by the EPA), to cause bone marrow to stop producing red blood cells. Instant problems include headaches, sleepiness and nausea. Other chemicals have to be added to make paraffin burn longer. These include acetone, Trichlorofluoromethane, Carbon Disulfide, 2-Butanone, Trichloroethane, Carbon Tetrachloride, Tetrachloroethene, Tetrachloride, Tetrachloroethene, Chlorobenzene, Ethylbenzene, Styrene, Xylene, Phenol, Cresol and Cyclopentene.
We’ll leave it there, but needless to say, none of those naturally occur in the body and all of them are toxic. The worst part about paraffin wax is the way it interacts with fragrance. Because Paraffin wax is made up of saturated hydrocarbons and fragrance oils are unsaturated hydrocarbons, more soot is produced when they burn together releasing toxins at a higher rate.
In reality that cheerily burning candle – is filling your house with the sort of toxins the exhaust of a car would, just on a less noticeable scale. It can be incredibly bad for you if there are no doors or windows open.
So why does anyone anywhere use paraffin wax? It’s super cheap. And it’s easy to work with because it is hard and holds it shape. So for candle makers – definitely worth it. For candle consumers? Run away. Save up for a good candle rather than 5 of these toxic blocks of non-renewable sludge. Keep that not all paraffin candles are cheap – there are some very high end candle companies that use paraffin wax – they are literally making a killing.
That brings us to soy wax. It is obviously better, but how much better, and is it worth the extra cost? Soy wax is a vegetable wax made from the oil of … yes, obviously… soybeans. The beans are cleaned, cracked, de-hulled and rolled into flakes. The oil is extracted and hydrogenated. This is where the fatty acids are converted from unsaturated to saturated. The resulting wax is soft and burns well, but needs to be in containers (unless additives are added to make it hard enough for a pillar).
When it burns soy wax releases no toxins, no carcinogens and no pollutants (though check that your wicks are cotton – we’ll talk about that another time!). Because it is soft the wax burns at a cooler temperature meaning they tend to last longer than paraffin candles, up to 50% longer in some cases. The wax is safe to have on your skin, and if no additives are included, it isn’t even toxic to eat. And of course we know you won’t eat it – but your toddler might and your puppy will certainly have a try. Soy wax also interacts well with fragrance oils meaning that they don’t release the same levels of soot when they burn. The more pure your fragrance oils, the safer this part of the process is.
Given that a good quality candle can cost $60 or more and a very cheap candle could set you back a mere $2, it is actually about weighing up the cost of your health for this one.
Look at the basics – soy will burn for nearly twice as long and the scent will burn more cleanly and strongly. But also look at the bigger picture – paraffin wax is toxic, especially as it burns. Not a little bit toxic – very toxic and the small amounts you burn in your home add up.
The choice really is quite simple – if you care as much about your candles, as we do, you pay the extra to make them with soy and to make them well and if you care about your home – you buy the candle that enhances your life, not the one that damages your health.