Candles go a long way back and different cultures around the world developed them independently. The ancient Roman, Chinese and Japanese made wicked candles by dipping some sort of paper in melted tallow (animal fat), sperm whale fat or wax from tree nuts. These candles were used to light their homes, to help travelers at night, and in religious ceremonies. Later on candles were made of beeswax. Candles made with tallow emitted a bad smell (due to the combustion of glycerine) and produced black soot. Beeswax on the other hand smelled better and produced less smoke. Whale oil candles also became popular in Europe in the 1800s until there were no longer enough whales left in the ocean to keep the industry profitable.
Paraffin wax was introduced in the 1850s, after chemists learned how to separate the waxy substance from crude oil and refine it. Paraffin is odorless and blueish-white in color, and it was a great ingredient to use candlemaking because it burned cleanly and consistently and was cheaper other candle fuels. The only problem was that paraffin’s low melting point but this was resolved by adding stearic acid. The problem with candles made with paraffin is that these produce large amounts of particulate matter and toxic chemicals like toluene and benzene when burned, like a recent research from South Carolina State University suggests.
Not only are paraffin candles slightly toxic, they are not biodegradable and they are made from a non-renewable resource which is detrimental to the environment. Furthermore, many scented candles contain synthetic fragrances or even dyes that can give off particles when heated which are bad for your health. Attention should also be paid to the wick. Some brands use a ‘cored’ wick, where cotton is wrapped around another material such as metal, producing a soot which is bad for your lungs.
There are natural alternatives in the market, like candles made with palm oil or soy wax. The problem with palm oil is that vast amounts of forests are cleared to make space for its plantations. This is devastating critical habitat of threatened species, like orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos, causing social conflict and environmental damage, particularly in Asia where 85% of the oil comes from. Palm oil is now the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. It’s in a wide range of products on supermarket shelves, from shampoo to cookies, from lipstick to chips. Similar problems exist with soy plantations for which forests are cleared in Latin America, but you can make sure that the soy used in the candles you buy is traceable and is responsibly traced (something that is nearly impossible with palm oil).
The cleanest candles are natural wax candles that use responsibly sourced soy and beeswax, have a wick made of cotton and are scented with essential oils. The only problem with beeswax candles is that they are very difficult to scent, but they produce negative ions when burned, and those ions help to neutralize pollutants in the air.