Candles do more than produce light; they are lit for celebration, ritual, fragrance and romance, all reasons why consumers are buying up votives, pillars and tapers in record numbers. In 2002, U.S. candle sales reached $2.3 billion, up by more than 10 percent from the past year, according to the American Candle Association.
What does a naturals retailer need to know about candles? They seem harmless enough, a simple wax with a cloth wick. But throughout the years, candles have been made with not-so-healthy materials, including tallow and lead, which can fill a room with noxious fumes and scar walls with soot. Today, natural candle manufacturers are discovering ways to create bright- and long-burning candles with nontoxic materials.
What's In A Wax
Humans have been searching for the ideal candle medium for about as long as they've been using fire. Early candles were simply tallow—animal fat—with a piece of cloth for a wick. Later innovations included spermaceti oil from whales, bayberry wax and beeswax. When paraffin was introduced in the late 19th century, it revolutionized the candle industry. The petroleum byproduct produces odorless, long-burning candles at a fraction of the cost of other materials.
Whether or not paraffin is a healthy candle wax is a matter of debate. Some people question whether a gasoline byproduct and a nonrenewable resource should be on naturals shelves. Others say highly refined paraffin burns cleanly and, when combined with other healthy materials, is an affordable option for quality natural candles.
"We use paraffin because we are a candle company and it's a great wax," says Dave Cacciamani, vice president of Morrisville, Vt.-based Way Out Wax. Its pillar candles contain food-grade, 100 percent biodegradable paraffin, beeswax, vegetable wax and hemp seed oil. "We've been researching for over six years now to get a good paraffin-free pillar and not had anything that's come close to satisfactory for us in terms of appearance and burn quality," he says.
Paraffin-free pillar candles can even be dangerous, Cacciamani says. "Without paraffin, a pillar candle can be brittle and get fractures, increasing oxygen to the flame and causing a blowout where wax can go everywhere and be a fire hazard."
Many naturals companies make paraffin-free container candles because consistency is not an issue. Way Out's container candles are primarily soy along with other vegetable waxes. The container candles come with lids for easy transport and are scented with pure essential oils.
For some manufacturers, paraffin is not a wax option. "Paraffin is carcinogenic," says Tami Bazies, owner of Portland, Ore.-based Greenspace Candles, which makes 100 percent paraffin-free container candles. "It creates a lot of petrocarbon soot, which is ugly and can damage furniture and wall paint." She says the company does not offer pillar candles because soy wax doesn't work well enough in the stand-alone form.
The Wax and the Bees
So where does beeswax come from anyway? Honeybees secrete beeswax to build combs and store honey. Beekeepers can obtain wax from cappings, scraping or the comb itself. Cappings produce the most wax and are the preferred method. When the bees fill up the comb with honey, they cap it with wax, which the beekeeper can take without disturbing the hive.
—A.S.For Aroma Naturals, candle fragrance is the key to making a healthy candle. "It's more important that the smell comes from essential oils than where the wax comes from," says owner Tina Rocca-Lundstrom. "There are more harmful toxins from synthetic fragrance than there are from food-grade paraffin." The Irvine, Calif.-based company's candles are made from three different wax varieties, including 100 percent vegetable wax, beeswax and paraffin.
Currently, there are no government labeling requirements for candles, so manufacturers don't have to list ingredients. Retailers and consumers need to educate themselves about candle ingredients, Rocca-Lundstrom says. "They'll buy a soy candle to avoid petrochemicals, but then it has artificial fragrance with all kinds of harsh chemicals in it," she says.
The company's two staff aromatherapists source essential oils from around the globe. The oils are tested with the waxes to make sure they are the right quality and burn properly before they are purchased.
Aroma Naturals VegePure candles were chosen to be in the Golden Globes' and Emmys' gift bags this year. "We were really excited to be picked, and that so many people out there are learning about how different essential oils smell from synthetic fragrances," Rocca-Lundstrom says.
Many people consider beeswax to be the finest candle medium available. "It's got a very high melting point so it burns at a much slower rate. It's pretty much the slowest burning candle fuel out there," says Jon Kornbluh, owner of Blue Corn Naturals in Rico, Colo. "It's got a really special light, a much warmer and brighter flame than other waxes." Beeswax carries a high price tag, though, the main reason it's not used more often.
The company makes candles from raw beeswax purchased from domestic beekeepers—about 20,000 pounds of it a year. "The wax bricks will have bee parts, whole bees, sometimes honey pockets," Kornbluh says. "After you melt it and strain out the large particulate, you are left with this incredible sweet-smelling material that is just magic. It's very much alive."
Until recently, Blue Corn's beeswax line was scented naturally by the pollen. But it now offers an aromatherapy line that combines essential oils with the fragrance inherent in the beeswax. "It really affects the blends we do; some oils really want to go with that note of beeswax and some don't," he says.
Unlike many companies that pour their candles, Blue Corn rolls its beeswax pillar candles from solid sheets of beeswax. Minute layers of air between each layer help the candle's burn quality, Kornbluh says. "It also looks beautiful, [because] we finish the candle with a beveled wave. It's our distinct look," he says.
What About Wicks?
Candle wax is not the only area of concern about toxic materials when it comes to candle making. In 1991, the U.S. Consumer Safety Commission banned the use of lead in wicks for support while burning. Yet, because laboratory testing is needed to detect the metal, many manufacturers, particularly foreign ones, continue to use the toxic substance, which can release up to five times the amount of lead considered hazardous for young children.
Naturals manufacturers have discovered a range of alternative wick materials. Greenspace Candles uses unbleached cotton and hemp for the wicks in its container candles. It wasn't until six months ago that owner Bazies was able to source a company making wicks with soy wax. (A small amount of wax is needed on the wicks when they are inserted by machine.) "It's great because my candles are 100 percent paraffin-free," she says.
Retailers who merchandise their candles with care will have the strongest sales. "Retailers who keep their shelves clean and really pay attention to how [candles] are displayed do really well," Rocca-Lundstrom says. Way Out Wax has increased its sales by supplying retailers with information cards customers can take with them. "Education definitely helps," Cacciamani says. "The stores that do well display our educational materials and do their own publicity for natural candles."
But considering the numbers, candle sales should not be too difficult for most naturals retailers. "Alternative waxes are happening," says Kornbluh. "Awareness about air quality and toxicity is increasing and so are natural candle sales."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 11/p. 32, 34