Candle Considerations

By Rebecca Jones
[Ten for Today]

Historians believe that about 5,000 years ago ancient Egyptians had the bright idea of sticking a reed into some animal fat and lighting it. Candles have been flickering in human homes and gathering places ever since.

Candlemakers have come a long way in the intervening millennia, developing better waxes, wicks, and fragrances. Just in the past five years, technology has advanced to include realistic flameless and even remote-controlled candles. Today, candle shoppers face a multitude of options, in a wide range of prices.

Does a cheap dollar store candle burn just as well as an expensive one bought in a boutique? As a rule, you get what you pay for. But opinions vary on just what’s worth paying more for. Following are some pointers to help shed light on the topic of candles.

1. Wax Facts

The National Candle Association estimates 1 billion pounds of wax is used in candles sold in the United States each year, and 95 percent of those candles are made of paraffin wax.

The industry group spokespeople insist that no candle wax has ever been shown to be toxic or harmful to human health, even though paraffin is a petroleum by-product. But some candlemakers—typically those who sell the 5 percent made out of something other than paraffin—question that. At least one study, presented last year at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, indicates that excessive use of paraffin candles in unventilated rooms can lead to unhealthy levels of indoor air pollution.

Air quality issues aside, makers of non-paraffin candles say there are other reasons to consider soy, vegetable, palm, or other kinds of waxes. Through the years, beeswax has been the gold standard for candles because it burns so sweetly and cleanly. “Other than the obvious good things that bees do for us, it’s a renewable resource. There’s no waste in beeswax production,” says Andraya Weitzel, spokeswoman for the family-owned Clarks Wax Works in Eaton, Colorado. “They’re hypoallergenic, and we believe beeswax candles release negative ions, which relieve stress and boost energy.”

The downside of beeswax is the cost. They tend to be the priciest candles. Vegetable wax-based candles are less expensive and still avoid the use of petrochemicals.

They also have one big advantage over paraffin: they burn at a lower temperature and that has special implications for massage therapists. “You can put your finger into the molten wax in these vegetable candles and not burn yourself,” says Richard Roth, co-founder of Lumia Organic Inc. in Boulder, Colorado. “Some of the candles we make are selected by massage therapists for that very purpose: they melt into massage oil. It’s a handy thing to have around. The wax in the candles is already warm and it’s not something you have to put into an oil heater. And if it spills, it cleans up with warm, soapy water because it’s basically just vegetable oil.”

2. The Sense of Scents

About four out of every five candles sold in this country are scented, though most of them aren’t true aromatherapy candles, which use essential oils. Most use synthetic aroma chemicals.

Still, well-made candles contain only fragrances approved for candle use. What makes for a pleasing scent is purely in the nose of the smeller. But finding the right combinations of fragrances can be akin to writing a symphony.

“We talk about notes,” Roth says. “The top note is the first scent that comes out. Then, the olfactory sense acclimates to that. The middle and base notes are slower to react within the nose. Most successful fragrances are quite complex. Single fragrance products don’t react with as much of the olfactory sense as a blend of fragrances. If you have a blend, you’ll hit harmonies with a number of different receptors in the nose. It’s that subtle transformation from initial sensation to the lasting base notes that we feel is most pleasant.”

3. Little Fuel Pumps

The National Candle Association reports there are more than 100 different types of wicks on the market today, but most of them are made of braided or knitted fibers, usually cotton or a combination of cotton and paper. The wick’s job is to absorb liquefied wax and carry it up to the flame. In essence, wicks act like little fuel pumps.

Some candlemakers warn shoppers to beware the dangers of lead wicks. It’s true that lead wicks can release toxic chemicals, but the chances of finding a lead wick—at least in a candle sold in the United States—are extremely small.

“Basically, the candle industry in the United States universally stopped using metal wicks more than 20 years ago,” Roth says. “It’s rare to find a metal wick in any domestically-produced candle. I can’t say the same for imported candles, but the use of metal is very uncommon any more.” 

4. The Unwelcome Leftover

Candle soot is hardly a new phenomenon, but it went largely unnoticed until the advent of jar candles, which became popular in the 1980s. Then, soot that otherwise would have dispersed over a wide area suddenly became visibly trapped on the sides of the jar. It’s not dangerous, but it is unsightly.

“What happens is, in an apothecary jar, the neck is narrower than the sides, so the wick doesn’t get enough oxygen surrounding it and it tends to choke,” says Tom Closser, owner of Aloha Bay, a Lower Lake, California, maker of palm wax candles. “What it coughs up is black carbon that hasn’t been fully ignited by the wick. That’s what causes soot.”

Beeswax doesn’t produce soot. That’s why, for centuries, churches have burned only beeswax candles—to avoid getting soot on the walls. “If they burned paraffin candles in the Sistine Chapel, the artwork would have been destroyed in a generation,” Roth says.

5. The Value of Organic

There’s nothing inherently better about a candle made from wax from organically-grown products. Opting for organic products is more a statement of values.

“This is one of the leading areas where the organic movement can make strides in non-food products,” says Roth, whose company buys exclusively organic and not genetically-modified vegetable oils for its candles. “We feel we’re doing our part to support the organic movement and organic agriculture, so farmers have another market for their crops, and thereby bestow on all of us the benefit of improved soil and less water pollution. We’ve found non-organic commercial agriculture quite troubling to us.

“I’d like to stress the fact that if you believe in serving organic food on your table, you should have an organic candle on the table as well,” he says.

That’s a sentiment shared by Closser. “I can’t get too righteous about paraffin because I drive a gas truck,” he says. “As long as we burn propane, diesel, and gasoline, there will be plenty of by-product left over. But on the other hand, one of the core issues in our company is to support organic farming, and so we’re trying to limit our use of petrochemicals.”

6. Cost and Burn Time

Cheap candles—typically imported from Asia—tend to burn fast and unevenly. Investing in better quality candles may, in fact, save money in the long run.

“Chances are a more expensive candle will burn longer, and will burn evenly all the way down,” says Dan Maurer, president of the SOI Company, a Walnut Creek, California, company that sells soy-based products, including soy candles. “You may have heard of tunneling. You buy a jar candle and it burns right down the middle and you’re left with all this residual wax on the sides of the jar. That’s a bad candle.”

Roth says that first-time buyers typically buy smaller candles, which cost less but still offer high quality. “After three or four months, we find the customer base shifts to some of our larger candles,” he says. “We have one candle that retails for $19.95 that will burn for 120 hours. The long-lasting candles become our best sellers because they’re so economical on a per-hour basis.”

7. Leftover Wax

It’s one thing if you’re a Girl Scout trying to earn a merit badge. If so, then by all means, round up all the leftover candles you can find and melt the wax to create a homemade gift for your mother. She’ll love it.

But otherwise, recycling candles rarely produces satisfactory results. “It’s just not practical,” says Roth, who acknowledges that he, too, made homemade candles as a child. “You’ll be confronted with an unknown wax composition. Here, we have carefully controlled composition of our wax. We do a lot of testing of our candles to make sure they burn properly.”

8. Candle Care Basics

Like anything made of wax, candles don’t tolerate heat well. “You don’t want them sitting in the hot sun,” Weitzel says. Be wary of placing burning candles too close together, for the same reason. The heat from one might melt the other. Keep burning candles at least three inches apart.

While the candles themselves don’t require much maintenance, candle drips are another matter. Drippings can be removed from most candleholders by running hot water over them. Be sure to keep the water running to ensure the wax runs through the pipes. An alternative is to pop the holder in the freezer for about an hour. The cold wax contracts and pops off easily when it comes out of the freezer.

9. Candle Safety    

Candles can be dangerous. The U.S. Fire Administration estimates there are an average of 17,400 home candle fires each year, resulting in more than 1,500 injuries and almost 200 deaths annually. More than half of all candle fires start when something flammable is left too close to a candle.

To avoid a serious accident, follow some basic rules:

• Never leave burning candles unattended.

• Put them in sturdy holders that can’t be easily knocked over, and place them on stable, heat-resistant surfaces.

• Never burn a candle on or near anything that can catch fire.

• Trim wicks to a quarter-inch in length each time before burning.               

• Keep burning candles away from drafts, vents, ceiling fans, and air currents.

10. High-Tech Options

One way to avoid the undeniable dangers candles pose is to go with flameless candles, which have become deceptively beautiful in recent years.

“Candles have charm and everybody knows that,” says Sam Marcos, general manager of, which markets a variety of flameless candles. “The trick was to make something that could run on a battery with the same characteristics as a real candle, the same charm and ambience. That didn’t happen overnight, and it still varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but nowadays, the nicest candles are so realistic, if you put them on your dinner table people don’t know. They’ll pick them up and try to blow them out.”

As with traditional candles, price is the best indicator of quality. “You want a candle that flickers correctly,” Marcos says. “Early on, a lot of these battery-operated candles, you’d think they were blinking out Morse Code. Getting that flicker right didn’t come easily.”

Small flameless candles can be had for as little as $10. Nicer ones run $15–$25.

The newest addition: remote-control candles and candles on timers. “That allows you to place candles in places it might not be easy to get to, in little high-up nooks and crannies,” Marcos says.


Rebecca Jones is a Denver-based freelance writer. Contact her at