Everyday enviro with Elise: sustainability, by candlelight - Planet Ark Environmental Foundation

Everyday enviro with Elise: sustainability, by candlelight

By Elise Catterall  September 28th, 2020

Many of us use candles to relax and unwind. But, learning that the majority of candles contain toxic chemicals is enough to counter their calming properties. This week, everyday envrio expert Elise Catterall alerts us to the environmental impacts of conventional candles and hunts down the best eco-friendly alternatives.


Though the days of using candles for a purely functional purpose are behind us (except for Earth Hour or the occasional blackout), candles are still a big part of the day-to-day for many of us. I personally love them, but sadly, not all candles are created equal and some are actually harmful to both you and the environment.

When we assess the environmental virtues of a candle, we have to consider a range of things like: where it is made and how far it has travelled, how it is packaged and how it can be disposed of, but most importantly, what it is made from.

Happily, we have moved beyond candles being made from tallow (pure animal fat that’s apparently pretty stinky) or sperm whale oil (just yuck), but, unhappily, the most common and least expensive candles are typically made from paraffin, which is a petroleum by-product. Apart from being from an unsustainable, non-renewable resource, when paraffin wax candles are burnt (and even when they are unlit) they release some seriously nasty chemicals into the environment, including toluene and benzene, which are carcinogenic and harmful to ecosystems. Kind of makes your bath time ritual a little less relaxing, doesn’t it? Add synthetic fragrances and dyes that release toxins like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and volatile oil compounds (VOCs) and your toxic load is amplified.

A better bet are vegetable-based waxes, which are probably the next most common type of candle. These can be made from palm, soy, rapeseed (canola), coconut, extra virgin olive oil — or a blend of these. Depending on the origin of the plants/crops, they each have varying virtues (all are non-toxic and renewable, for example) and vices. The main vices relate to palm oil — deforestation, destruction of animal habitat — and soy — deforestation, GMOs, pesticides, etcetera.  It is also not uncommon that a vegetable-based wax will be blended with paraffin — typically if the base wax or blend is unspecified, suspect paraffin as an ingredient (and put it back on the shelf!).

Beeswax candles are also really common. Beeswax is the only naturally occurring wax used for candles, but while it is renewable and has some attractive functional qualities — it’s clean and slow burning, for example — it is an animal product, so is not vegan, and comes along with ethical/cruelty issues at a time when bee welfare needs to be top of mind. I avoid it for these reasons.

For me, coconut oil shines through as being the most eco-friendly, in part because it has the least other issues — none of the cruelty issues of beeswax, and none of the environmental issues of palm, soy or rapeseed. It also burns clean and slow and throws a scent beautifully. Coconut oil candles aren’t the cheapest candle around, but you (and the environment) absolutely get what you pay for and that usually also includes non-toxic wicks, natural fragrance, reusable vessels and sustainable packaging. Cocolux Australia is an Australian producer which ticks all of these boxes. If you opt for other vegetable wax bases, aim for an unblended wax from a sustainable source and, if in doubt, don’t be scared to ring the company and check.

See you next time! - Elise

Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes. 


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Elise Catterall

Elise is a writer, photographer, and naturopath with a passion for nature. She completed a Master of Public Health in 2017 through the University of Sydney. Her photographic work focuses on flowers and plants as a way of celebrating nature. She has been writing for Planet Ark since 2017, sharing positive environment stories, personal environmental experiences and perspectives.

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