Why I Use Coconut (and Soy) Wax For Lepe Candles
Wax is the single largest component of candles, as well as the fuel that allows them to burn, so when Lepe was born in 2020, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the different options available to me for wax, as well as their history, chemistry and source.
Due to its ample availability as a by-product of the oil industry, paraffin has been the chandler’s wax of choice since the late 1800s. In craft and artisanal candle making, soy wax has recently become much more popular. However, as I further researched my options, it became clear to me that an even better alternative to soy existed: coconut wax.
Wax. What is it?
Firstly, what actually is wax? According to scientific literature, wax is a flammable, carbon-containing solid that turns into liquid when heated. It is the fuel for the candle flame, and as the candle flame melts the wax around it, the wick draws up this molten wax by capillary action, combusting it, and thus producing heat, water, carbon dioxide, and light.
If the above description of wax sounds broad, that’s because it is. A number of plants and animals biosynthesis waxes. They can range from the familiar, such as paraffin and beeswax, to the more obscure, like avocado wax. Wax can be extracted from a wide variety of natural minerals around us. The question I asked myself at the start of this journey was: which is the best one for making candles?
The earliest wax candles are believed to have been created by the Egyptians around 5000BC, who did so by dipping papyrus reeds in beeswax, which was produced by honey bees. Since then, in addition to beeswax, a number of other waxes have become popular choices for candle making. The most common waxes so far have been petroleum derived paraffin wax, palm oil derived palm wax and soybean oil derived soy wax.
The main reasons for the use of these waxes in modern candles are their ease of production and extraction, their low cost, their pleasant appearance, good scent throwing properties, and efficient burns.
However, you may have noticed that sourcing and sustainability did not feature on the list of factors when deciding on candle wax choice. When I started Lepe, I wanted to find a wax that would both perform at the highest possible standard, much like the options listed above, but that would also be the healthiest option for the planet and for people. With this criteria in mind, I found that the most common waxes were not necessarily the best waxes.
Paraffin wax has many positives for a candle maker. It is low cost, and known for its strong burning and scent properties, but as a by-product of the oil industry it is not sustainable. In addition, paraffin wax burns very quickly, meaning that a candle that appears to be very large on a store shelf, actually may burn down very quickly and require re-purchasing sooner. All of this is great for the companies making and selling paraffin wax candles, but not so great for you: the customer.
In addition, there is a possibility, though not yet entirely proven, that paraffin wax may lead to adverse health effects when burned in candles. One 2009 study found that paraffin candles can release harmful chemicals such as toluene. It is important to note however, that this study has been called into question by the National Candle Association, particularly because it was not published in a scientific journal, which means it did not undergo the rigorous peer review that we would expect. After reading the studies on either side of the debate, my sense is that paraffin wax candles are likely not a significant health hazard and would need to burned in huge quantities to result in adverse health outcomes. But since paraffin wax is linked to the world’s most destructive and environmentally dangerous industry, I committed to finding a higher quality alternative.
Palm wax was initially announced as the holy grail of the candle making industry. With a pleasant aesthetic and similar burn quality as that of paraffin, palm wax was once viewed as the best sustainable alternative. However, an investigation in 2009 by the Economist discovered that deforestation practices in palm wax extraction were rampant and contributing to the endangerment of many animal species. Even today, it is considered almost impossible to source a truly sustainable wax from palm oil. Further reading on palm oil derived products can be found in this Greenpeace report from 2018 and this NYT investigation.
This is a real shame, as palm oil is a potentially sustainable crop. Currently, most palm oil is grown and extracted in an unsustainable and destructive manner, wreaking havoc on the local environment, communities and global climate. However, this is unrelated to the inherent qualities of palm and is actually due to poorly regulated industry practices and supply chains. It is completely possible and needed to have a fair-trade and organic supply of palm oil, and this is something I will continue to explore as and when this option becomes available.
Beeswax is a product of honeybee hives, and it is in many regards one of the most sustainable options for wax. It has a characteristically honey-like scent and its natural colour is very golden. This makes it a wonderful choice for a standalone candle, but challenging when trying to incorporate into scented candles. Bleached beeswax presents a solution to the colour issue, but presents other issues with ‘scent-trapping’, leading to poor scent throw. Beeswax is also much more expensive than other waxes due to its low yield and related expenses of maintaining bee colonies.
After much research, I have concluded that it would be near impossible to create a beeswax candle with an acceptable scent throw, therefore any candles on the market claiming to be a beeswax blend are likely adding chemical additives to their candles in order to boost scent throw. You may be wondering how companies are getting away with this misleading information, but actually there is currently no legal requirement for producers to disclose a full list of their wax ingredients. This is something to keep in mind when in the market for a new candle.
Soy wax does not have ideal burn qualities. It burns slowly, which is great, but it has trouble with scent throw and can also look quite unattractive once burning begins. It is a cheap wax, due to the fact that soybean oil is a by-product of a huge soybean industry, but there have been environmental concerns raised by groups like the WWF, including issues around deforestation (mostly in South America).
In addition, mass soybean production requires unhealthy quantities of pesticides and fertilisers. This can result in contamination of drinking waters in the local area. A large majority of soy crops are genetically modified to require increasingly large and unsustainable amounts of pesticides. The consequences of this are far-reaching and can affect weather patterns across the local region, as well as compounding the effects of global climate change.
It is, however, possible to grow soybean in a different manner than the one we currently see. But currently, it is not possible to source soy wax that is verifiably 100% non-GMO and sustainably farmed. For this reason, I have tried to move away from soy wax use, though as you will see below, and for good reason, this has not been entirely possible.
My Top Choice: Coconut Wax
It has been important to me from the very start of this venture that I have as minimal an impact on the environment as possible, whilst producing products that are beautiful and functional, with great scent throwing ability. I believe that my choice of wax, namely coconut wax, reflects these values. I hope that by investing in Lepe candles, you will be able to see for yourself that candles do not have to be harmful to the environment to smell or look good.
My choice of wax for the candles in my core collection is a blend of coconut oil and soy wax. The more I looked into the use of coconut oil in candles, the more I liked what I saw.
- Coconut oil is obtained by a simple extraction process.
- Coconut wax burns slowly with excellent scent throw.
- Coconut wax has been overlooked by the candle industry due to its increased cost.
- The deforestation practices linked with palm oil production are not yet associated with the coconut industry, but this is something I am continually keeping my eye on.
So why is it blended with soy wax?
Unfortunately, coconut wax is still not perfect. Currently, all coconut wax is blended with other plant-based waxes, such as soy wax, in order to increase the melting point. This is because coconut wax can be very soft, so it can cause a lot of trouble with melting in the summer months. There is currently no easy fix for this, but I will continue to research this as new developments occur within the industry.
Moreover, the Lepe Bubble Candle range is created using soy wax, as there is currently no better alternative to soy wax in creating candles outside of containers. This is because coconut wax is too soft to keep its shape outside of a glass jar or other suitable vessel. Soy wax, on the other hand, has a much higher melting point, and can withstand much higher temperatures before losing its structural integrity and shape.
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post, and I hope that I have been able to explain clearly why I believe that Lepe candles are made with the environment (and you!) in mind.
P.S. Visit our previous blog post to get the most out of your Lepe candles!