Are Soy Candles a Greener Choice?

A burning votive candle on a silver plate with paper snowflakes and a beaded starfish next to it

If you love burning candles as much as I do it’s important to be aware that they can actually cause air quality issues. I wondered if soy candles were a more eco-friendly choice than the more common candles made of paraffin. So I dug into the topic and found some interesting information that might surprise you.

Soy candles are a greener more eco-friendly choice than paraffin candles because they are made from a renewable, biodegradable, non-toxic resource. Plus they don’t release harmful chemicals such as alkans, alkenes, and toluene like paraffin candles do as they burn.

BUT there are still some important things to consider if you want to keep your home healthy and “green” while burning candles.

Why Soy Candles are a Greener, More Eco-Friendly Choice

Soy candles aren’t made of a petroleum-based product like paraffin candles are. Paraffin is actually a by-product of the oil refining process. So the substance which paraffin is made from is a non-renewable resource. Soy candles, on the other hand, are made from soybeans, which are a very renewable resource.

When choosing green options for our homes it’s important to focus more on renewable resources rather than non-renewable ones, right? So soy candles are more eco-friendly based on that criteria.

Having said that, not all soy is environmentally friendly. To produce soybeans you need to clear land for fields. Some of the land being cleared to keep up with the demand for soy is rainforest land. That land is habitat for animals and plants and is a key player in our planet’s ability to help us deal with greenhouse gas emissions and reduce global warming.

The problem is knowing where the soy in your candle comes from. Is it from a small organic farm that’s not putting a bunch of chemicals on its soybeans and isn’t using GMO soy? Or is the soy from a huge company clear cutting rainforests in South America and endangering our planet by doing so?

It’s not easy to tell. Even if you know where your candle was made that doesn’t mean that the soy itself came from there. Some soy candle companies focus on responsibly sourcing their soy from traceable U.S. soy crops. If you can find those – that’s great! You’ll end up supporting organic agriculture and U.S. farmers. Win Win, right?!?

There is actually an organization that is working to make sure soy is produced responsibly, and make sure that deforestation isn’t taking place to produce more soy.

It’s called the Round Table on Responsible Soya Association (RTRSA) which was started by the World Wildlife Federation. It’s a work in progress because this big of an industry isn’t easy to make environmentally friendly. There’s a lot of money to be made and it’s so tempting for corporations to take shortcuts. You can check them out at their website here if you are interested.

So another way to make sure your soy candles are responsibly sourced is by looking for soy sourced from the RTRSA certified plantations.

I’ve linked to some US-sourced organic soy candles below if you are looking for a place to start.

Soy candles generally cause fewer air quality issues than paraffin candles. Because paraffin comes from the refining of crude oil it contains many chemicals which when burned are released into the air.

I’m no expert on chemicals or air quality, but chemistry professor and lead researcher Dr. Ruhullah Massoudi from South Carolina State University could be considered one.

In a study completed in 2009 he tested different brands of paraffin wax candles against soybean wax candles. All the candles tested were free of dyes and fragrances. (We’ll get to problems with fragrances in a bit).

The study found that a variety of NOT very healthy chemicals are released when we burn paraffin candles. These chemicals include alkans, alkenes and toluene.

“The paraffin candles we tested released unwanted chemicals into the air. For a person who lights a candle every day for years or just uses them frequently, inhalation of these dangerous pollutants drifting in the air could contribute to the development of health risks like cancer, common allergies and even asthma.”

Dr Ruhullah Massoudi, SC State University News

Since this study came out additional studies were done to check its validity. One by the National Candle Association, makes it less clear that paraffin candles are dangerous to our health or release any more chemicals than soy candles.

I’m a little wary of the study sponsored by the National Candle Association, however, because they obviously have reasons to want the results to show that candles are not harmful. Afterall, candle making and selling is their business.

There is an additional study I came across that was completed in 2018 in France that I think likely includes less potential bias. It tested the health risk of scented candles and incense emissions under normal usage conditions in French households. You can read the whole article (which is pretty short) here.

The French study brings us to another important point about candles and whether they are environmentally friendly or not.

4 lit votive candles in heart holders next to a bouquet of flowers

What about fragrance & scented candles?

So far we’ve been focused on unscented candles. When you throw in scent and fragrance it’s a whole new kettle of fish. (But hopefully not a fish scented candle. Yuck!)

Scented candles are extremely popular and have been for years now. Companies like Yankee Candle have made their brand on how strongly scented their candles are.

So is the material being used to scent these candles eco-friendly? Most commercial candles are scented with chemicals. There are guidelines and rules in place to ensure that the chemicals being used are safe for human use. There is even an International Fragrance Association whose website you can visit by clicking that link, that works to make sure that those delicious smelling candles are safe for general use.

BUT here’s a key thing to note: it’s not necessarily what the fragrance is made of that’s the problem. For many people with breathing problems, like asthma or COPD, just breathing in the candle fragrance can cause breathing issues.

If you do decide to burn soy candles to keep them as environmentally friendly and keep air pollution levels lower in your home, stick with unscented candles and burn them in well-ventilated spaces.

But there’s more to consider than just candle wax and fragrance when you’re looking at how eco-friendly your candles are.

Are Candle Wicks Safe?

Over the years there has been a lot of talk about lead in candle wicks. While this practice was fairly common years ago (like 40 or 50) using lead in candle wicks has been banned in the U.S. since 2003.

The problem with lead wicks was discovered much earlier than that, however, and many U.S.candles makers voluntarily stopped using lead core wicks way back in 1974.

So if you have some really old candles lying around, they might have lead wicks.

Fortunately, you can easily check if they do by rubbing the new (never lit) wick on a white sheet of paper. If you see a gray mark then that means the candle wick has lead in it. If it doesn’t leave a gray mark, you should be fine. If the candle has been lit, then this test won’t work and to err on the said of safety I’d probably dispose of it.

The other way you might end up with a candle that has a lead core wick is if your candle has been imported from a country that doesn’t have any regulations about lead in wicks. Most countries do, so this is still unlikely. But again, you can check the wick by using the above-mentioned test.

4 lit tealight candles

What about the metal cups tea lights are in?

I love burning tea light candles and one concern as far as being eco-friendly goes is the cup that the candle is in. If it’s plastic it will likely end up falling into the single-use plastic category and as such is not very eco-friendly. If the cup the candle is in is metal it’s likely aluminum and may be able to be recycled.

Are artificial candles better?

There are many different kinds of battery-powered candles available these days and some even have a nice flickering effect. As far as being eco-friendly, I would have you consider that they are made of plastic, they eventually get thrown away, and there are batteries involved.

So if you have breathing problems or don’t like the idea of burning candles (which makes perfect sense if you have cats or small children) then they might be a good choice. But I wouldn’t say they were high on the eco-friendly scale.

3 Beeswax candles sitting on a wood background

What about Beeswax?

I focused mainly on soy-based candles in this article rather than comparing beeswax for a couple of reasons. First, beeswax is usually very expensive and so candles made from it are expensive and second, and beeswax is produced by animals that are really struggling in our environment today. If beeswax is harvested in the wrong manner it can weaken the hive and the health of the bees. Our bees are already in danger. So increasing the beeswax market faster than is likely sustainable and O.K. from the bee’s health standpoint seems like a bad idea.

What about palm oil candles?

Palm Oil is a renewable resource, however, the high demand for it is decimating animal habitats of threatened species like tigers, elephants, orangutans, and rhinos. The negative environmental impact of irresponsible palm oil production is very serious.

The Verdict

Soy candles are a greener more eco-friendly choice than paraffin candles as long as the soy is responsibly sourced. To keep home air quality as healthy as possible avoid scented candles, limit burn time, and burn candles in well-ventilated areas. And of course, never leave a burning candle unattended.

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