The Great “Which Wax Is Best” Debate
You will probably have heard, and maybe even joined in with, the discussions about the benefits of soy wax, or about how paraffin wax is unhealthy or not good for you, but what are the facts? Let’s examine the myths and rumors.
Paraffin wax is a heavy hydrocarbon that comes from crude oil, produced by refining or separating the waxes out of crude mineral oils. As crude oil is obtained from the ground, it is a compositionally varied product, consisting of a mixture of hydrocarbons. Another name for crude oil is fossil fuel. Crude oil is refined into finished products by complex processes. There are three general categories of petroleum wax. They include paraffin, microcrystalline and petrolatum. Paraffin waxes are derived from the light lubricating oil distillates and contain predominantly straight-chain hydrocarbons with an average chain length of 20 to 30 carbon atoms.
Soy wax, on the other hand, is derived from vegetable matter. Soy wax is a vegetable wax made from the oil of soybeans. After harvesting, the beans are cleaned, cracked, de-hulled, and rolled into flakes. The oil is then extracted from the flakes and hydrogenated. The hydrogenation process converts some of the fatty acids in the oil from unsaturated to saturated. This process dramatically alters the melting point of the oil, making it a solid at room temperature. Extracting the oil is a chemical process, so claims that soy wax is ‘organic’ are also completely untrue!
TheU.S. grows the vast majority of the world’s soybeans, primarily in Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana, and it is also grown in Argentina. Unless you live in those areas, the carbon footprint of soy is far from ‘environmentally friendly’. Here in the U.K. all soy wax is imported from America. Quite a journey!
Now you know how both soy and paraffin candle waxes are made, let’s take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of both types.
There are a lot of myths surrounding soy candles. Most of these are designed to sell soy candles, which are not as universally popular as paraffin candles, and they have very little truth in them. A great example is the great “no soot” myth. Places that sell soy candles love to say that there is absolutely no soot produced with a soy candle. However, there is no truth at all to that claim. Scientifically, all organic compounds, when burned, will emit some carbon (soot) due to incomplete combustion. Sooting is primarily a factor of wick length and disturbance of the flame’s steady teardrop shape. There is no such thing as a soot-free candle. Also, while soy wax is natural and will not produce the thick black soot that you see on some paraffin containers, it does produce soot.
An important fact to remember is that not all soot is black. Soot can be a “white soot” that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Soy wax will produce little black soot – unless the candle is improperly wicked, made, or burned – but it may produce white soot.
If you have 10 minutes this is a fun video explaining how soot is formed.
Before you get scared of soot, understand that candle soot is, in fact, not harmful to you. It is composed primarily of elemental carbon particles, and is similar to the soot given off by kitchen toasters and cooking oils. These everyday household sources of soot are not considered a health concern, and are chemically different from the soot formed by the burning of diesel fuel, coal and gasoline. The myth of “soot free soy candles” is not only inaccurate, it is simply an effort by some companies to scare the general public into buying their candles.
There may be some benefits to purchasing soy wax candles. While petroleum based paraffin wax is a limited resource, soy wax is a renewable resource that is limited only by how many soybeans we can grow. Soy candles do burn longer than paraffin wax candles, sometimes up to twice as long.
However, soy wax is naturally a “soft” wax. While container candles, tea-lights, and small wax tarts may be made entirely of soy, it is extremely difficult to make good pillar candles and votives out of 100% pure soy wax. Additives are used to make them better, but in most cases, paraffin wax is still the best solution for those types of candles.
In the end, both paraffin wax and soy wax are both good choices for candle wax. Neither is more “environmentally friendly” than the other, as there has never been any scientific evidence that paraffin wax is harmful to your health in any way at all.
It is a personal choice of which type you prefer to use, and both types, made correctly, can hold scent and dye just as well. The only benefit that there is in all reality, is that container candles using soy wax do burn longer. However, most other claims regarding soy wax are false and/or very misleading.