What are the different types of candle wax?

Paraffin

This is the wax that, until just recently, you thought wax the only wax in the universe.  Paraffin is made from petroleum.  It’s really cheap, so paraffin candles cost less than candles made with other waxes (though candlemakers who comparison shop and buy in bulk can get soy wax for only slightly more than paraffin).  Paraffin is the easiest kind of wax to make a functional candle out of when you don’t know what you’re doing.  Cheap + hard to screw up = perfect for beginners.  Even though I no longer use paraffin myself, I’m still glad I started out with paraffin because experimenting with it taught me a lot about how to make good (and bad) candles.  Other advantages to paraffin include:

  • it’s easy to dye with all types of candle dyes,
  • all candlemaking fragrance oils work well in it,
  • almost all candlemaking instructions assume you’re using paraffin,
  • all the “rules of thumb” apply to it, and
  • all additives work in it (which means it’s easy to make a side range of pretty effects such as snowflakes and crystal patterns).  Some of the pretty things that can be done with paraffin can’t be done with other waxes.

Paraffin’s disadvantages include:

  • oil mining is frequently bad for the environment,
  • petroleum is a non-renewable resource, so we’re basically setting fire to something we have limited quantities of,
  • it doesn’t biodegrade, so it’s going to be in our landfills for a REALLY long time
  • you can scrape *most* of the spilled paraffin out of your carpet, but to get it all dissolved you would have to use a special chemical cleaner designed for dissolving paraffin.  This cleaner has a lovely oranges smell, but it says on the label in big scary black letters, “This product contains an ingredient known to the State of California to be a carcinogen.”  Granted that’s the solvent not the paraffin, but it’s still kinda creepy.

Good uses for paraffin candles:

  • Beautiful decorative candles that won’t be burned
  • If you need a huge number of candles and have a very small budget to work with, paraffin may be your best bet, though comparison shop between paraffin and soy before deciding.
  • Best wax to start with when you start out in candlemaking.

 

Cream Wax & Gel Wax

Cream wax is a soft, opaque white mixture of paraffin and oils.  Basically it’s just paraffin that’s specially designed to work very well in container (jar) candles.  Gel wax is clear, and even when dyed it’s still see-through.  If you’ve seen cool-looking candles that are like underwater scenes with glass fish suspended in them and such, those are gel candles.  It’s definately not a vegetable wax, but it’s not quite paraffin either.  I admit that I don’t know very much about gel wax because I’ve never used it.  Cream and gel waxes can’t stand up on their own; they must be poured in containers.  Some fragrance oils can’t be used in gel wax.  I’ve heard that some people have a lot of trouble specifically with finding any brand of cinnamon fragrance oil that’s gel-safe.  Also, while not a problem for properly-made gel candles, since gel burns at a high temperature and contains bubbles, if you buy a gel candle that was made with a glass container that’s too thin, it can literally EXPLODE in your living room, sending molten wax and glass shards flying in all directions.  This is caused by the container, not the wax.  Nevertheless, be sure to buy gel candles from someone who has been making them for a long time.  If you’re making gel candles, read up on the extra safety precautions needed to work with gel safely.

Good uses for these waxes:

  • Cream wax in containers is the easiest type of candle to make, and requires the least experimentation to get the scent right, a good wax for beginners.
  • Gel — These candles are BEAUTIFUL!  Fantastic decorative candles, also can be a nice choice for banquets or other special occasions.

 

Soy Wax

Soy wax is hydrogenated soybean oil.  Yes, soy candles come from the same plant as tofu.  Crazy, huh?  Soybeans are incredibly versatile plants.  They can be used for pretty much everything.  They’re like the duct tape of the plant world.  The advantages of soy wax are:

  • it’s a sustainable resource (one day we’ll run out of petroleum, but we’re never going to run out of dirt, water, and sunlight),
  • getting soybean oil doesn’t require mining and does not harm the Earth or cause habitat destruction,
  • it’s biodegradable,
  • it’s made from American soybeans so it stimulates the US economy and makes money for our hard-working and often underpaid farmers, and
  • it’s *much* easier to clean up when you spill it on something (just warm water and soap and a little rubbing and it’s gone).
  • except for paraffin, it’s the cheapest wax around

Disadvantages of soy wax:

  • Soy wax molecules don’t grab onto fragrance oil molecules as well as paraffin (yeah, yeah, so “grab” isn’t a very scientific word, I know) and this means that some fragrance oils simply do not work in soy wax.  I don’t know enough chemistry to know why some scents work great and some don’t work at all, it seems pretty random and requires a lot of experimentation.  Soy candles can be strongly scented with fabulous scents, and can be scented with most of the same scents used in paraffin, so as long as you’re the customer instead of the candlemaker you don’t have to worry about this one.
  • Most regular candle dyes can’t make strong colors in soy.  So you’ll need to either buy specially formulated dyes designed for soy wax, or learn to love pastels.
  • Soy wax can make great candles, but it’s a lot harder to get the hang of and can cause beginners to give up in frustration.
  • In its pure form, it has a much shorter burn time.  Add stearic acid to boost the burn time.
  • Not as good for wax tarts/scent tarts/wax potpourri as other waxes.
  • Some people are allergic to it.

Good uses for soy wax:

  • Pretty much everything!  The only thing soy wax isn’t very well suited to is scent tarts.  But don’t worry nature lovers, mixing soy wax with other plant waxes can solve this problem.
  • A good choice for when you need a large number of candles on a small budget.
  • Large candles, as they would be much more expensive made from another wax.

 

Palm Wax

Palm wax is made from palm trees.  It has all the same advantages of other vegetable waxes in terms of environmental benefits.  It’s harder, so it can be added to soy wax to harden it up a bit while still resulting in all-veggie candles.  It’s more expensive than soy wax.  I wish I knew more about it, but sadly it’s one I haven’t gotten to play with yet.  I plan to fix this soon!

 

Bayberry Wax

Bayberry wax is made from the waxy coating found on the outside of the berries of the bayberry bush.  The berries are boiled, and the wax is then scraped off the top of the water.  This takes LOTS of bayberries, and lots of time.  Bayberry wax is expensive.  It’s also brittle, so pure bayberry candles break easily.  Bayberry candles usually have some beeswax added to them to help prevent this problem.  Bayberry wax smells nice and is very popular around Christmas and New Year’s.  In the United States, it is traditional to burn bayberry candles just before New Year’s to bring money in the new year.  Tradition says that it also ensures that the previous summer’s harvest will last out the winter.  Granted this isn’t nearly as big of a problem as it used to be, but bayberry candles have been being made at least since the first Europeans settled North America.  I don’t know whether Indians used bayberries to make candles or whether they used other methods.

Good uses for bayberry wax:

  • Christmas & New Year’s candles
  • Candles intended to draw money & prosperity
  • Mix with other plant waxes as a hardener and to get the bayberry scent naturally.

 

Beeswax

Beeswax is the most expensive candle wax around.  However, it also has a much longer burn time than other waxes.  So if you’re just looking for candles to decorate with, you’re better off using something cheaper.  If you’re going to be burning the candles, you’ll find that they last a long time and burn with a beautiful pure bright white flame instead of the yellow flames of other waxes.  It’s sticky though, so it can be a real pain to clean up if it spills.  It also requires strong dyes, especialy if it’s unbleached, so for making colored beeswax candles try using soy dyes.  Candlemakers take note:  You *will* need a wick 1 to 2 sizes larger for beeswax candles than you would use for other candles of the same size.

Good uses for beeswax:

  • Christmas candles
  • Add to plant waxes as a hardener
  • Use to make salves and solid perfumes
  • Great for hand-sculpted candles
  • Good for smaller candles, as most find large beeswax candles too expensive.  However, beeswax lovers appreciate small beeswax candles because they are only a few dollars more in price and have an incredibly longer burn time than small candles of other waxes.
  • Any time you need a candle to burn for a very long time.