Why we don't use soy wax

It’s amazing nowadays to see homes insulated with recycled plastics, bottles constructed from recycled glass and bags comprised of recycled paper. When re-using our waste is so important to maintaining a healthy environment, would it not make sense then to make our candles by re-using oils? 

As candle makers we often get asked about the waxes we use. Consumers are more conscious these days which is great. Soy wax is definitely on trend right now; it’s marketed as a sustainable, renewable resource, un-reliant on fossil fuels. We don’t use soy wax right now and we’d like to tell you why.

TLDR: Put simply, there’s a lot to take into consideration with the ethics between resources, a lot more than just what they’re, made from. We want to highlight the importance of constantly questioning things. If you're buying anything for its Eco-credentials you should see what information the supplier provides. Simply saying Eco-friendly is not enough, neither is simply assuming something is because at the very basic level it's derived from a plant.

  • Just saying 'Eco-friendly' doesn't make a product Eco-friendly. It's much more complex than that
  • While a soy plant is a natural product, soy wax is not. The plant is grown, then distributed, then processed - to be burnt as wax.
  • We believe that if we were to use soy wax currently, it would have more of a negative global impact than positive environmental benefit 
  • We use recycled waste to have as little negative impact on our environment and economy as possible, as we believe every non-essential product should
  • The phrase 100% soy wax can be misleading. A candle using soy wax is processed (like other candles) and has additives (like other candles) to make it burn.
  • There's no significant, scientifically backed evidence to prove that soy wax is in any way less harmful, or cleaner burning than other wax types
  • Soy grown on an industrial scale has a multitude of negative environmental and socio-economic impacts. Just being a plant doesn't make it Eco-friendly.

Look behind the buzzwords

It’s easy to jump on the wagon with Eco-friendly buzzwords, but what do they really mean? The impact of using the same resource supplied from one source may be entirely different if you procured it from somewhere else. The processes by which it’s harvested and made can be different and the distance to which it travels has to be considered too. A product and the material it’s made from are different things and the journey from how one has arrived to the other can be complex. Natural and organic are two different things, so are soy and soy wax.

Try not to accept sweeping statements such as ‘it’s great for agriculture’ or ‘it’s a renewable resource’ if they’re not followed up by evidence. Try to collect a variety of opinions and also think of the motives behind them. Most importantly, remember process and evidence is always changing.

Girl hiding behind a leaf.

What's soy used for?

You use a lot more soy than you imagine from day to day. Lecithin, a soy derivative, is widely used in processed food. Your beef burger is most likely raised on soy and soy additives are in many foods. The WFF has an in depth report on the growth of soy use and impacts - check it out.  They also have a shorter interactive guide here.

Some of soy's many uses

The soy market

Soy production has grown tenfold in the last 50 years, fuelled by its high yield per area, variety of uses and easily marketable environmental benefits. It’s estimated the total area of soy now covers the combined area of France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. There’s some good infographics here on soy production growth.

Europe (where we're based) imports around 35x more soy than it produces. This soy demand equates to around 15mil ha of land, 13 million of which is in South America. For comparison, this area is equivalent to 90% of all the agricultural area of Germany, just for soy. 

Several things have assisted soy's popularity as a resource:

  • European agricultural policy makes tariffs on animal feed low, making soy meal relatively cheap to import. 

  • The ban on processed animal proteins has highlighted soy as an alternative.

  • The growth of aquaculture has increased demand for soy based fish feed.

  • The growth of the biofuel market has increased demand of soy for biodiesel.

  • Reduced restrictions on trade after the formation of the World Trade Organisation has made soy cheaper to import.

  • Soy producers, users and vendors have been largely un-reigned in marketing the environmental, ethical and ecological benefits of soy, often on an unfounded basis.
At the moment soy is a capitalists dream. Production is increasing and demand is growing, it’s a huge industry with some pretty massive players.

There’s a problem here though right? The demand for soy is growing, we need more land to grow it and workers to farm it and we need to get it from where it’s to where it’s used. 

A rainforest and rolling hills.Birdseye view of shipping containers.

Impacts of global soy production

Deforestation and land loss
Carbon capture and sequestration
Soil erosion
Water availability
Modern farming and agrochemicals
Social change and human rights
Genetic modification

Is all soy questionably produced?

The way in which soy is produced is varied greatly. Yes you can find GM-free, smallholders producing soy in certain areas; however the majority is still produced in South America. Though improvements are being made in South America to soy production, many faults still exist.

We'd advocate that if you are buying a soy based product solely because of its environmental benefits, you try and find out where the soy has actually come from. If you're buying soy wax, you then might want to dig into the manufacture process too.

Soy wax production

Soy wax uses a mechanical process to separate the soybean matter from the oil. The oil is then refined and bleached. Soybean oil is then heated to 140-220 degrees Celsius in a hydrogenating machine. More than just soy goes into making soy wax, the wax is chemically distilled with hexane, bleached with chlorine, deodorized with boric acid and then hydrogenated.

Now, this isn’t to say that any other wax doesn’t use chemical processes in production. But we want to drive home - soy wax is more than just soybean off the plant.

  • Soy wax isn’t natural. Soy is natural – if it isn’t GM soy, or hasn't been planted in the place of natural rain-forest that was formed over hundreds of years.

  • Natural doesn’t mean sustainable - not if it’s grown in monocultures on cut down rain-forests on continually decreasing quality soil and at the expense of global water tables. 

  • To be labelled as a pure soy candle, it only has to be 51% soy. Even ‘100% soy’ candles have to be processed with a small amount of paraffin.

Common misconceptions about soy wax

There's a lot of common misconceptions promoted by users of soy wax to try and sell their product. Here's some questions answered, backed up by the National Candle Association, the governing body of candle manufacturers in the United States.

Does soy wax burn cleaner?

If made well, with sufficiently refined oils, study shows that all wax types exhibit the same clean burning behaviour. Here’s a report on the National Candlemaker’s Association website.

Does soy wax burn longer?

Our candles have an average 35 hour burn time, we’ve timed it – you can if you like too! That’s on par with any similar size soy candle. If it’s not we’d question what else has been added to it, probably more paraffin.

Does soy wax hold the scent better?

Not if you want it to be natural. Even more chemicals are added to help soy wax hold its scent. Smell our candles for yourself, they smell great lit or not.

Is soy wax is the only biodegradable wax?

No. Studies have shown that beeswax, paraffin and vegetable-based waxes are all biodegradable.

Are soy candles better for your health?

No. Paraffin wax – like all candle waxes – is non-toxic. In fact, paraffin is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in food, cosmetics, and medical applications. Food-grade paraffin is commonly used for manufacturing candles.   

Is soy good for animals?

If you argued that you're eating soy instead of animals, then maybe it could be considered so. If you consider that the large majority of soy is produced to feed and fatten animals with so that they can be fed to humans, probably not, nor if you consider all the animals that have lost their habitat to soy farms. 

Is soy wax natural?

As we've said before, soy wax isn’t natural. Soy wax doesn't grow on trees. Soy (one of soy wax's constituent materials) is natural – if it isn’t GM soy, or hasn't been planted in the place of natural rain-forest that was formed over hundreds of years. Nearly all candles contain some paraffin to help them burn, along with other material or chemicals to add or hold scents and improve burning. If someone simply tells you a manufactured product is 'natural' with no other evidence or information, we'd advise you to question their motives.  

Toxic? Non-toxic?

Like 'natural' 'non-toxic' is another mostly unregulated claim that gets thrown around for marketing purposes without much thought or honesty behind it. 'Non-toxic' means the product doesn't contain ingredients that have been linked to toxic responses in humans. Something can be derived outside of nature and still be non-toxic. Just because something is natural, it doesn't mean it is non-toxic. You can eat food grade paraffin and not expect a toxic response from your body. Food grade paraffin is used widely in the food industry as wrappings for cheese and other food stuffs, it's also an additive in some foods. Obviously, we do not advise eating wax, it holds no real nutritional value and in all waxes there are other additives such as scents or binders which (legally) should be labelled on every candle you buy. What is harmful however, is when people use phrases such as 'non-toxic' dishonestly, wrongly, or just to sell people something.

What wax do we use and why?

We use a mix of vegetable and mineral oil. Yes mineral oil is paraffin. The paraffin we use in non-toxic, food-grad parrafin.
For us it boils down to several things:

  • Can we source ethically produced soy locally at a reasonable cost? No.
  • Can we source waste to re-use in our products? Yes.
  • Are fossil fuels going to stop being used anytime soon? No – though we’d sure love them to be.

  • How can we get more out of fossil fuel waste? Aside from reducing it, by re-using it.
For us it’s a matter of what is best at the moment in time. We don’t want to jump on the band wagon shouting out repetitive environmental rhetoric. We want to use what we think is best for us and the environment.

We want to think hard about how we can limit the impact of our products based on where we are right now and the impacts of what we think those actions may be in the future.

We don’t think it would be beneficial to buy cheap GM soy wax to support bad farming practising in another country. We don’t want to increase air and sea miles importing soy to the UK and we don't want to buy a product that has potentially contributed to deforestation, loss of unique habitat and livelihoods.

At the end of the day a candle is a non essential product. We’d rather use a byproduct of gas and oil production, mixed with vegetable oil (vegetables that are not farmed on rainforests). Than use an original source product of much controversy, especially if we can’t guarantee its quality, or if we do, have to fly it across the sea to burn it at great expense.

To us, in our situation, it’s a more environmentally responsible choice right now. That’s not to say our views will change as the situation does, or as new information arises - we're always learning. What’s important is that we are going to keep on questioning things.

If you care about your products, you should too.

Candles, emissions and the Clean Air Strategy

We are a member of the British Candlemakers Federation (BCF) and follow their guidelines on candle production, emissions and safety.

You can read the BCF’s response to the 2019 Clean Air Strategy here. To summarise:

  • Emissions from candles are marginal compared to other sources and are within World Health Organisation guidelines

  • Jonathan Bartley (Co-Leader of the Green Party) has stated that the Clean Air Strategy is avoiding the major causes of air pollution by focusing on things such as candles, rather than transport. 

  • Within homes, most emissions come from sources such as cooking, building materials, cleaning materials and the burning of wood or coal for heating.

  • Candle organisations within Europe continue to promote candle safety and three European standards are dedicated to candle emissions

In addition to this, the European Candle Association released a statement on findings related to fine particles in candles, based on a comprehensive research report by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency which used state of the art scientific methods to test a variety of the most common candles.

Important findings included:

  • Candles do emit fine particles during burning, but, as long as they are protected from draught as instructed by the manufacturers, virtually all particles emitted by most candles consist of the salts used to treat wicks. These salts dissolve easily in water, meaning they are not persistent and can be excreted easily by the body.

  • The soot content of the particles is very low and much lower than in diesel exhaust for example.

  • Heavy metals, such as lead or nickel could not be detected in the emissions.

  • The emission of volatile organic compounds was unremarkable and at very low levels.

  • Due to these significant differences, particles emitted by candles are different from those emitted by other sources (eg traffic, dust etc) and should not be be compared directly with those other sources.

  • It is recommended to purchase high-quality candles, protect them from draught during burning and trim the wick if it gets too long.

  • Our advice is to make sure that the candles you buy are well made.Ensuring that producers are members of organisations such as the BCF is a good indicator of this. .

Source material and suggested reading

Image credits:
Photo 1 by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash
Photo 2 by Jorge Illich-Gejo on Unsplash
Photo 3 by chuttersnap on Unsplash