Candles – Romantic Treats or Health and Environmental Hazards?

(article by Kit Cassingham)

Has it occurred to you that all the festivity, relaxing and romancing you get from the candles you use could be harming your health and the health of those who frequent your hotel or B&B? The wax of most candles is made from petroleum, so burning it is like having a tiny diesel engine running right in beside you. And the wicks on standard candles often contain lead cores — not a good thing to breathe while your candle burns. Scents used in most perfumed candles have impacts on health too. Sorry to bring you down like that, however, I do have some healthy alternatives to suggest.

Environmentally friendly candles are generally a healthy candle alternative. The three options to consider are beeswax candles, 100 percent soy candles, and palm oil candles. You will love these candles for a lot of reasons including:

  • they burn clean(er)
  • when they drip of spill, the wax is easier to clean up
  • burn time is longer
  • brighter flames
  • renewable resources

Candles have provided light for over five thousand years. Originally they were made from animal fat and produced a lot of smoke and order (stench by today’s standards). Beeswax candles have been around for a long time. Beeswax candles made their entrance onto the scene in the Middle Ages and stayed popular until electric light took over the job of lighting the way in the early 1900s. It’s interesting to see how candles have evolved throughout the years.

There have always been issues around burning candles, not counting the open flame hazards. Environmentally friendly candles have their own issues of some sort or another. There are several issues that are important in this discussion.

  1. GM (Genetically Modified) crops: It is important to take into consideration the effects of genetically modified crops’ effects on the environment and agriculture. This is mostly associated with soy candles.
  2. Distillation Process: Are chemicals used, or steam?
  3. Plantation Crops: Plantation crops can threaten rain forests because they eliminate biodiversity, degrade soil, as well as bringing up issues of land rights and local peoples’ rights. Palm oil plantations can be culprits here.
  4. Chemicals: Are pesticides or herbicides used?

So it seems you change one issue for another — health of people versus potential environmental harm. Seems like a bad trade in a lot of ways, doesn’t it? In my opinion, no it’s not as bad as it looks if you make the right changes.

Beeswax candles are expensive enough that most hospitality venues probably won’t buy them, so I’m going to ignore them in the balance of this discussion. That leaves plantation (palm oil) and GM (soy) issues.

I believe that GM crops are a serious threat to agriculture and future food sources. When seeds of GM crops are sterile, not able to be used for future crops, this forces us to rely on the companies that created those plants, creating food monopolies and potential reasons for more strife. So I see GM as an important and easy issue to avoid — don’t buy things that are made from GM crops.

Most soy is a GM crop. I can reduce, even a little bit, the demand for that GM crop by not buying soy candles. And since most soy candles are a blend of petroleum and soy, it’s an even better reason to add soy candles to my list of products to avoid buying. I urge you to do the same. Palm oil, not being a GM crop, makes good sense here.

Then there is the distillation issue. Choosing steam distillation over chemical distillation seems like a no-brainer to me. Both cost and damage are increased by relying on chemical distillation, leaving steam distillation the clear winner in my mind. That again points to palm oil as the preferred ingredient for candles. Soy requires chemical distillation, making it again a less than desirable option.

What about plantations and the problems they cause? Indeed, this is a big issue. But it’s getting easier to support programs that don’t put pressure on people to cut down rain forests to monocrop plants that they think will make them more money. Saving the rain forests is vital for many reasons. So how can we avoid encouraging more damage?

In the case of palm oil plantations, it’s done through the Green Palm Sustainability program. This is a certificate trading program designed to tackle the environmental and social problems created by the production of palm oil, kind of like Carbon Credits help reduce carbon damage on the planet. It’s based on the principle that the best way to encourage people to work in a sustainable way is to reward them for doing so. The Green Palm Sustainability program is endorsed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Another plus to using palm oils is that they are a highly efficient oil producer. About 50 percent of a palm fruit is oil, which means it takes less land (ten times less according to some sources I read) than other oil-producing crops. With soy and palm oils making up about 60 percent of the world’s production of oil crops, properly managed palm plantations can increase the supply of healthy candles without harming the environment and ecosystems where they are grown.

Pesticide and herbicide use is another concern with some oil crop production. Soy is a heavy user of these chemicals. Oil palms are not.

My research has lead me to believe that buying palm oil candles of certified sustainable palm oil are environmentally friendly. Certified sustainable palm oil is produced at palm oil plantations which have been independently audited, and found to comply with the globally agreed upon environmental standards devised by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Their standards have stringent sustainability criteria that include good social, environmental, and economic practices. The proceeds from Green Palm certificate sales encourage plantations to continually strive for improvements that ultimately lead to an increase in the production of sustainable palm oil with social, environmental and economic benefits to them and their communities.

Part of being a green hospitality business is paying attention to the 3Ps (People, Profit, Planet) of sustainability, at your property and with the suppliers you use and the products you buy. Buying palm oil candles from companies that have the Green Palm Sustainability seal is another easy step you can take toward your efforts of sustainability.

Get greener by buying unscented, palm oil candles and improve your health and that of your guests. Use dinner candles, and candles for any situation that you and your guests want to be more special.

Kit Cassingham, Founder and Chief Sustainability Officer of Sage Blossom Consulting, is a hospitality consultant to the B&B and hotel industries, and has been since 1988. Her focus includes market niche, and sustainable and green operations. Kit is the “go to” person when you want to improve your hospitality business. Learn more at