A Sustainable, Conscious Buying Guide to Non-Toxic, Paraffin-Free, and Clean-Burning Candles

soy wax candle in glass vessel burns next to a potted pothos vine

Natural candles should be made with a safe, clean-burning wick and wax, zero harmful or toxic chemicals or fragrances, and have a great scent throw.

But, that’s not the case for many so-called natural candles.

In fact, many candle makers hide behind poorly defined marketing terms like “non-toxic” or “green,” or use chemicals or compounds in fragrances, wax, or wicks that are known carcinogens or endocrine-disruptors.

If you want to learn how to make sure your candles are truly natural, keep reading!

We’ll cover:

  • the petroleum byproduct lurking in most candles
  • why soy candles are better
  • the ONLY ingredient that should be scenting your candles
  • what to avoid in your candle wicks
  • how a professional candle-maker creates amazing scent throw in her candles
  • how to use your new candle for aromatherapy
  • how to choose a candle-maker that prioritizes quality and transparency

We’ll also hear from Michelle Simmons, creator of Slow North and natural candle maker extraordinaire, on how expert candle makers create the perfect scents and get great scent throws in natural candles.

Ready? Let’s go! 

slow north's essential oil soy wax mini candle

What is the Healthiest Type of Candle?

For a healthy, non-toxic natural candle, look for:

  • Wax made from soy, beeswax, or other 100% vegetable wax
  • A 100% paper, cotton, hemp, or wood wick
  • Fragrance that is 100% from essential oils
  • No artificial dyes or fragrances
  • Recyclable and/or reusable containers
  • A company that is transparent and provides a complete ingredient list

Ten or twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have worried about what was in our candles. You just lit a candle and enjoyed its scent!

But now, we know a lot more about how burning toxic candles can decrease the air quality of our homes. That’s why it’s just as important to choose a clean burning candle as it is to choose a long lasting candle.

How to Choose a Clean-Burning, Sustainable Wax for Your Candle

If you walk down the candle aisle at Target, most of the candles you’ll find are made with paraffin wax.

Paraffin is a petroleum byproduct. It’s a nonrenewable resource that may damage air quality in your home when it’s burned.

In order to avoid paraffin, you have to read the full ingredient list. Companies can say things like “soy-based,” even if the candle is mostly made from paraffin wax.

Michelle Simmons, owner of Slow North, points out that makers willing to put the full ingredient list on their product are much more likely to be focused on quality and transparency.

“The thing about candle ingredients is that they don’t have to be listed. But as a consumer, I know that when everything’s listed, I can do the research and make a decision for myself. That’s important to me.”

Waxes made from soy wax, a vegetable-based wax from soybeans, beeswax, or other vegetable-derived, paraffin-free wax don’t pollute the air, and they’re renewable and biodegradable.

Soy wax has the added benefit of being vegan-friendly, as well.

Image of an all-natural soy wax essential oil candle from Slow North

What Are Soy Candles?

Soy candles are made from soy wax, or a soy wax blend. After soybeans are harvested, they’re cleaned, cracked, de-hulled, and rolled into flakes.

Oil is extracted from the flakes, and then dehydrogenated, a process which converts the oils from unsaturated to saturated, creating a shelf-stable wax that stays solid at room temperature.

Why Are Soy Candles Better?

Soy candles don’t emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or harmful toxins when burned, and they’re made from a renewable source (soybeans).

VOCs are compounds that are given off by household products like paints, laundry detergent, and cleaners. They can be extremely toxic, and are often found in high concentrations indoors. The more natural products we can use (like natural candles!), the fewer VOCs we’ll be emitting into our atmosphere.

In addition to being free from VOCs, soy candles also make a great candle base, creating a fantastic scent throw.

They’re also vegan-friendly, because they are free of animal byproducts, unlike beeswax.

What are the Cleanest Burning Candles? (How to Avoid VOCs, Phthalates, and Other Toxic Compounds)

The cleanest burning candles are:

  • Free from synthetic fragrances
  • Use only essential oils for fragrance

The problem with the term “fragrance,” is that it’s not well defined. “Fragrance” can include any number of chemicals and compounds, many of which can be known endocrine disruptors like phthalates or parabens, or even volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

In addition to being toxic, synthetic fragrances can also cause headaches.

It’s also important to note that terms like “natural fragrance” have little meaning, as “natural” is an unregulated term. That’s why it’s so important to look for a complete ingredient list, to ask lots of questions, and to prioritize companies that value transparency and quality.

Your natural candle should only be scented with essential oils, like lavender, rosemary, or patchouli.

Image of an all-natural grapefruit + spearmint soy wax essential oil candle from Slow North

Why Essential Oils are the Perfect Natural Fragrance

In addition to smelling fantastic, many essential oils also have aromatherapeutic benefits!

Essential oils are extracted from plants, usually by cold pressing or steam distillation, and are a renewable resource. They contain highly concentrated, aromatic extracts from plants that often have therapeutic or medicinal benefits.

Scientists have found that the aromas from essential oils (aromatherapy) may stimulate the limbic system, the part of your brain that’s involved in long-term memory, emotions, and physiological functions like blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.

This is why aromatherapy with essential oils can have such an impact on your mood and overall well being.

Many individual essential oils have also been extensively studied; lavender, for example, has numerous beneficial properties, including pain relief, stress relief, and help with sleep.

Essential oils are also completely safe to burn in candle form.

How to Choose a Safe, Clean-Burning Wick

Leads wicks were banned in 2003, which is great news because until then, it was possible to light candles that were filtering lead into the atmosphere!

You still have to look carefully at the wicks in your candles to make sure they’re truly natural. Candle makers will sometimes add metal to wicks, to help them stand up straight, but keep in mind that whatever is in your wick will ultimately be in your atmosphere.

To avoid metal wicks, make sure your candle’s wick is made from a completely natural ingredient, like paper, cotton, hemp, or wood.

If it’s coated in wax, ask questions to make sure the wax is 100% vegetable wax, and not paraffin.

Image of an all-natural sweet clementine soy wax essential oil candle from Slow North

How to Choose a Natural Candle With a Great Scent Throw

Scent throw is the way the candle’s scent spreads and moves throughout a room. An unlit natural candle has a different scent throw than a candle that’s lit.

An example of this is the Rosemary Lemon candle from Slow North. Before the candle’s lit, the smell is sharp and crisp. But after you light it, the lemon becomes sweeter and a little warmer.

One thing that can improve scent throw is coconut oil.

“One thing that we implemented after a lot of experimenting and researching,” says Slow North candle maker Simmons, “was that adding coconut oil to our soy wax blend improves the scent throw.

Coconut oil has a lower melting point than soy wax does, so it helps with dissipating the fragrance of the essential oils a little stronger.”

Knowledgeable candle makers also understand how to work with the flash point of essential oils. Different oils have different flash points, and different waxes have different burn points.

An experienced maker can take all of these into account so that the essential oils’ fragrance doesn’t flash off in the pouring pitcher, before the candles are even finished.

What to Look for in a Candle Holder (and how to responsibly reuse and recycle them)

This isn’t covered in most natural candle buying guides, but we think it’s important to think about whether or not your candle holder is recyclable.

Can you recycle or reuse the container your candle comes in?

Some containers (like Slow North’s drink-safe glass tumblers) can be cleaned out and reused for anything when your candle is finished. Just discard the last bits of remaining wax, and wipe the container clean with rubbing alcohol.

slow north soy wax tumbler candle vessel in clear frosted glass

How to Use Natural Candles for Aromatherapy

Natural candles made with essential oils can become a really beautiful, vibrant part of your daily routine. You can use them to establish and give purpose to different parts of your day.

Slow North’s owner, Michelle, for example, loves using her Grapefruit + Spearmint candle to start her work day.

“It’s really refreshing and energizing,” she says, “like a pick-me-up. It helps me get into work mode.”

For evening time, Michelle loves Moonglow or Lavender + Cedar. "They’re both really grounding and soothing to me. Those scents combinations say calm, relaxing, cozy home.”

In the kitchen, Michelle loves to use Slow North’s Rosemary + Lemon candle for a cleansing, refreshing experience.

But you can also use essential oils in natural candles for the specific benefits they provide.

Here are some other popular essential oils and their uses in aromatherapy:

  • Lavender (soothing, calming, great for relieving stress)
  • Eucalyptus (very cleansing, can remove bad odors)
  • Citrus smells like grapefruit, bergamot, clementine, and lemongrass (energizing and cheerful, can stimulate happiness and joy)
  • Mint (very energizing, a great mood booster)
  • Cedar (grounding and calming)
  • Sandalwood (very spiritual, can increase focus and calm nerves, great for meditation)
  • Patchouli (nurturing, warming)
  • Clove or cinnamon (warming, welcoming)
  • Geranium (nourishing and promotes self-love)
  • Rose (also promotes self-love)
  • Ylang ylang (good for headaches and insomnia)
Image of an all-natural eucalyptus + lavender soy wax essential oil candle from Slow North

 How to Adjust to Natural Candles

If you’ve been using an artificially scented candle, you might have to adjust to a natural candle. While natural candles are long burning, they’re not as highly scented.

But that’s not a bad thing.

Michelle explains she gets customers in her shop all the time who are switching from artificial candles because of headaches from the scents or because of concerns about toxicity.

“Essential oil candles are less overwhelming,” says Michelle, “but you’ll definitely still smell them!"

Sarah Guerrero
Sarah Guerrero
Sarah Guerrero is a freelance writer and contributor to Slow North. She has a degree in international business from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, and writes about sustainable business practices and ethical living.