Candles — Choosing and caring for them

When we had a mantle (of sorts) in our last home, I’d usher in each season with a swap of candle colors. Spring tapers were the colors of pastel eggs, and fall warmed up with rusts and browns. Bright grass green pillars spelled summer and Christmas, well — depending on the year we’d have an array of reds and greens or simple whites or blues, evergreen scented, of course. Our new home doesn’t have a mantle, but I still swap candles around the house each season. 

Candles can add warmth, scent, and ambiance to a room — any room, from a small bedroom to a large event venue. They light jack-o-lanterns and luminaria, and they can turn a bath, yoga practice, or reading session into a relaxing retreat. Candles are also an important part of many spiritual rituals — and we light them both in memory and in celebration. (One little candle can elevate a simple cupcake to a party treat!)

There are so many types of candles to choose from,  and ingredient choices are important for those of us looking to maximize the air quality in our homes. So I thought you might like a rundown of candle choices, along with some helpful tips for keeping candles looking their best and burning their longest. 

Note: I’ve also linked to some candles, candle holders, and other candle-related items that I found delightful! I’m an affiliate with Etsy, so if you purchase anything via one of my links, you’ll support both Etsy and CaretoKeep, without increasing your purchase price. Thank you!

aerial view of pink, purple, yellow, and red candles in jars with twine bows

Candle ingredients

Candles affect the air quality in our homes. The ingredients most commonly used for candles are:

Soy waxSoy candles are natural and affordable. They’re clean burning and cooler burning than other candles, so they last longer. (The hotter the flame the more quickly the wax will burn down.)

Soy wax is often used in container candles, though it can also be found in other types of candles. Some candles are made from 100 percent soybean oil, and others are blended with other oils and waxes — such as coconut oil, beeswax, or paraffin. Note that if a candle blend is at least 51 percent soy it will be called a “soy wax blend” (and may still contain other waxes, including paraffin). 

BeeswaxBeeswax gives off a warm glow and a sweet, natural scent, which will vary depending on which flowers the bees visited! It’s more expensive than other waxes. This ancient candle-making ingredient can now be purchased in blocks, slabs, pellets, or pre-rolled sheets for convenience. 

Beeswax burns longer and cleaner than both soy and paraffin. There’s even some evidence that it can help reduce air pollutants. It has a high melting point, which makes it less likely to drip than other waxes.

Because it’s a by-product of the honey-making process, beeswax is not considered vegan.

Plant-based bayberry wax is sometimes combined with beeswax to make stronger candles. Bayberry is especially popular in holiday candles, because of its refreshing, piney scent. 

Palm wax — Made by separating the fatty acids from palm oil, palm wax is thicker than other waxes. It’s also longer lasting, though it’s sometimes blended with soy to make it harder. It’s often used to make votives and pillars. Palm wax candles have a soft, feathered look. (Note that there are concerns about the production of palm oil. Check with the candle maker to find out if their palm oil is sourced ethically and sustainably.)

Paraffin — Paraffin is a by-product of the crude oil refinement process, and it produces petrol-carbon soot when burned. It’s used to make all kinds of candles. In fact, it’s the most often used wax in commercial candle making. Its high melting point creates strong candles. Paraffin also makes for vibrant colors and strongly scented candles (too strongly scented, in many cases!). If you’re concerned about sustainability and air quality, you’ll want to avoid paraffin candles in favor of other waxes. 

different types and colors of candles on a white table beside purple flowers in white vases

Types of candles

Candles come in many shapes and sizes. Some of the most common candles are:

Pillar candles — This cylindrical candle comes in different widths, heights, diameters, and scents. It gives off a warm light. The sides may be smooth or textured. Long lasting, pillar candles can burn for a total of 25 to 35 hours. They can be burned alone (on a candle plate; I like using odd saucers I pick up at the thrift shop or these), in groups, or with other objects to create centerpieces. They can also be burned in a hurricane lamp or lantern

Tea lights — Inexpensive and lightweight, these small, round candles can be scattered across tables and counters to create atmosphere and intimacy at an event. They usually burn from 3 to 4 hours. 

Votives — Bigger than tea lights but still small (about 2.5 inches tall and 2 inches in diameter) and similarly used, votives burn from 6 to 10 hours. They’re also called prayer candles (you’ll find them in churches). They can be cylindrical or square and look pretty when placed on a mirror or tray. There are also so many fun, beautiful votive holders, both new and vintage. A votive produces a small amount of light and will burn itself out when it gets to the bottom. 

Tapers —Also called window candles, these long and slender candles add height to a mantle or tabletop. They can be used in candlesticks and candelabras. Classic and elegant, they burn from 6 to 10 hours. I love collecting candlestick holders of all kinds and enjoy giving them as gifts, with a set of tapers.

Jar candles — No worries about dripping wax with jar candles, also called candle pots! They can be used indoors or outside and usually burn for a total of 60 to 70 hours. They usually come with a lid, which makes them easy to store and keep clean. 

a teal-colored cupcake with white frosting and a lit teal, dotted birthday candle on a wood table against a dark background

Birthday candles — These light, quick-burning candles are said to burn for 20 minutes or so — but who’s going to eat a cake with all that wax on it? Birthday candles are now available in sparkling and trick (can’t blow out) options, as well as tall varieties. I was happy to find hand-dipped beeswax tall party candles! Very special! (Here’s a smaller, 3-inch variety, too!)

Floating candles — Floating candles are molded with small bottoms and larger, rounded tops, which allows them to float in water without tipping over. They come in all kinds of floral and other designs, too. They’ll burn for a few hours without any worries about spilled wax! (I like to put a tub of them on the porch on Halloween night for trick or treat ambiance.)

How are dripless candles made?

Dripless candles are made with an outer layer that melts more slowly than the core layer. Paraffin candles are made dripless by adding lots of stearic acid, which is usually derived from the meatpacking industry. 

Dripless candles look clean and neat, so if that appeals to you (I kinda like the look of wax drips on my tapers), you might opt for beeswax candles, which naturally are pretty drip free. (No candle is entirely dripless, even the paraffin variety labeled dripless.)

Types of wicks

  • Cotton and paper core wicks. These wicks are natural. They burn hot and produce more melted wax than some other wicks. They’re often used with container candles.  
  • Metal core wicks. These common wicks contain zinc or tin in the middle of the wick. They do a good job staying upright and are often used for votives and pillars. (Lead is no longer used in wicks.)
  • Wood wicks. Easy to light and environmentally friendly, wood wicks burn cleanly. They don’t produce a lot of debris when burned, and there’s no need to trim them. Wood wicks make a lovely little crackling sound when burning. (These are my favorite wicks!)

Some large candles have more than one wick. This allows a stronger glow and fragrance (more wicks will produce more pooling of liquid wax and released fragrance).

red taper candle on white table with white dishes and red napkins and a centerpiece of red roses

Scents

Natural candles are fragranced with essential oils. And, of course, you can choose candles made with essential oils for specific properties. Lavender, chamomile, or sandalwood are good choices for relaxation, for example, and citrus, mint, or rosemary will invigorate. Some scents — such as citronella — naturally repel insects and so are good for outdoor use. (Note that a candle’s ability to repel insects is pretty limited. Don’t expect a citronella candle on your patio table to keep your outdoor event bug-free!)

Remember to choose unscented candle varieties for your table settings. You don’t want your candles to compete with your food aromas!

Does freezing candles make them last longer?

No, and it’s not a good idea. Many online sources suggest that freezing a candle hardens the wax, which causes it to burn more slowly. Not only is there no real evidence to support this, many people have tested the theory and found it doesn’t work. 

More importantly, fast temperature swings can cause the wax to crack. A cracked candle not only looks awful, it doesn’t burn well either. Also, freezing the candle causes the wick to absorb moisture, which adds to the burning problem. 

(My very unscientific experiments have resulted in cracked candles that don’t burn well!)

How to make candles last longer

If freezing doesn’t work, what does? Well, there are some simple things you can do to help your candles last longer.

two small white taper candles in holders with clear glass drip dishes
  • When you burn a candle, let the entire surface melt before blowing out the candle. If you don’t, the sides of the candle will start to form a hardened ring that won’t burn in the future. Instead, the wax will burn down in the center — and never around the edges — each time you light it. This is called tunneling. 
  • Don’t burn candles for more than four hours at a time. This will also help avoid tunneling. It will also prevent a mushroom tip on the end of the wick.
  • Trim wicks to about ¼ inch tall for a clean, long burn and tidy appearance. Do this after the candle has cooled completely. Make sure the wick is standing at attention, too! There are candle wick trimmer tools for the job. I use a tiny pair of scissors, though I have to admit those tools look very handy! 
  • After lighting your candle, sprinkle a pinch of table salt onto the liquid wax that’s collected around the wick. Use a toothpick to stir it into the hot, melted wax. The salt will slow down the burning rate of the wax. 
  • Store candles out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources. UV light can fade the color of candles, and heat can cause the wax to start melting. 

Other Tips and Cautions

  • Burn candles away from flammable materials.
  • Keep candles away from children and pets.
  • Place candles away from drafts (from doors, windows, fans, vents) to prevent uneven burning, excess smoke and soot.
  • Clean debris (pieces of matches and wick) out of pools of molten wax. Otherwise the candle may burn unevenly and the scent of the candle may be spoiled. 
  • Put candles out when the wax pool reaches the edge of the candle to prevent dripping.
  • If a candle is smoking, blow it out, trim the wick, and relight it. 
  • If your candle flame seems a bit out of control, put a lid on it or use a candle snuffer, if you have one. Do not put water on it, or it will splash the wax! (I just ordered a candle snuffer, which is the best way to extinguish a flame without creating any smoke. Besides, it’ll be fun to use!) 
three small, cream-colored pillar candles burning and dripping wax

How can I get wax out of candle jars when the candle is finished burning?

Pour boiling water into the jar to soften the wax. Or place the jar in a small pan of barely simmering water. Use a wooden spoon to scrape out the softened wax, then wash with hot soap and water. 

Don’t place candle jars in the dishwasher until you’ve removed all of the wax! You don’t want to clog your dishwasher with the wax. Don’t pour it down a sink, either, as it can clog your drain. Scrape the wax you remove into a can, then reuse or discard. 

How can I clean dripped wax off my table (or other surfaces)?

First, keep in mind when choosing candles that paraffin wax is much harder to clean than soy and other waxes. To clean soy wax or beeswax, simply wash with hot soapy water. 

There are various methods to remove paraffin wax from a surface, but this will work for most of them:

  1. Use a putty knife to scrape excess wax off the surface. (If the surface is something that might be damaged by the knife, such as a wooden tabletop, use something that won’t scratch it, such as a credit card. And be gentle; don’t scrape clear down to the wood.) 
  2. Place a clean towel on the surface and rub a warm iron over it. The heat from the iron should melt the wax onto the towel. Repeat until all the wax is removed. Or warm the wax with a hair dryer, then wipe the warmed wax with a towel. 
  3. Wash the surface with warm water and soap (if safe for the surface). 

There are also wax-removing solutions you can purchase, but these are usually made from petroleum products and are generally pretty toxic.

So, what are your favorite candles? Have you ever tried making your own? I made dipped candles once, and it was truly an extraordinary experience! I’ve also poured candles into old teacups and made many rolled beeswax candles with our kids. (I highly recommend this very easy craft!)

You might also enjoy:

Wicker — How to clean and care for wicker items

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