Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Scented Candles
We could also call this article ‘everything we asked ourselves when we were developing our own candles and spent months researching’ but it would not make for a very catchy headline.
Part of our candle obsession involves going deep on all details of candle making. We are fascinated by topics such as ‘what is the all the fuss about soy wax’, ‘are scented candles actually aromatherapeutic’, ‘why is it best not to blow out your candles’ and ‘what are some of the coolest British brands out there’.
As we struggled to find a comprehensive guidebook to all the knotty questions, we decided to write our own. Light up your favourite candle and go a little deeper with our handy guide.
Let’s start with the basics. What waxes are used to make scented candles and why should I care?
Broadly speaking there are two main types of wax, mineral and natural.
Paraffin, sometimes referred to as mineral wax, is a byproduct of oil. It’s the most commonly used type of wax for both scented and unscented candles. It’s cheap, holds the scent well, is relatively easy to work with and is therefore a favourite for mainstream brands.
However, there is an increasing awareness of environmental factors, such as air quality, on health. Candle fans (us included) are understandably concerned about the wax we’re burning into the air we’re breathing. One of the downsides of paraffin candles is that they produce pollutants such as benzene and toluene when burning, which some research suggests might be carcinogenic.
While this is nothing to ignore, we treat this information in the same way as we treat other health news about air quality in cities, food quality, benefits of eating organic, smoking, going vegan and many others. Yes, these things do have an impact but the scale of impact isn’t very clear, and how much or how little you change your behaviour based on this information is totally down to you. Our team still enjoys candles made with paraffin wax, we just burn them a little less often and look for natural alternatives.
This is where independent brands come in, as they tend to use natural waxes. Whether to address health concerns or capitalise on a trend (just have a look at the popularity of soy wax candles), it gives the smaller brands an edge.
Natural waxes come in a wide array of types and from many sources. Overall, they are a little more expensive and more difficult to use for scented candles (we’ll get to that) but they are healthier. They’re also made from renewable sources which is a consideration for some of the more discerning candle fans.
As we mentioned earlier, soy wax is the most popular of natural waxes. There are also many other types and many brands, so you can either stick to one or blend a few different wax types. Coconut and rapeseed are other commonly used natural waxes in candle making.
At Arum, we use a blend of natural waxes as we want to make the best quality candle possible.
What about beeswax?
Beeswax is gorgeous, especially when used for individual pillar candles. A very light honey aroma, warm glow and natural properties put it right up there in terms of quality and enjoyment.
Unfortunately, beeswax does not hold scent well and is therefore very rarely used in scented candle making. You can find it sporadically in natural wax blends to balance out properties of other waxes with a lower melting point. Overall, beeswax candles are best enjoyed on their own, unscented.
I heard that some scented candles contain paraben. I try to avoid it in cosmetics, should I avoid it in candles too?
You might know parabens from the cosmetic industry. They are widely used as preservatives because they’re cheap and effective. However, in the last two decades, there has been (so far inconclusive) debate about their potentially carcinogenic impact on the human body.
Consumers have been increasingly demanding paraben-free products as a result. Any impact scented candles would have is minimal compared to other lifestyle choices, but since paraben-free fragrance oils are available, we chose to work with these instead.
For the same reason we only use the highest quality natural wax, we also only use fragrance oils that don’t contain paraben. When we started Arum we wanted to bring you beautifully smelling, beautifully made candles with high-quality ingredients.
Clear on paraben. What about essential oils vs. fragrance oils?
The world of fragrance can be quite complicated, but let’s keep things simple and just say that essential oils are 100% produced from natural ingredients, and fragrance oils are mostly man-made, with some from natural sources.
Since essential oils are derived directly from plants, they are natural and also more expensive than fragrances. Candles made exclusively with essential oils are aromatherapeutic. Even though evidence of a positive impact of essential oils on the central nervous system is inconclusive, it is accepted that aromatherapy does have a positive psychological effect on overall wellbeing.
As much as we like essential oils, they cannot create certain beautiful scents in candles. Think woodfire smell or even rose-scented candles. It takes 60 roses to produce a single drop of rose essential oil, and as a result, this would be extremely expensive to use in candle making.
Most candles use fragrance oils or a mixture of both. If a brand only uses essential oils, it will be a unique differentiator and part of their marketing messaging (in the same way as a brand might talk about only using natural wax).
We at Arum use a mixture of (paraben-free) fragrance oils and essential oils. We have some doubts about aromatherapy and love unique scents so we pick the best of both worlds.
Last and nerdiest question about candle ingredients - what’s the deal with people talking about cotton wicks?
Some candle wicks used to have a metal core to keep them upright. It was found that some wicks contained lead which is harmful to us. Candlemakers moved to alternatives and pure cotton wicks became most commonly used. We also use them in our Arum candles.
Now I have a better idea of what goes into my candles. How do I take care of the candles I buy?
It’s really easy to take care of your candles. Here are the basics that will shortly become second nature to you.
When you light up your scented candle for the first time, make sure you keep it burning for at least one hour to let the top layer of the wax melt. The scent gets released from the hot liquid wax - so if you ever find that a candle does not smell very strong, give it more burning time to allow for the wax to melt completely.
Before you relight your scented candle, cut the wick with a trimmer or a nice pair of scissors. You want to both get rid of the ’mushroom’ that can form at the end of the wick and trim the length of the wick so the flame is not too big and erratic. You want a clean flame to light up your room. As well as the obvious benefit, trimming the wick is also a calming ritual.
When you want to extinguish the candle, use a snuffer to prevent the smell of a smoking wick filling the room. Even better, get a pretty glass dome to display your candle in. Put the dome on the candle instead of blowing out the flame. The gradual darkening of the room will become the perfect way to say good night.
Scented candles are always best stored in a cool dry place and away from direct sunlight.
What’s all this lingo? Mushrooming, tunnelling, frosting - and scent throw?
Mushrooming describes the effect of carbon and any impurities building up at the end of your candle wick. How much a candle mushrooms depends on a number of factors. Some candles mushroom more, some less. Simply trim the wick before you relight the candle.
Tunnelling happens when you burn your candle for too short of a time and not allow the wax to melt all the way to the edge. When you relight the candle, it only burns in the middle, creating a ring of unmelted wax around the glass - a tunnel.
Frosting occurs when the wax detaches itself from the glass in certain spots and creates a visual effect similar to frost. This sometimes happens when the wax contracts as it cools down when the candle is poured. The effect is purely visual, the occasional frosting does not say anything about the quality of the candle.
When it comes to understanding scent throw, there are two types. Cold scent throw describes how strongly a candle smells before you light it up, for example when you smell it in a shop. Hot scent throw refers to how strongly a candle smells when burning.
I love the classics - Jo Malone and Diptyque. Why branch out?
The great thing about scented candles is that you don’t have to settle on one brand. You can try different things.
Jo Malone and Diptyque are luxury brands and as all luxury brands do, they spend a lot of money on marketing to position themselves at the higher end of the spectrum. You’re not just paying for a quality product, you’re also paying a premium for the brand. A lot of the £45 you pay for these candles goes to this brand building effort.
There are many smaller brands that make quality products and are worth discovering.
What are some of the other brands I should check out?
There are so many options to choose from! The UK has a huge number of talented candle makers. Here are 12 we like the most:
- Try wine-inspired candles Vineyard Candles from Cornwall
- There are nice brands from east London - Evermore, Earl of East and Hopscotch stand out
- We obviously love our own Arum candles
- Neom make wonderful candles with essential oils
- Gold Hart are nice candles from Scotland
- Just Bee is a tiny brand from Somerset making scented candles with beeswax
- Haeckels is a small natural luxury brand from Margate making candles as well as cosmetics
- Jo Malone launched her second brand a couple years ago called Jo Loves
- Urban Apothecary is another London-based brand with neat branding
- Plum & Ashby have an English countryside theme easy on the eye and nose
And finally, what makes Arum different?
We wanted to create candles that satisfy all of our desires - high-quality ingredients, beautifully branded with a premium feel and handmade in London, a city we chose to call our home. So we did exactly that.
In the process of developing our own product, we discovered a whole world of independent makers in the UK. This discovery together with burning beautiful candles almost every day brought a lot of joy to our lives and we hope this guide shared some of that with you too.