Whether they are flickering in the background on Zoom meetings or simply bringing the aroma of memorable faraway places to our living rooms, candles are helping us get through the dark winter of this pandemic. Their warm glow and soothing scent have become essential to our indoor survival.
“On Instagram, you see lots of photos of laptops with a cup of coffee and a candle beside them,” says Ingrid Nilsen, co-founder of the New Savant (thenewsavant.com), a Brooklyn-based independent candle company that launched this month. Her most popular hand-poured soy candle is Together, a blend of roasted chestnuts, spice, vanilla and rum. “People want something that feels comforting. Candles are a more accessible luxury home item. They can completely change your mood and space.”
And the candle-making industry has been booming during pandemic times.
“People working from home are burning candles all during the day,” says Kathy LaVanier, an executive officer at the National Candle Association and chief executive of Renegade Candle Co. (renegadecandles.com). “It’s something they can’t do at their regular offices.”
There are endless combinations of waxes, fragrances and vessel styles at various price points, from $5 to $100 and up, and there are many aspects to consider when choosing a candle.
A $5 supermarket candle probably isn’t going to give you the fragrance of your dreams. These days, if you’re looking for a midpriced good, basic jar or vessel candle, you should expect to pay at least $20 to $30 for an eight-ounce candle, LaVanier says.
Further complicating things, you can’t necessarily go to the store during the pandemic to check out the candle you want to give your BFF, so you’re compelled to buy it online, scent unsniffed. But candle-company websites are providing more information than ever to help you make your decision. Reading online reviews and comments on social media can also help you choose.
“Sometimes, I’m really touched and blown away from the descriptions people write about how certain candles make them feel,” says Teri Johnson, founder of the Harlem Candle Company (harlemcandlecompany.com).
In a posting about Johnson’s Langston candle, which celebrates poet and playwright Langston Hughes, who was a leader of the 1920s and 1930s Harlem Renaissance, one reviewer wrote: “The scent is absolutely exquisite! It has quickly become my default selection for nighttime reading and listening to music.” The reviewer mentioned savoring the Langston candle’s aroma of “softly sophisticated notes of tobacco and leather.”
As you make your holiday candle selections, here are some shopping considerations compiled from candle-makers and others in the home-fragrance industry.
Fragrance is usually the most expensive component of a candle and one of the most important considerations. The scent of a candle can set a specific mood and is often a very personal decision.
Fragrance ingredients, which candle-makers choose to achieve subtle layers of scent, can be natural essential oils, synthetics or a combination. Essential oils release their strongest scents while a candle is burning – not so much while it’s cold. Synthetic fragrances allow candles to be more fragrant when unlit, LaVanier says.
Most brands work with fragrance houses to create their own mixtures of oils for the burn and smell they want to achieve, says Faith Freeman, co-founder of Primal Elements (primalelements.com). “Essential oils don’t always burn the best. Because they are natural, they can have a clogging effect on the wick,” she says.
Read fragrance descriptions to imagine what you’ll smell. Johnson mixes her Harlem Candle Company fragrance blends to reflect people or places she has researched from the history of Harlem. “In one, I wanted to re-create the boudoir of Josephine Baker,” she says. “I did research of how women perfumed themselves in the 1930s. Her luxurious boudoir was filled with roses, as I imagined so many fans were giving her flowers.” The resulting romantic blend of the Josephine candle includes bergamot, rose and amber.
– Vessels and packaging
Mason jars may look great in a country kitchen, but for your mid-century modern living room, you might want a candle in a sleek white or black frosted glass, or in hand-thrown ceramic.
Many companies spend a lot of time designing vessels. “We are often attracted to the aesthetics of a candle. Does it look beautiful? Does it match the decor?” says Freeman, whose candles are packaged in American-made Libbey glass.
Many makers are also incorporating recyclable packaging. At the New Savant, the seven-ounce candles are poured into stainless steel cans composed of 25% post-consumer waste. They are fully recyclable and reusable.
At the Punctilious Mr. P’s Place Card Company (mrpsplacecards.com), a small artisanal maker in the Hudson Valley in New York, co-founders Karen Suen-Cooper and Martin Cooper released their first candle a year ago (Pax, a lavender nine-ounce candle for $50) in a simple white jar with a gold-framed label. “I love packaging, and it has to convey the essence of the brand,” Cooper says. “Some consumers like strong branding, and I believe in that as well. People later send us photos of the jars that they use as pencil caddies or mascara holders.”
Candle buyers who favor status labels such as Diptyque(diptyqueparis.com) or Cire Trudon (trudon.com) often turn their distinctive empty candle vessels into vases for flowers or planters for succulents.
The three most common types of candle wax are paraffin, soy and tallow. Many candles are made with combinations of the three.
Paraffin, a petroleum byproduct, is the traditional ingredient in most candles. Although it sometimes gets a bad rap for being less environmentally friendly, it is nontoxic and safe to use, LaVanier says, and can give a stronger scent than soy. It’s known for its translucent glow. Many high-end candle companies use paraffin-wax formulas because of how the wax disperses their sophisticated fragrances.
Soy wax, which has been around for about 25 years, is made of soybean oil that has been hydrogenated. Natural soy candles, made of a renewable resource that supports U.S. agriculture, have become widely popular, especially with younger artisan makers and eco-conscious shoppers in the United States. Soy candles are known for their long burn time.
Tallow is a byproduct of the beef industry and is refined into wax to be used in many budget-priced candles, LaVanier says.
Some candle-makers, like Freeman, say their tests on soy found that it didn’t throw off as much fragrance as they would like in its cold form. So Freeman has added a blend of other vegetable waxes to soy to come up with the recipe for her candles. Other wax options include coconut, apricot, palm and hemp.
A small percentage of candles are still made of beeswax, which is known for its long-lasting burn and for giving off a warm honey scent, but making them can be costly.
Braided cotton wicks are a good choice for lighting easily and burning cleanly. The United States has banned lead in wicks, LaVanier says. You’ll find a few wicks with zinc cores in small, tall candles, because the zinc keeps the wick upright. Wooden wicks make a crackling sound when burning.
Sometimes, the use of multiple wicks helps intensify the fragrance of the candle, so look for those if you prefer a stronger scent.
– Burn time
In recent years, many candle companies have started putting the burn time of their candles on their packaging, but there is no industry standard for this, and calculations can vary, LaVanier says. The burn time takes into consideration the size of the candle, the ingredients and how long the consumer burns it each time.
Both trimming the wick to about 1/4-inch height before burning and not burning a candle for more than four hours at a time can prolong the life of your candle.