Candle Flame: What’s in a Candle Flame?

Candles seem so simple and serene. But there is actually more there than meets the eye. Find out how these peaceful objects come to life, inspiring relaxation.

Nothing quite sets the mood for blissful relaxation as a nice candle. The twinkling flame, warming feel, and aromatherapeutic scent drifting through the room are all reminiscent of romance and ease.

With that being said, what is really in a candle’s flame? The short answer: fire, wick materials, and wax. How a candle burns seems pretty self-explanatory - the heat of the fire from the flame melts the wax and burns it away, but there are a few different factors that contribute to the way a candle burns and what is actually burning. So, rest assured as we explain.

The Fire

The word flame we use when referring to burning candles is just a cute way of saying a tiny little fire. There are three aspects to fire, also known as the flame. When all three are present, you have a fire that sustains itself and remains burning. This is referred to as the “Fire Triangle:” oxygen, fuel, and heat.

Oxygen is simple -- it comes from the air. The air is made of about 21% oxygen, which is plenty for a fire to burn since fires can burn with oxygen as low as 12%. This is why when you cover a flame or put the lid on your candle, the flame goes out -- as you are depriving the flame of the oxygen it needs to continue to burn.

The fuel part gets a bit tricky when it comes to candles. Contrary to popular belief, the wick is not actually what burns; instead, the wick burns secondary to the wax, which fuels the fire. Here’s how it works: The solid wax melts as a reaction to the heat coming from the candle wick, and that wax then turns to a liquid and is drawn up the wick. When it gets to the top of the wick, the flame burns it, forcing the wax to now become a gas. The vapors from the wax expand, move away from the wick, and mix with the air’s oxygen.

Heat is simply a reaction from lighting the wick on fire.

The Wick

The wick burns simultaneously with the wax, so it is just as important to know what your wick is made of as your wax. Since the purpose of the wick is actually not to carry the flame to the wax but instead carry the wax to the flame, candle manufacturers take great care in choosing which wick is best for their signature type of candle. Different wicks burn in different ways and are utilized for varying reasons. Here are some of the most popular wick styles:

  • Wooden Wicks

Becoming immensely popular in recent years due to their visual aesthetic and soft crackling sound they make, similar to a small fireplace, wooden wicks vary in being made from 100% wood, semi-wood, or fibers and wood combination materials.

  • Flat Wicks

Usually made from three bundles of fiber, flat wicks are plaited or knitted and carry a very consistent burn. As the wick burns, it curls into itself for a self-trimming effect.

  • Cored Wicks

Braided or knitted wicks use a core material to keep the wick straight and upright when burning. Depending on what material is used for the core, it will have a range of effects on the wick’s stiffness as it burns. The most common core materials are cotton, paper, zinc, or tin. This is the most popular wick option for jar candles.

Since the wick stands upright even after it burns, you will have to use wick trimmers to clip the top of the wick off to keep a safe-sized flame. If you neglect to trim your wick, not only will you have a larger flame more vulnerable to causing a fire or accidents caused by mischievous pets, but the candle will create more smoke causing a sooty candle jar as well. This can leave smoke residue on your walls and ceiling.

The Wax

There is a range of different waxes sourced to create your favorite home candle. Some are better for the environment than others, and some better for you than others.

Paraffin Wax

Most inexpensive and therefore the most commonly used among candle brands is paraffin wax. Not only is it very affordable, but it also holds a high amount of fragrance and color. It has the ability to burn at various melting points - ideal for different types of candles like pillar candles seen in churches or jar candles.

Paraffin is sourced from a byproduct of the oil industry and is not an eco-friendly choice. It also tends to get very sooty and can easily turn your candle’s jar black, especially if you aren’t properly trimming the wick and letting it burn for hours at a time.

Soy Wax

Sourced from soybeans makes this type of wax a much more eco-friendly option compared to paraffin wax. Since it is quite temperamental, many candle brands don’t want to take the time to deal with it and opt for a simpler option. It is an excellent option for the candle buyer because it carries a slow burn, resulting in a longer-lasting candle that isn’t harmful to the environment. No matter how often you light them or how long you burn them - they last up to three times as long as your average candle.

Beeswax

Derived from bees during their honey-making process, beeswax has a naturally sweet aroma that also helps to purify the air. Not overpowering enough to mask the scent of your candle, beeswax is often used in unscented candle pillars but is another eco-friendly, albeit more expensive option.

Coconut Wax

Harvested from coconuts, coconut wax holds fragrance and color very well. Coconuts are a sustainable source, and they also yield a high amount of product from each batch. It is a newer way to source and the most expensive option but has a clean burn and doesn’t produce much soot.

Golden Glow

As you can see, there is much more that may be burning in your candle’s flame than one may think. These are all factors to consider when shopping for your next candle. Do you want a curling wick that naturally breaks off? Or would you prefer to romanticize your candle-burning tradition and invest in a fancy rose gold wick trimmer? Is eco-friendly important to you?

Whatever you fancy, being in the know about all the details behind your favorite candle is the first step to getting the candle of your dreams.

Sources:

Elements of a Candle: Wicks | Candles.org

Why You Should Always Trim Candle Wicks | Insider

Ants. Bees, & Wasps How Do Honey Bees Make Beeswax? | ThoughtCo.