Dear Umbra,

My family is a big fan of dripless candles. They’re beautiful and don’t provide piles of wax that tempt fingers into creating little messes. Can you tell us how these candles work and if they are environmentally “safe”?

Anna Ruth
New York, N.Y.

Dearest Anna,

For me, playing with melted wax was a cherished childhood tradition — right up there with daring to slice through the flame with my finger. But like so many activities of yore (see: playing with mercury), I suppose that’s now out of the question. Kids, don’t try this stuff at home.

Is this burning an eternal flame?

Photo: iStockphoto

The driplessness of a candle, since you asked, has to do with two factors: a suitable combination of wick and wax (which, as near as I can tell, is a closely guarded industry secret), and the way the wax is layered. In most cases, dripless candles feature an outer coating that melts at a higher temperature (i.e., more slowly) than the core. When your candle starts burning, the outer layer forms a sort of cup or rim that keeps the melted wax from running all over your tablecloth, or candlestick, or bathtub, or what have you.

Whether they are environmentally safe depends on what kind of candles you’re buying. In normal paraffin candles, the driplessness is achieved by adding a lot of stearic acid. What is stearic acid, you wonder? Well, it’s a solid that’s long been used to add hardness and opaqueness — pardon me, opacity — to candles and soaps. It’s also used in cosmetics, rubber, and plastics. Derived from animal and vegetable fats, stearic acid has traditionally come to the candle industry courtesy of the meatpacking industry. Yuck.

If you’d prefer not to fill your home with the taint of slaughterhouses — not to mention all the lead, petroleum, and other nasty additives that can be found in regular candles — there are more-natural alternatives that will still offer you the drip-free delights to which you’ve become accustomed.

Beeswax candles are a lovely option. They don’t need nasty artificial ingredients to make them smell good, just the sweet byproducts of industrious bees. They’re non-toxic and non-allergenic, and it’s relatively easy to find quality, local sources, like this one in New York state. Read the labels and look for 100 percent beeswax: these are, by nature, about as close to true driplessness as you can get.

If you’re a strict vegan and don’t want to benefit from the work of enslaved bees, try candles made from hydrogenated soybean oil or palm oil. (Again, be sure to read the labels, as some manufacturers add paraffin into the mix.) A soy candle will burn longer than paraffin — 25 to 30 percent longer, some say — and isn’t as sooty. Since these materials are softer than paraffin and beeswax, the candles often come in glass jars or other heatproof containers.

You will notice, if you poke around, that candle manufacturers are quick to point out that even “dripless” candles drip, given the right (or wrong) conditions. Perhaps they’ve faced one too many angry customers. Anyhoo, any breeze or draft will do it, or even the odd angle or tilt. If you drip or spill somewhere, you can clean up with our old favorites vinegar and baking soda, and even those infernal dryer sheets. No, I don’t like them, but you might have some in your house.

Daringly,
Umbra