A lot of attention has been focused on gel candle safety in recent years. Irresponsible (usually foreign) candlemakers have flooded the shelves of dollar stores and discount retailers with poor quality and at times unsafe container gel candles. As a result, gel candles have gotten a "bum rap" as being hazardous works of the devil, rather than being viewed as an alternative decorating option for candle lovers. Following the guidelines here will help you in choosing safe gel candles for your home or gift giving needs.
Most gel candles are container based, meaning decorative materials (called embeds) and a wick are placed inside a container (generally glass) and the container is then filled with molten gel. The gel is mostly mineral oil, blended with a stabilizing polymer, which helps the candle retain fragrance load. The thicker (more dense) a gel is, the more fragrance load it can carry. Remember, too that the thicker the gel, the higher the melt point, which means a generally hotter and longer burning candle.
And there's the rub! Careless manufacturers assume that gel candles can be made in the same manner as traditional paraffin candles. Not so! Because the candle "wax" is hotter, there are more safety precautions that need to be taken into account.
First, gel candles should not contain flammable materials as embeds. The wick can float in a gel candle and set any of those embeds on fire. The added heat can cause a container to crack or even worse, explode, sending flaming gel around the room. Embeds should be made of glass or other non-flammable materials and should be secured away from the path of the wick. The wick should be secured with a wick clip (also called a sustainer base). The wick clip should have at least a 3mm neck. This helps control the burn path of the wick by holding the wick upright as it burns. Many gel candles have no sustainer base of any kind, which results in wick "float" as it burns.
Second, it is important to inspect all your container candles before lighting - this includes paraffin candles. Often a chip or crack goes unnoticed until the glass breaks under heat stress - a very dangerous situation. Many times a gel candle is otherwise not a threat to life and limb, until the integrity of the glass is compromised. Make sure that glassware used to house your candle is designed to withstand the heat of the candle inside it. Ask your candle maker. Candle glassware comes in many shapes and sizes and not all are suited to gel.
Finally, it is important to supervise a burning candle. The Navy Safety Center tells a story of how lighting a gel candle led to a horrible explosion and severe burns on the hand of one Michelle Shebloski Weyer. While the glassware may or may not have been POP TOP VIALS unsuitable for gel candle use, the author glosses the fact that the candle was left unattended and when she heard it fall to the floor, she noticed it was broken and picked it up anyway - while it was still burning. The end result was days in a burn unit and plastic surgery to repair her severely damaged hand. Careless consumers can cause just as much damage as careless manufacturers. Never leave a burning candle unattended - and never touch a burning candle!
Another type of container candle is called a "double glassed" gel candle. In this instance, a smaller container with the actual gel candle is placed inside an outer container where the design using gel and embeds has been made. This is a safer design concept that allows you to burn the candle without losing the original look of the scene designed within the candle. It segregates the burning wick from the potentially flammable embeds The candle also becomes refillable - which is a great way to try different scents.
In the last five years a new type of clear candle has emerged - freestanding gel-type candles. Again using a base of mineral oil, candle uses a patented resin as the stabilizer, creating a candle that outshines both traditional paraffin and gel candles. It requires no container like gel candles, burns longer than paraffin and holds more fragrance than either. The flame burns down through the inside of the candle as light radiates through the candle's side wall. Without the potential of an exploding glass container, there are fewer safety concerns with this type of candle. Resin-based candles can be made in traditional paraffin pillar shapes, lending them more decorative appeal than gel candles and more durability than paraffin.
Whatever your candle choice, know what your burning. Read and follow the directions that come with each candle. Understand how candles create heat and light. Take the time to learn about candles and be an informed consumer. That can literally make the difference between life and death.