"A couple of dollars can change the whole ambiance of a room," said Vicki Holcomb, a consultant for PartyLite, who sells its candles and accessories in home parties throughout the San Ramon Valley.
Tapered candles are traditional on dinner tables and are stunning in front of a mirror or arranged on a mantle. Tealights and votives can be used in a variety of attractive holders. Pillars and three-wick candles are popular sellers.
Candles also come in jars and tins, perfect in the kitchen to mask odors. And they come in a variety of forms, such as balls.
"Candles are the last affordable luxury," Holcomb said. "Women especially think of candles with their bubble baths, and when entertaining."
There is an art to burning a candle properly and safely, according to the National Candle Association. A calm, steady, teardrop-shaped flame means the burning process is in balance, with the wick efficiently pulling up the right amount of wax, which is then "consumed" by the flame to produce water vapor and carbon dioxide.
To achieve the perfectly burning candle, place it in a well-ventilated room, away from drafts, vents or strong air currents. A wick that is too long may cause a flame to grow too long and flare, so the association advises trimming a wick to 1/4 inch before each use. Grouped candles should be at least three inches apart when they are lit; otherwise they may create their own draft, causing the candles to flare.
The association estimates that candles are now used in seven out of 10 households in the United States; candle sales average $3 billion a year.
"I probably sell more tealights and votives, as far as volume goes," Holcomb said. "Our tealights are in plastic. You have to watch out for metal cups."
She explained that a metal cup does not protect a glass or crystal holder, which can break from excessive heat if a candle becomes too hot.
"Plastic stays cooler, plus our wax is not a hot wax," she explained. "It comes down to the components of the wax. Ours is food grade quality. Higher grade waxes burn at a much lower temperature, which keeps the candles safer. They won't do damage to the furniture."
She suggests putting out candles with a snuffer. If you don't have one, hold your finger in front of the candle and blow over it to extinguish the flame.
Candles should not be moved until they are cool and the wax is hardened. But if wax does get on tablecloths or clothing, Holcomb has had a lot of experience removing it.
"Once you've tested that the fabric is heat-safe, the absolute best way is to use a warm iron, with a paper bag or a paper towel," she said. "Sandwich the fabric between it."
Make sure the paper bag does not have writing on it, she warned, or you may end up with a tablecloth emblazoned with "Safeway." Gently iron the paper with the fabric under it until the wax has transferred onto the paper.
Holcomb said she also has used this method successfully on upholstery and carpets although one should always check that anything to be ironed is heat-safe.
"If it is an heirloom, hire a professional," she recommended.
Holcomb said that even with the myriad styles of PartyLite candles, holders and accessories, her biggest seller right now is a "reed diffuser," a small jar with fragrant oil that is absorbed by reeds which naturally diffuse the scents.
"They can last for months and months and you can control the scent by how many reeds you put in," she explained.
She said reed diffusers are good to provide fragrance in environments such as dorm rooms that do not allow candles.
Candles of lesser quality may only have scents at the top, Holcomb cautioned. Another thing to watch for is that the color goes all the way through the wax and is not just applied to the outside.
She said it can be tricky to judge the quality of a candle so it is safest to buy a name brand. Some have very hard wax so they burn down the middle and you end up throwing away three-quarters of the candle.
In 2003, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of lead in candle wicks, after a 30-year period during which the industry was asked to regulate itself. Lead was put into the wicks to stiffen them, "a kind of Viagra for candle wicks," according to one expert. Although the wick did straighten and the candles burned better, the lead vaporized into the air where it could be inhaled.
As far as scents go, vanilla tops the list, said Holcomb.
"Vanilla is still the No. 1 selling candle out there," she said. "Men prefer vanilla. That's the staple that never goes away."