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Stop Your Candles From Tunneling When You Burn Them

Here's how to get your full money's worth when you burn your scented candles, prevent candle tunneling and fix it if it's started.

Sarah Mitroff Managing Editor
Sarah Mitroff is a Managing Editor for CNET, overseeing our health, fitness and wellness section. Throughout her career, she's written about mobile tech, consumer tech, business and startups for Wired, MacWorld, PCWorld, and VentureBeat.
Expertise Tech, Health, Lifestyle
Sarah Mitroff
4 min read
A lit white pillar candle in front of a plain blue background

There's a right way to burn a candle.

James Martin/CNET

Burning a candle seems dead simple -- light the wick, let the wax melt and, if you have a scented candle, enjoy the aroma, right? Well, not so fast. There's actually a right and wrong way to burn a candle to get your money's worth.

By burning a candle the correct way, you can avoid tunneling, where the wick burns a tunnel down the middle of a candle, leaving a thick ring of unmelted wax around the outside edge. Once a candle has started to tunnel, it will continue to do so every time you light it (unless you fix it; I'll show you how to do that, below). 

If you keep on burning your candle that's tunneling, you'll be left with a wick that burns up quickly and a bunch of wax that never melted and therefore never gave off any scent. If you spent upward of $40 on a Boy Smells candle or $70 for a Diptyque candle, you're going to want to get all the aroma out of it you can.

For more tips, here's the best way to travel with contact lenses and how to cut a cake with floss.

First, trim the wick

Before you burn any candle -- whether it's new or one you've already started burning -- check to see if you should trim the wick. By doing this, you can prevent black burn marks from forming on the candle's container and stop chunks of charred wick from falling into the melted wax.

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You'll want to trim the wick to 1/4 to 1/8 of an inch with scissors or a wick cutter.

If your candle out of the box has a wood wick -- an eighth to a quarter of an inch high -- you can skip trimming it before the first burn, said Kris Powers, the lab manager for Newell Brands Home Fragrance Test Laboratory (Newell Brands owns Yankee Candles, Chesapeake Bay Candles and WoodWick). After the first time you light the candle, you can break off the tip of the wick before lighting the candle again to prevent debris from getting into the wax.

Next, let the top layer of wax melt to the edge to keep the candle from tunneling

This is the most important step to avoid tunneling. When you burn your candle, leave it burning long enough to allow the top surface of the wax to melt completely, from the wick all the way to the edge of the candle's container. Not only will this release as much scent as possible but it also will stop tunneling in its tracks.

Powers recommends burning your candle for at least 3 to 4 hours to "help ensure a full wax melt" and prevent tunneling. 

Not every candle needs that long to melt the top layer of wax. Make sure to read and follow any instructions the manufacturer provides for your specific candle, and don't burn your candle longer than the recommended time on the label (if there is one). 

By doing this the first time you light a new candle, you make it so the wax will "remember" how far from the wick it melted the first time and will melt the same way again the next time you light it. However, that's true every time you burn the candle, not just the first time, so follow this rule every time you light it. 

A lit candle with tunneling wax in a glass container on a wooden surface with a southwestern fabric backdrop

See that layer of unmelted wax around the edge? That's what you want to avoid.

Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Finally, avoid air drafts when you burn the candle

Tunneling can also happen when the flame moves around or leans to one side while the candle is burning, usually caused by a strong airflow. Turn off any fans and avoid placing your candle in front of an open window to keep the flame steady while it's burning. 

Air drafts can also cause black burn marks on the candle's container.

How to fix a candle that has tunneled

All of the advice above is important for when you burn a new candle for the first time, but what if you already have a candle with a tunnel down the middle? There are ways to get rid of the tunnel, depending on the severity of it.

Use aluminum foil to fix a candle that has started to tunnel

The next time you light your tunneled candle, grab a piece of aluminum foil big enough to cover the top of the container. Poke a hole in the middle at least an inch wide so that the flame gets enough oxygen to burn.

Allow the candle to burn long enough to melt the wax to the edge of the container. The aluminum foil helps hold in enough heat to melt the entire surface of wax.

You can also purchase a metal candle topper that works just as the aluminum foil does, only in a more visually pleasing play. Yankee Candles sells several toppers that fit its candles, and you can find others on Etsy and other online shops.

A lit candle with the top covered in aluminum foil to help the wax melt

Cover the top of your candle with aluminum foil to help the wax melt evenly.

Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Try a mug warmer to fix serious candle tunneling

For candles that have deep tunnels, the aluminum foil trick might not cut it. If you still want to enjoy the scent of your candle and the wick is almost used up, try a mug warmer.

These small hot plates can heat up the entire candle to melt the leftover wax and bring out the aroma. I used one many years ago while living in a dorm where open flames were prohibited. 

Because there's no flame to heat up the wax, the wax won't disappear with this method. You can reheat the candle on a mug warmer over and over, but it will lose its scent over time.

For more tips, here's how to wash your car without water and the smart way to travel with contact lenses.