We wax floors, cars and skis; make wax paper and wax candles; use wax in the creation of batik wall-hangings, lost-wax bronze sculptures and wax-crayon masterpieces; use mustache wax and at Hallowe’en have even been known to wear wax lips. Which, naturally, brings up the question, “What is this thing called wax?”

“Wax,” says the encyclopedia, is the name “applied originally to naturally occurring esters of fatty acids and monohydric alcohols.” Esters, says the same encyclopedia, are compounds formed by the interaction of acids and alcohols with the elimination of water.

Enlightened? Perhaps not. But don’t worry about it too much, because these days, the word “wax” is also applied to any number of non-esters which can be obtained in a variety of ways from a variety of sources, but all share similar characteristics.

Typically, a wax has a dull luster, a somewhat greasy texture, softens gradually while being heated–which means it can be easily shaped while warm–and, if heat continues to be applied, eventually turns into a liquid.

The granddaddy of all waxes is undoubtedly beeswax: not that it’s been around longer than other natural waxes, just that humans have been using it longer, and anthropocentric chauvinists that we are, we think that makes it very important.

Bees produce wax to create chambered nests in which to lay eggs and hatch more bees. They also store food in these chambered nests, which aren’t called “honeycomb” for nothing. Humans have been gathering honey for food for probably as long as they’ve been human, and as early as 3000 BC the Egyptians and Cretans learned how to make candles out of the beeswax that is inevitably harvested along with the honey. (Modern beekeepers harvest about 18 kilograms of beeswax per 910 kilograms of honey.) The slow-burning wax kept the wick of the candle from flaring up and burning out in a matter of seconds: the result was a long-lived and cheap source of illumination.

The Egyptians also used beeswax as a base for cosmetics, and while candles have probably consumed more wax than anything else over the centuries, wax continued (and continues) to be used for a great many other purposes.

The many uses for wax has led to a constant search for new types of wax, both natural and synthetic. Another animal besides bees that provides wax (much to its detriment) is the sperm whale. “Spermaceti” is a wax extracted from the head cavity and blubber of sperm whales that has valuable lubricating properties. (“Ambergris” is another valuable wax from sperm whales, but unlike spermaceti, harvesting it doesn’t require killing a sperm whale. Ambergris is secreted in the intestines of sperm whales and is found floating in tropical oceans. It’s used in perfumes. Aren’t you glad I told you that?) Lanolin is another well-known wax; it’s produced by sheep (it waterproofs their fleece).

Other natural waxes come from mineral sources; the best known of these is paraffin, which is extracted from petroleum.

Fossil-fuel based waxes now account for 95 percent of the waxes used commercially, but that other five percent, primarily plant-based waxes, accounts for 25 percent of the revenue from the sale of waxes. Many tropical and sub-tropical plants have waxy leaves, to retain moisture despite exposure to the blazingly hot sun. One valuable example is the carnauba palm, cultivated in Brazil. The wax beaten from its leaves is very hard and has a high melting point, which has made it the key ingredient in fine waxes for automobiles.

Even a partial list of the ways in which waxes are used is mind-boggling. Besides the uses I mentioned at the start of the column, waxes are used to coat milk and juice containers; in the making of carbon paper; in lacquers and varnishes; in skin creams and cosmetics; to polish floors, furniture and shoes; as electrical insulators, and even to coat suppositories. (Those who have had them are grateful.)

Our own bodies produce wax: earwax. It may seem useless, embarrassing, or even a nuisance (although it usually works its way out of the ear, it can occasionally harden inside the ear canal, causing loss of hearing until a doctor flushes it out), but in fact it serves a useful purpose. Produced by modified sweat glands, the wax, along with the hair in the ear canal, helps keep foreign matter (dirt, insects, etc.) from entering the ear.

And now, reader dear,
Please lend me your ear,
And listen, sympathetic:

You’ve read all the facts
I wrote about wax–
Now I end by waxing poetic!

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/1995/10/wax/

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