Waxes come in many varieties and from varying sources: animal, plant, mineral and petroleum. They are used for all sorts of things, from making lip balm to preserving apples, pulling hair off legs to creating candles, shining up cars to gripping surfboards, twisting mustache ends to coloring, polishing furniture to… Okay, we get the picture. Though we may not have realized it, wax is in all sorts of stuff.

For those of us avoiding using animal products and/or supporting oil companies, choosing which waxes and brands of waxy products we use might be a new topic to explore. Not only do many come from questionable sources, but some have the reputation for being less than healthy for us, carcinogenic even. Additionally, many products with wax, such as scented candles, are mixed with toxic chemicals.

With that in mind, we are going to find out exactly what wax is, which sources to be aware of, and which versions might be best for us to use.

What Is Wax?

For the sake of working with some sort of definition, wax is a heat-sensitive material made of hydrocarbons and/or fatty acids which are insoluble in water but can be dissolved in nonpolar solvents. In essence, that means wax is waterproof but melts relatively easily, which explains why we rub waxes on surfboards to improve the traction and burn them as candles. Of course, as noted above, we’ve managed to find all sorts of other uses for it.

What Is Wax Made of?

Most wax we come into contact with is either from animals, plants, or petroleum. Common animal-based waxes include beeswax, lanolin, shellac, and spermaceti. There are many types of vegetable-based waxes, produced from the fatty acids, and the most common are soy, candelilla, and carnauba. Petroleum wax, probably the most ubiquitous of the bunch these days, is called paraffin.

Animal Waxes

For many people, those striving for a plant-based lifestyle in order to protect animals, it’s obviously important to be aware that some waxes come from animals.

  • Beeswax is taken from honeycomb, and it is used in all sorts of stuff: lip balms, hair products, gummy candies, crayons, soap and so on.
  • Lanolin comes from the glands of wool-bearing animals, and it is commonly used for skin care products, rustproofing, lubricant and leather treatment.
  • Shellac is a resinous substance secreted by female lac bugs, insects that live in the forests of India and Thailand. Shellac wax is derived from it with alcohol and its mostly used in polishes for wood and leather.
  • Spermaceti, once mistaken for whale sperm, actually comes from the brain cavity and blubber of sperm whales. It is commonly used in cosmetic products like lipstick and creams, as well as candles.

Source: Kristian Bjornard/Flickr

Petroleum Waxes

While petroleum waxes could be considered vegan, they do contribute to our reliance on the fossil fuel industry, and they come with some serious potential health risks.

  • Paraffin is a petroleum waste product that has to be deodorized and bleached with chemicals before being used as wax. This slurry of ingredients creates a toxic substance that releases benzine and toluene, recognized carcinogens, when burned. Paraffin is used in cosmetics, lubricants, candles, food preservatives (candy, sausage, fruit, chocolate, etc.) and more. People with allergies, particularly to aspirin, should be doubly cautious around paraffin.
  • Microcrystalline waxes more or less account for the other petroleum-sourced waxes. They have fine particles and a higher melting point and are used mostly in laminate coatings and adhesives.

Plant-based Alternatives

There are many types of plant-based waxes because these are produced by extracting the oil from plants.

  • Carnauba wax comes from a Brazilian palm and is renowned for its hardness. It, too, is used with food, cosmetics and many other products. There is a growing awareness around sustainably harvesting carnauba now, as overharvesting is having a negative ecological impact in the Amazonian Rainforest.
  • Candelilla is derived from a shrub that grows in northern Mexico and the US Southwest. It is the ideal substitute for beeswax, and it is in cosmetics, polishes, adhesives, lubricants and more. Its name actually means “little candle”.
  • Soy waxes are inexpensive and are, of course, the product of soybean oil. They can be used for candles (the most common alternative to paraffin), cosmetics and so on. They are thought to be renewable; however, it’s important to recognized that organically grown (non-GMO) soy wax is probably the better choice in terms of sustainability.

Using Waxes at Home

For those of us who like to make our own lip balms, candles and other products, waxes will definitely factor in at some point, so it’s good to get a grasp on what’s out there. Even if we aren’t that into DIY, it’s important to be aware of what’s in the products we buy because, only then, can we make our choices responsibly.