Wax On!

Want to make your own cosmetics and skin care products?

Look at the diverse range of plant waxes that Mother Nature has to offer.

People have been using wax for centuries. Ointments and inks contain wax, and without it, your favorite chewing gum wouldn’t have the right bounce. Its elastic character, along with its ability to disappear when heated and add body to other ingredients, offers a wide range of applications. Traditionally, beeswax has been the hands-down favorite in handcrafted products. But wax comes from other sources, too; animal, mineral, and vegetable. Early American colonists, for instance, looked to bayberries to produce wax. The fruit yielded a scented wax, and candles made from it offered a much better fragrance than the standard tallow dip most settlers could afford.

These days, waxes derived from plant sources such as candelilla, carnauba, rice bran, sweet almond, and apricot kernel are hitting the sales list of suppliers who offer the raw materials for making soaps and boutique cosmetics. Why use these rather than beeswax, the historical standard for salves, creams, ointments, and balms? One reason might be an anticipated shortage at your local apiary thanks to Colony Collapse Disorder {CCD}. This strange phenomenon has adult honeybees deserting the hive, leaving behind the queen, the larvae, and sometimes a full hive of honey. Because scientists haven’t isolated the cause, there’s no cure yet. {Of course, a shortage of beeswax is probably the least of our problems with CCD, considering that bees pollinate about 80 percent of our food crops.}

Yet another reason to opt for a vegetable-based wax: It’s vegan. Many people are moving toward vegan formulas. Our vegan substitute for beeswax comes from the flaky wax residue on the stems of candelilla plants, which grow in dry regions of the Southwest. Second in popularity is carnauba wax, which you might recognize as a key ingredient in the kind of polish that’s used by folks who refer to their cars as “Baby.” This wax is taken from the fronds of a wax-producing palm that grows in northeastern Brazil {Copernicia cenfera}. Like candelilla wax, it’s widely used in the cosmetic industry.

Of course, the final and perhaps most compelling reason to use plant wax: It allows you to incorporate yet another plant into your favorite herb-based beauty formulas.

The Word On Wax

Candelilla and carnauba waxes are both harder than beeswax and have a higher melting point. Beeswax melts at about 144 degrees, whereas candelilla requires about 165 degrees. Carnauba, often cited as the hardest of the natural waxes, doesn’t turn to liquid until it reaches over 172 degrees. For this reason, they’re not quite as easy to work with. Beeswax is forgiving when it comes to applying and reapplying heat. Candelilla and carnauba are more brittle and temperamental. You end up using five to 15 percent more wax.

This might be a good place to point out that formulations are done by weight as is common with recipes at many large-scale commercial ventures. Those of us who make smaller batches, however, frequently measure by volume because we’re more likely to grab a set of measuring spoons on a scale. Measuring by volume is less reliable because wax comes in various shapes and forms, from finely ground powder and chunky little flakes to blocks you might need to attack with a cheese grater. So keep in mind that your experience may vary if you’re measuring by volume.

Then there’s rice bran wax, derived from rice bran oil. It’s hard too in comparing it to candelilla and carnauba, but it definitely has a lower melting point. It differs in character from the other two plant waxes, a difference you can tell by examining the flake closely. If you pick up the others, they will just snap and break whereas the rice bran bends and breaks gently.

You’ll find all three of these waxes in lip balms. Candelilla and carnauba wax, like beeswax, have scents that are noticeable when pouring up a mixture, yet almost completely disappear when the mixture cools. At that point, candelilla and carnauba wax leave less of a signature than beeswax does. Rice bran wax seems to have no scent at all. These fairly stiff plant waxes work best in salves and balms. As a thickener or emulsifier for creams and lotions, though, their performance can disappoint. Instead of producing a smoothly blended product, they tend to crystallize. The result looks a bit like milk poured over sawdust.

If you want a plant-based alternative for creams, lotions, and salves, you’ll want softer waxes that do a better job of emulsifying. Look to sweet almond and apricot kernel wax. Both have a melting point similar to beeswax but feel softer to the touch. They also boast light, appealing fragrances.

You’ll also find a number of plant waxes used in cosmetics that enhance the product’s recipe, but don’t serve as a base. One of these is jojoba wax. Extracted from the jojoba nut that grows in Texas, Arizona, Mexico, and southern California, this viscous oil is chemically a wax, but manifests as a liquid at room temperature. As a result, it looks like oil, is used in recipes like oil, and is generally sold as “jojoba oil.” Formulators love it because it blends beautifully, closely resembles the natural sebum of human skin, and never goes rancid.

Don’t confuse it with jojoba wax beads, which come from the same plant, but are altogether different. These beads don’t work like other plant waxes. They’re perfectly round, and there used for exfoliating, making them better for scrubs. Also called jojoba pearls, these perfect spheres don’t break down, offering gentler exfoliation than ingredients like walnut shells and apricot kernel powder, which contain edges that can scratch the skin.

Working With Wax

If you’re just starting to use plant waxes, here are a few tips:

  • Start with small batches to minimize loss.

  • Have extra wax on hand. If substituting candelilla or carnauba wax in a recipe that calls for beeswax, add 5-10 percent more plant-based wax {by weight} in your first experiment.

  • Use gentle heat. Don’t try to use the microwave. A slow cooker used with caution works well, as does low to medium-low heat on the stove-top.

  • For the stiffer waxes, pour up the mixture into your containers {thick glass- or metal-based containers work best} immediately. Once it melts, there’s no reason to keep it sitting there. Pour it fast, and it will cool more quickly, which helps eliminate consistency issues.

  • When working with carnauba and candelilla, you may have difficulty with plant butter. Shea, cocoa, and kokum butter can all crystallize and spoil a recipe batch. {If this happens, it’s hard to tell whether the butter of the wax has crystallized.}

  • Check how well the final product holds up in your pocket. We call it the “pocket test” around here. When we formulate, we do all the real-life things that will happen to a product. While the car dashboard isn’t a practical test because temperatures are excessive, our starting formula for a lip balm is always hard enough to withstand being in someone’s pocket no matter what the temperature outside.

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