What Does That Mean? “White wax” in 19th century formularies

This series is intended to explain the occasionally unclear terminology in 19th century formularies. Drop any corrections in the comments section or my contact form.


white cosmetic beeswax pellets on wooden background.

What is white wax? It appears in most Victorian receipts for personal care products, so it behooves the hobbyist to know what the writer is talking about. I spent an embarrassingly long time trying to suss this one out because most books assume the reader already knows what “white wax” signifies, and seldom give it more than a couple words’ explanation.

American pharmacist John H. Snively writes the following:

WAX. This substance is of two varieties; one being produced, as a normal secretion, by the common honey bee, Apis mellifica, the other forming as a result of vegetable life. The name wax, when used without qualification, is understood to mean the former kind.

So “white wax”, in the 19th century, is specifically beeswax with the yellow color removed. According to Snively, this was done by the “combined action of light, air, and moisture”.

I thought the name indicated paraffin early on in my explorations, but in those books I’ve read, if paraffin wax is required, it will be directly named. It is used in formulations of products intended to have a clear or “crystalline” appearance in the end.

White beeswax comes in the standard block or cake form as well as the prill/pastille form, as yellow beeswax. The pastilles are much easier to handle than the blocks, but getting wax from a trusted source might outweigh the convenience.

Substitute all

Yellow beeswax is an obvious alternative. Some available for purchase is less refined and has some natural particulate matter in it. Beeswax marked “cosmetic grade” has been filtered a few more times. The yellow variety has a characteristic honeylike odor.

Soy wax is easy to come by and has very similar behaviors and appearance to white beeswax. It’s also inexpensive.

Synthetic beeswax is sold by some crafting supply shops. It is usually made with natural oils. This has replaced natural beeswax in some vegan beauty products as of late.

Candelilla wax is quite a bit harder than beeswax. It comes from a small desert shrub that grows in North America. Carnauba wax, from a certain Brazilian palm tree, is another very hard wax. Rice bran wax is taken from rice bran oil. When substituting any of these hard waxes for beeswax, use only half the required weight of the asked beeswax. The remainder of the weight should be made up in carrier oil.

Bayberry wax is softer with a lower melting point than beeswax, so another, firmer wax may need to be added with it. It has its own characteristic odor. It comes from the wax myrtle, a small tree that grows in the southeast United States. Laurel wax is almost identical, but rare. Both are used in candles more than cosmetics.

Substitute some

Cera bellina, a modified beeswax, can replace a portion of standard wax. It has many benefits in cosmetic chemistry and makes a different, more gel-like texture than standard beeswax. Read more here and here.

Any very firm butter, like cocoa, can be used to replace a portion of the beeswax in recipes where it isn’t vital to hold a shape. This is a good way to customize the effects of a product.

I have not tried them, but jojoba esters are said to make a pleasant texture when used to replace some of the beeswax in a hard balm recipe.

Substitute none

Floral waxes, like rose wax or jasmine wax, should not be used to replace 100% of beeswax in any recipe. It’s not economical, for one, but floral waxes don’t have the structural power of beeswax. They should only added to a product in very small amounts for their characteristic scents, as part of the carrier oil component of the recipe.

–Darley

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