This series describes ingredients in 19th century formularies that are inaccessible, expensive, or dangerous, and their modern substitutions.
What should I use in place of spermaceti?
Jojoba oil. For authenticity of color, use the unrefined “golden” kind.
Jojoba oil has a composition similar to spermaceti: wax esters with a little trigylceride content.
Spermaceti is found in the largest quantities in the heads of sperm whales, but it is also found in some other species. It is a liquid wax.
Sperm whale oil does not gum up or corrode, and it remains stable at extreme temperatures. As a consequence, it used to be in almost everything that required lubrication or preservation of machine parts. It was an ingredient in transmission fluids and Rust-Oleum. Watchmakers and users of sewing machines employed it for the tiny gears of their crafts. It was popular as a clean-burning fuel for the home. It appeared in medicines. And, most relevantly to this blog, it appears in a number of 19th century cosmetic formulas for the skin and hair.
Though it was used in certain products in living memory, no one is alive today who remembers the far-flung ubiquity of bottled spermaceti. The whaling business peaked in the mid-1800s, when mineral oil products began to depress demand. In the 20th century, jojoba oil was discovered to be superior in every application that would usually demand spermaceti.