Wax: A Comprehensive Guide to Origin, Chemistry & Uses

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  June 19, 2022
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Have you ever wondered what gives your favorite candle its smooth texture and shiny finish? Or how your favorite lipstick stays put all day? The answer lies in one common ingredient: wax. Wax is a versatile substance made from natural materials like plants and animals, and it’s used in a variety of industries.

Waxes are typically solid at room temperature and have a high melting point. They can be made from a variety of different materials, but they all share the same properties of making something more solid and smooth, as well as making it shiny. This makes wax an essential ingredient in many products, including cosmetics, food, and candles.

In this article, we’ll explore the different types of wax and their uses, from cosmetics to food to art. You’ll learn about the unique properties of beeswax, the versatility of soy wax, and the beauty of carnauba wax. So, let’s dive into the fascinating world of wax and discover what makes it so essential.

What is wax

Wax: The Sticky Substance That Packs a Punch

Wax refers to a diverse class of organic compounds that are lipophilic, malleable solids near ambient temperatures. They include higher alkanes and lipids, typically with melting points above about 40 °C, melting to give low viscosity liquids. Wax is a type of solid that is highly concentrated and potent, resulting in a sticky texture that can be difficult to work with.

Types of Wax

There are different types of wax, each with its own unique consistency and texture. Some of the most popular types of wax include:

  • Pure Wax: This type of wax is made from pure plant compounds and does not contain any additives or chemicals.
  • Black Wax: This type of wax is made from the leaves of the cannabis plant and is known for its high potency.
  • Dab Wax: This type of wax is made using a process called extraction, which involves agitating the plant material to cause the oil to crystallize. The resulting product is a gooey substance that is harder than pure wax but softer than crumble wax.

The Making of Wax

The process of making wax can vary depending on the type of wax being produced. However, the general method involves extracting the compounds from the plant material and then purging the resulting product of any residual solvents. This process results in a highly concentrated product that is perfect for users who want a fast and highly potent experience.

Enforcement and Potency

Enforcement agencies have reported that samples of wax have an average potency of 70-90% THC, making it one of the most potent forms of cannabis available. The concentration of THC in wax can vary depending on the type of wax being produced, with some types containing as much as 99% THC.

The Fascinating Story of How Wax Came to Be

Waxes have been used by humans for centuries, but where did they come from? Here’s a brief history of how natural waxes came to be:

  • Plants: Natural waxes can be derived from plants such as soybeans, palm trees, and jojoba. These waxes are extracted from the seeds, leaves, or fruits of the plant and are used in various industries, including cosmetics, candles, and food.
  • Animals: Another source of natural waxes is animals. Beeswax, for example, is produced by honeybees to build their hives. Lanolin, a wax-like substance, is derived from the skin of sheep and is used in skin care products.

From Petroleum to Synthetics: The Origins of Synthetic Waxes

While natural waxes have been around for centuries, synthetic waxes are a relatively new invention. Here’s how they came to be:

  • Petroleum: Synthetic waxes are derived from petroleum, a fossil fuel. The process involves refining crude oil to produce various types of waxes with different physical properties.
  • Synthetics: In addition to petroleum-based waxes, synthetic waxes can also be artificially made. These waxes are created by combining different chemicals to produce a wax-like substance.

Waxing: The Modern Use of Waxes

Today, waxes are used in a variety of industries, including cosmetics, candles, and food. One of the most common uses of wax is in hair removal. Waxing involves applying hot wax to the skin and then removing it, along with the hair, to leave the skin smooth and hair-free. Waxing can be done with both natural and synthetic waxes, and each type has its own set of physical properties and characteristics.

Wax Chemistry: The Complex Molecules that Serve a Simple Function

Waxes are a type of lipid that consists of a long-chain fatty acid linked to a long-chain alcohol. The alcohol can contain anywhere from 12 to 32 carbon atoms, and the fatty acid can contain a variety of aliphatic (straight-chain) or even cyclic (ring-shaped) structures. The degree of saturation of the fatty acid also varies, with some waxes containing only single bonds between carbon atoms (saturated), while others contain double bonds (unsaturated).

Waxes in Nature

Waxes are found in a variety of biological materials in nature, including the surface of plants and animals. They serve a primary function as a thin, protective cover that helps to resist water and other environmental factors. Some examples of waxes found in nature include:

  • Beeswax, produced by bees to build their honeycombs
  • Carnauba wax, produced by the leaves of the carnauba palm tree
  • Lanolin, produced by the sebaceous glands of sheep and used in cosmetics and skin care products
  • Cutin, a waxy polymer found in the cuticle of plant leaves and stems

Chemical Properties of Waxes

Waxes are typically solid at room temperature and have a high melting point, which allows them to serve as a storage material for energy and other important components. The exact melting point of a wax depends on its chemical structure, with longer chains and more saturated bonds leading to higher melting points. Waxes are also typically hydrophobic, meaning they do not dissolve in water.

Industrial Uses of Waxes

Waxes have a vast array of industrial uses, including:

  • Candle making, where waxes such as beeswax or paraffin are used as the main component
  • Food production, where waxes are used as a coating or preservative for certain types of foods
  • Cosmetics and personal care products, where waxes are used as a thickening agent or to provide a protective barrier for the skin
  • Polishes and coatings, where waxes are used to provide a protective layer or shine to surfaces such as floors, cars, and furniture
  • Paper and printing, where waxes are used to control ink absorption and improve print quality

Waxes in Coal and Petroleum

Waxes are also found in coal and petroleum deposits, where they are often referred to as “dark waxes” due to their color. These waxes are typically complex mixtures of molecules and are not as well understood as natural waxes. However, they are still of significant importance as they can be used as starting materials for a variety of products, including lubricants, plastics, and other industrial materials.

The Many Uses of Wax: More Than Just a Protective Coating

Wax is commonly used in a variety of finishes and coatings, from car waxes to leather finishes. Its primary function is to protect the surface from water and other elements. Wax can also contain compounds that provide additional benefits, such as UV protection or anti-fouling properties. Some typical uses of wax in finishes and coatings include:

  • Medium for creating custom finishes
  • Close finishes for wood and leather
  • Water-repellent finishes for outdoor items
  • Hard finishes for floors and furniture
  • Unique finishes for art and crafts

Wax in Manufacturing

Wax is also an important component in the manufacture of a variety of materials. It is commonly used as a mold release agent, as well as in the production of adhesives, inks, and paints. Some typical uses of wax in manufacturing include:

  • Building molds for casting metal parts
  • Creating custom adhesives for specific applications
  • Forming the base for paints and inks
  • Controlling the degree of hardness in materials

Wax in Food and Other Items

Wax is not just used in industrial applications- it is also commonly found in food and other everyday items. Some types of wax are even considered a delicacy, and can be quite expensive. Some typical uses of wax in food and other items include:

  • Coating fruits and vegetables to extend their shelf life
  • Forming the outer layer of certain types of cheese
  • Creating a hard shell on candies and chocolates
  • Providing a protective coating on pills and capsules

Natural vs. Synthetic Wax

Wax can be produced from a variety of natural sources, including coal, rice, and even red palm oil. Synthetic waxes are also available, and are typically made from a complex chain of chemical reactions. The type of wax used depends on the function it is intended to serve, as well as the degree of control required over its properties. Some key differences between natural and synthetic wax include:

  • Natural wax is typically thought to be more environmentally friendly
  • Synthetic wax can be more consistent in its properties
  • Natural wax may lack the large chain of components found in synthetic wax


So, that’s what wax is – a substance made from plants or animals that’s used to protect and polish surfaces. It’s been used for centuries for many different purposes, from candles to cosmetics to food. 

You can’t go wrong with a little waxing now and then!

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Tools Doctor, content marketer, and dad. I love trying out new equipment, and together with my team I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with tools & crafting tips.