Birthday candles, sealing wax, and shoe polish. Crayons, lava lamps, and cosmetics. This isn’t a shopping list—it’s a short catalog of everyday items that use wax.
The term “wax” captures any one of a number of different substances with similar physical properties. Some of these substances occur naturally, such as beeswax, and some are manmade, such as paraffin. Yet the physical properties of wax are consistent: wax is a pliable solid at room temperature that melts when heated. In its melted form, wax is low viscosity, meaning that liquid wax is runny and flows easily. In fact, it’s the vapor that comes from melted wax that burns so well when you light a candle. And wax is smooth, easily buffed to a shine, and water repellent, which is why wax is used to coat everything from surfboards to leather. Though similar to fat, wax is harder and less greasy.
That’s a basic overview. While there are other complex physical properties of this substance, one general rule might be: if it behaves like wax, it’s probably wax.
Historically, wax was rendered from animal fat—tallow from mutton or beef, or spermaceti from sperm whales, for instance. Other popular waxes, such as beeswax, or lanolin from wool, are natural animal byproducts. And plants, too, produce wax, often on their leaves.
We still derive wax from animals and plants. The most common wax today, however, is synthetic, derived from petroleum, and called paraffin wax. When you pick up a product made partly or entirely of wax, such as a box of crayons, it’s probably using paraffin wax.From our scented candles to our polishes and beyond, wax is part of our everyday lives.