Wax is one of those substances we often take for granted. It’s been used for hundreds of years and for at least as many different applications. From the archaic, such as its use as a seal for official documents, to the cutting edge of medical technology where it is used for suspending samples for microscopic examination or in the creation of pharmaceutical oils and lotions, wax is a remarkably versatile material.

Part of this versatility, of course, comes down to the fact that what we call “wax” is a very broad term encompassing a large range of materials coming from various sources and created through a variety of different means. Bees’ wax, for example, has an entirely different origin than, say, paraffin wax, though they share enough features in common that they can still both be classified as a wax.

So what makes a wax a wax? Always an organic compound, typically a wax will have a relatively high melting point, usually above 40 degrees Centigrade, and all waxes are insoluble in water, though are not iummune to organic or nonpolar solvents.

Bees famously make wax, but they are not the only insects to do so. So-called “Chinese wax”, for example, is another wax naturally secreted by insects, the Ceroplastes ceriferus and the Ericerus pela, both found only in Asia and the surrounding regions, and is mostly used in traditional medicine and for ceremonial purposes.

More popular for most common uses are the waxes synthesised by humans from petroleum products. More commonly known as paraffin wax, these were created in Germany in the early 19th Century, and quickly became the material of choice for the country’s chandlers, which until then had been making their candles from tallow (rendered fat from beef or mutton). Paraffin wax proved to be both cheaper to produce and more suitable for use in candles, as it burned for longer and with a cleaner flame.

Of course, these days the scarcity of fossil fuels is a huge consideration, so paraffin waxes are themselves experiencing a similar loss of popularity to that suffered by tallow, as the more sustainable and even cleaner-burning hydrogenated vegetable waxes take centre stage. So it seems that not only the versatility of wax and the amount of uses to which we put it will continue to increase, but also the range of sources from which we can derive this most useful of substances.

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