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Vegan Beeswax? What is that?

January 18, 2021

There is no singular alternative to beeswax, rather there are a variety of options one could try when formulating vegan-friendly products and I want to dive into that.

Interest in vegan cosmetics has grown substantially over the last few years due to a number of factors, the factor most interesting to me (if that matters to you) is sustainability – land use, land change and carbon footprint.

Now I can’t pretend to be vegan or lead you to believe that I find the farming of animals wrong because I don’t. I grew up in a market town, come from a family for whom farming was in their DNA (at least for as long as Ancestory.com has allowed me to search) and can lead you to the home amongst the fields, somewhere in the English countryside, that has my name on it (Foxons Lodge). Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t move with the times, challenge my own believes, see things through a new lens but so far, I’m still more of a farming/ hunting/ circle-of-life kind of girl than one who hunts tofu in suburbia. However, what I can clearly see is that a) animals deserve to live more natural lives (as do we) and b) eating meat every day or possibly most weeks, especially red meat is problematic on many levels.

With that explained some of you may now be wondering what cow burgers have to do with beeswax given that bee farming is quite a substantially different endeavour. While I’m sure the vegan community will explain this to you better than I can, the practice of keeping bees for human gain – so we can harvest ‘products’ from them be they honey, wax or propolis, is seen as bee slavery and an interruption of their natural lives. Avoiding any kind of sentient being slavery is a goal of veganism and as such, bee products are out.

So now to beeswax and what it usually does for us cosmetic chemists.

Many products benefit from a bit of wax. Balms are an obvious starting point as it is difficult (although not impossible by any stretch) to turn an oily or buttery substance into a stick balm (like a Chapstick for example) without using a high melting point, oil-compatible ingredient, for example a wax. But they aren’t just for thickening, waxes are used in hair styling products including beard balms where they can help hold a style or smooth down the hair. They also help stabilise oil-in-water emulsions, form ointments (another type of emulsion, typically water-in-oil), provide water-resistance in hand creams, sunscreens and long-wear make-up and make make-up such as mascara possible. Use of waxes in a cosmetic formula can range from 0-30% and even more in some cases depending on what is being created, the viscosity (thickness) required, the rheology (flow) you are aiming for and the products wear resistance and functional requirements.

Beeswax is one of the best known cosmetic waxes and is something that many hand-made or local-provenance brands like to use as it is completely natural, often smells great (sweet like honey but with heavier tabacco and woody back notes), can have a beautifully rich yellow/orange colour and is very, very versatile.

Beeswax behaviour.

If I had to describe the physical properties of beeswax in one word I’d say ‘flexible’. Unlike the majority of plant waxes available, beeswax is rubbery, maleable, absorbent and stretchable. We have its chemistry to thank for that but it is its purpose in the world that answers the ‘but why’s’. In an ever-changing and moving world, brittle building materials are problematic and can easily fracture and lose form. Flexible materials, materials that can absorb, contract and expand with the nuances of the day, are far more likely to last and easier to mould, grow and fix should they be stretched too far. Now while I do remember having a bee talk at primary school, I also remember feeling it lasted far too long for my liking. I remember very little of it thanks to me zoning out (and then getting into trouble for not moving off the mat when the talk was over – I was still AWOL) but I do remember coming away with a new found appreciation for the intelligence of bees. What I didn’t appreciate until more recently though is just what amazing material scientist bees are given the complexity of the wax they produce.

Beeswax chemistry.

One only has to take a momentary glance over a paper on beeswax chemistry to know that you are looking at a very complex material. This fact, as always, amuses me immensely given that we are living in a non-science world where anything that can’t be pronounced is shunned. Well there is somewhere in the region of 300 chemicals in beeswax from many different family groups including Fatty Acids, Alkanes, Wax Esters, Alkenes and Fatty alcohols and some of these things have names that I’d definitely struggle to fit on an ingredients label. But rather than get into the fine details of each chemical the important thing is to appreciate that it takes many, many otherwise quite stiff and boring chemicals, combined in just the right ratios to make this amazing material. Mimicking it was never going to be easy…

So what is vegan beeswax?

New Directions (who I have consulted for since time began) have just launched a new ingredient called ‘beeswax alternative’ or something of that ilk. I’ve been paying around with it in my lab over the last week or so and have also been doing a bit of a nosy around in its chemistry to see what it actually is so I can compare and contrast it to real beeswax. I’ll get to all that in a minute but what I can confirm is this is all natural, all plant derived and sans palm – palm oil is still a thing to avoid in some circles.

There are many alternative waxes a cosmetic chemist can choose from but the wax I am talking about has been specifically designed as a beeswax alternative. With that in mind I tested it expecting a similar capacity to thicken or firm up a balm, similar plasticity, emulsion stabilising power, water-resistance and hold capacity (for styling or colour cosmetics). What I didn’t expect was for it to look, smell and feel like beeswax and other than the look of the pellets, my expectations were correct and it doesn’t.

INCI name: Helianthus Annuus Seed Wax, Olea Europaea Oil Unsaponifiables, Rhus Verniciflua Peel Wax, Shorea Robusta Resin

So this is a blended wax made from more than one plant material, intentionally chosen to re-create the type of chemistry found in beeswax. The Helianthus (sunflower) wax gives it its wax-like melting point, the Olea Europaea (olive) unsaponifiables provides a source of open chain hydrocarbons thanks to the presence of squalene, the Rhus Verniciflua (Varnish Tree wax or Sumac or Japan wax or berry wax) adds water-resistance and oleogel stabilising power while the Shorea Robusta (Sal Tree/ Dammar) Resin brings the flexibility.

Each one of the four components have their own distinct chemistry containing many different components but when brought together they form one wax pellet with a melting point of 68-74C which is actually higher than beeswax not that I’ve been able to tell from my trials.

How does it feel?

My experimenting thus far has left me concluding that this isn’t as able as beeswax to create the hardness that is typically associated with stick products when used on an equivalent basis.

I started off trying to thicken Caprylic/ Capric Triglyceride (MCT Oil) as that just happened to be something oily I had around in excess quantities. The resulting softish balms are below. 80% MCT, 20% Wax for both.

The resulting beeswax balm (LHS) had an obvious homogeneity to it straight away, spreading easily across the skin or surface and feeling smooth and ointment-like. The vegan beeswax balm didn’t quite behave that way and looked rather lumpy, also failing to spread evenly when pressed and instead yielding in chunks that meant some bits of skin and/or surface were missed while others received a big dollop.

Now I have to confess that this lab work of mine was undertaken with my ‘rough-and-ready’ approach which basically means you get bored of mixing and cooling quickly and whack the thing into the freezer to cool quickly. Anyone who knows anything about balm science and formulating appreciates how important optimal method is. Balms will structure differently if exposed to different levels of heat, mixing stress/ time, cooling conditions and even the cooling container. So, with that in mind I’m looking at this as a ball-park comparison only and will, when I’m feeling more detail-orientated, try a few more methods of production out to see how that alters the balms crystalline structure.

Now as MCT oil can be a bit of an odd beast, the second thing I tried was Olive oil. These are the results when I did my 80:20 test:

Beeswax is on the left and the vegan alternative is on the right. Again I did my ‘chuck it in the freezer’ move on these ones so yes, there are some chunky crystals in both but to be honest, I don’t care because it was clear to see that both of these waxes really liked olive oil soooooo much that they married it!

Chemistry wise, Olive oil is far more complex than MCT oil and that absolutely could account for the difference – the more complex structure better able to ‘fit’ tightly with the interruptions in structure the wax makes. Both resulting balms were semi-solids, had very similar viscosities and appearances and were equally lovely to feel. If anything I actually preferred the feel of the vegan beeswax one.

From there I started playing with a few more things but I’m not yet ready to share any of that work as I’ve got to focus (grasshopper) on some other work. However, what I can say is that this vegan friendly wax definitely has its place.

But why bother when you can use plant waxes such as Rice Bran, Candellila and Carnauba?

True, true. There are many other plant-based waxes around and it’s perfectly feasible that one or another of these would be a better fit for your formulation than this constructed wax. However, the is one thing these plant-waxes have in common is their lack of ability to form flexible films and that’s something that I have to say, the vegan beeswax alternative can do albeit in a clunkier way than beeswax proper.

Plants produce wax as sunscreen and water-proofing. Rather than it being a building material, it is a protective cover and as such, doesn’t have to be as flexible. Indeed, some plants find it beneficial for their leaves to be stiff and as luck would have it, plant waxes help make that dream come true!

Formulators have long known that combining waxes together gives a better, more flexible and forgiving film than just using one but even so, you are still ending up with what is potentially a lot of wax. The downside of wax-heavy formulations is just that – heaviness. Waxes can retard flow across a surface, make a product feel heavy and hot to wear, even crack an emulsion or pull moisture out of it (in which case the product becomes rubberised). What the vegan beeswax does is allow you to use more wax without using more wax – because it contains a range of chemistry, some of which is less waxy than your typical natural waxes provides.

And it is with that rather inelegant sentence that I make my conclusion for now. This constructed beeswax alternative may not be able to harden up a formula to the same degree that regular beeswax can but that’s actually to its benefit. For those formulations where you want stiffness without too much waxy residue (I’m thinking solid moisturising sticks, bi-phasic lip products etc) it is a benefit to be able to build your viscosity using other formulating strategies thus reducing the potential for an over-waxed product. This isn’t possible with binary or multi-wax formulations built around just what nature gives us.

I am looking forward to exploring this material and wax chemistry further as there is sooo much more to explore but in the meantime I’ll leave it at that.

This paper was interesting by the way…

Beeswax production.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mary permalink
    January 19, 2021 1:40 am

    Very interesting–as always!

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