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To buy beeswax is complicated, wax is not just wax, and Inspector Clouseau knew it.
If you want to laugh before you cry…, please watch from the 1975 ‘The Return of the Pink Panther‘ (in case you are inpatient like me, I give you a hint: sequence minute 2:30 )
One of the first post was about beeswax and its characterization. And one of the most striking things I found is that what is being sold in Europa as 100 % beeswax is not “just” beeswax .
On Beeswax adulteration
There are many types of waxes similar to beeswax. There are Animal origin (beeswax), vegetal origin (like carnauba wax) and mineral origin (paraffin wax). All of them easier / faster to produce than beeswax and cheaper.
Mineral waxes are derivatives from petroleum and since the petroleum crisis in the 70’s have been subject to huge investments in Research and Technical Development in western countries. Todays laboratories are able to produce “in vitro” whatever product, providing the market with tailored-made oils, waxes & pigments. With tailor-made wax I mean wax with the melting point, density, viscosity, color etc, that may be required. microcrystalline wax for instance can melt in the range between 60-94 ºC.
Most of the beeswax is being sold industrially in Europa comes from China, here you can find a report from FAO about beeswax import – export figures in 2003. Europe imported 6873 Tons in 2003 exporting in the same period 2167 Tons, meaning a yearly deficit of more than 4,500 ton. Asia exported 5213 tons, 90% of which came from China.
Beeswax price compared with other synthetic products sources can be 4-5 times more expensive, so adulteration of beeswax by adding other substances has become a common place. Specially considering that beeswax and paraffin wax for instance are common authorized additives for food, cosmetics or pharmacopeia, and the adulteration is not hazardous.
Is it a new global market effect that cause beeswax adulteration? not at all, I think it is as old as the church. Catholic Church candles were to be 100% beeswax as symbol of virginity and purity, however given the costs of this type of candles in 1904 Catholic Church decreed candles with beeswax “in maxima parte” (mostly).
The quality control of beeswax requires a great amount of specific knowledge and experience. The Ceralyse laboratory in Bremen, (Germany) is the only laboratory in the world, specialised on the analysis and quality determination of pure beeswax and beeswax adulteration.
On how to buy beeswax
There is not many hints I can give you, I bought many adulterated beeswax in my life and, like it or not, the price is a very clear hint. If you are about to buy a bargain, chances are that you are going to end up with any type of wax mix are high. Buy 500 g and check, if you like it by it in bulk, but never before.
But can we know if the wax we bought is a beeswax adulteration?
Yes and no. We can find hints that what we are testing is not pure beeswax, but we will not know to which extend (10%, 60%) or with what. For my home testing I prepared 6 samples of different wax from Beeswax to paraffin wax and tested their physical and optical characteristics, here my conclusions:
- If you are suspicious your wax is adulterated, probably is
- If your wax sample is whitish, with porcelain-like glow it might have paraffin wax or stearine (obtained from animal fat normally used as hardening agent for candles)
- Beeswax at 36 ºC (human temperature) is sticky. Hold a bit of wax between your fingers (pea-like amount) and try to knead it with the pressure of your fingers, it should get sticky, if it slides between your fingers its a sign that paraffin is in it. If it breaks in fragments you can suspect it is adulterated with stearine.
- You can easily detect paraffin adulteration if you use a “black light” source (the one in the discos that make your teeth look like if you where a Kennedy…), under this type of light paraffin wax glows, beeswax don’t.
- Try to thrust a sharpened pencil into your wax sample, if it leaves an indent it probably contents paraffin. The hardness of the wax is an important quality factor – the harder the wax, the better the wax quality
- Pack your samples sous-vide and introduce them in warm 40 ºC water in a sink. At 40 ºC beeswax should be plastic but not melted.
- (this I haven’t tried, but sounds plausible to me) put your wax pellets into ethanol (density 0,789 g/cm3), if your pellets plunge to the bottom it is beeswax, if they don’t, it is surely paraffin.
By now you might have already confirmed that the wax you bought at record price is not just beeswax, don’t despair and take it easy. You can always use it to clean your brushes.
This post is also available in: Spanish