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Any of a class of pliable substances, organic compounds of animal, plant, mineral, or synthetic origin, less greasy, harder, and more brittle than fats. Waxes contain mostly compounds of high molecular weight (fatty acids, alcohols, and saturated hydrocarbons). Many melt at moderate temperatures and form hard films that can take a high polish. Animal and plant waxes are esters of fatty acids and either a sterol (seesteroid) or a straight-chain higher alcohol (e.g., cetyl alcohol). Animal waxes include beeswax; wool wax (lanolin), used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics; and sperm oil and spermaceti (from sperm whales), used as lubricants. Plant waxes include carnauba wax, candelilla wax, and sugarcane wax, used in polishes. About 90% of the waxes in commerce are recovered by dewaxing petroleum. There are three main types: paraffin (used in candles, crayons, paper coating, and industrial polishes and as a protective sealant, lubricant, insulating agent, and antifrothing agent), microcrystalline wax (used in paper coating), and petrolatum (used in ointments and cosmetics). Synthetic waxes (carbowaxes), derived from ethylene glycol, are commonly blended with petroleum waxes.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on wax, visit Britannica.com.