Sunday, June 21, 2015

Spermaceti, and How to Replace It

EDIT: You can buy a prepared spermaceti replacement at this link.

The first time I ever heard of spermaceti, I was about 14 years old and was reading a 1930s era beauty recipe book I'd found in the school library. My brain confused it with vermicelli and I thought it sure sounded like a weird thing to include in a face cream.

Yet perhaps the truth of the matter isn't so much more weird. In fact, spermaceti is a wax/oily substance acquired from the heads of sperm whales. The name, from Latin sperma ceti (whale's sperm) refers to its appearance -- yes, I am afraid it does look quite a bit like a certain masculine bodily fluid, and the medieval sailors who first came upon this substance sure couldn't find anything better to compare it to.

Spermaceti is liquid when kept at body temperature, but at lower heat it solidifies into a waxy material. This is important to how the whales use it -- when it's warm and liquid, the whale floats up to the surface. To cool it down again in order to submerge, the whale shoots water through its blow-hole to chill it back down.
It is described as "white, semi transparent, unctuous or talcose to the touch, of a slight fatty taste and odor ... If exposed to the air for a long time, spermaceti becomes yellowish and somewhat rancid, but when remelted and treated with diluted caustic soda or potash it regains its original condition." Another source says it is, "when extracted cold ... a good deal the appearance of the internal structure of a water-melon, and is found in rather solid lumps."

This material was once very important to the cosmetics industry, as it possesses amazing powers of emulsification, without adding odor or color to a product. It was used in everything from hand cream to cough syrup. However, as concern for the wellbeing of the whales made true spermaceti no longer feasible for use, substitutions have been found to replace it. For cosmetics, it is said that jojoba oil or wax can be used in its stead. Also cetyl alcohol and cetyl esters wax were specially developed for the purpose of replacing spermaceti.

I decided to give a try to the jojoba options. Plain jojoba oil I find absorbs quickly and beautifully into the skin -- yet I had heard from some people that using liquid jojoba oil in place of spermaceti in mixtures often makes the resulting product too runny. Therefore, I purchased the jojoba wax since it would be thicker and presumably better suited. Yet when I touched the wax, its texture and feel was similar to beeswax or paraffin -- too thick! Based on the descriptions, and on photos I have seen of the genuine substance, the mixture should be solid, but still oily feeling. I began trying to melt together some ingredients to make a suitable matter more in the style of what was expected.

First try: approximately 1 part jojoba wax to 1 part coconut oil (by volume).
I thought of coconut oil because it has a similar melting point to real spermaceti -- also cetyl esters wax is derived from coconut. The mixture made from this combo had a creamy texture and it could be rubbed into the skin on its own. This felt about right to what I imagined -- and also made a more similar color to the original spermaceti (which was white in hue -- jojoba products tend to be yellow.) I would be happy to use this combo for certain mixtures, I think. Only flaw is the coconut oil does add its own distinctive scent, and it might be a little thin.

Second try: approximately 1 part jojoba wax to 1 part jojoba oil (by volume).
This created a more solid mixture -- possible to rub onto the skin but not inclined to absorb the same way as the jojoba oil alone, or even absorb like the coconut/jojoba mixture. Also less creamy feeling than the coconut mix. I liked it less, personally, but actually feel it may be even more similar to legit spermaceti, which was solid enough to transport in cubes. This mixture was about the same thickness and color as Irish style butter, at room temperature.

Third try: approximately 1 part jojoba wax to 2 parts jojoba oil (by volume.)
I had a little more trouble mixing this batch for some reason, and maybe there was therefore not enough wax in it? Whatever the case, I thought the result of this was a little too oily. Not suitable.

Based on this, I would recommend the 1 to 1 ratio of either jojoba oil or coconut oil to the jojoba wax as a replacement for spermaceti in beauty recipes. These mixtures have soft consistencies that won't throw off the intended thickness too badly in either direction.

However, price is also a factor for most people. A 4 oz bottle of jojoba oil cost me $9.99 at Whole Foods, and jojoba wax cost about $12 for 4 ounces (shipping included) from a seller on Bonanza. It is of note that 8 ounces of cetyl esters, by comparison, would cost about $10 with the shipping included. So if you want to keep your costs down, it's probably best to just use the artificial replacement.


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