What Is Carnauba Wax?

Carnauba Wax Chemistry

Gummy bears
Carnauba wax gives gummy bears an attractive sheen. Lisa Wiltse/Corbis via Getty Images

My son says my car smells like candy. This is not because I satisfy some sugar craving while driving, but because I waxed it with the same wax used to coat many candies. This is carnauba wax, also known as palm wax or Brazil wax. What is carnauba wax? Carnauba wax is an ingredient in many foods and household products. Here's a look at what carnauba wax is made of and the properties that make it such a useful chemical.

Carnauba Wax Origin

Carnauba wax is a natural wax. It comes from the leaves of the Copernicia prunifera palm grown only in Brazil. The wax is obtained by beating the wax off of the dried palm fronds and then refining it for use. The pure wax is yellow in color.

Carnauba Wax Chemical Composition

Carnauba wax consists of fatty acid esters (80-85%), fatty alcohols (10-16%), acids (3-6%) and hydrocarbons (1-3%). It is around 20% esterified fatty diols, 10% methoxylated or hydroxylated cinnamic acid, and 6% hydroxylated fatty acids.

Properties and Uses

Carnauba wax has a very high melting point of 82-86 °C (180-187 °F). It is harder than concrete and nearly insoluble in water and ethanol. It is non-toxic and hypoallergenic. It can be polished to high gloss.

The combination of properties leads to many applications, including use in food, cosmetics, automobile and furniture wax, molds for semiconductor devices, and as a coating for dental floss. You use products that contain carnauba wax every day, though you may not have known what the ingredient was or where it came from. It is one of those extremely useful natural chemicals and renewable resources that doesn't have a synthetic equivalent.

As for my car smelling like candy: the wax does have a distinctive sweet scent. It might be more accurate to say many car waxes and candies smell like carnauba wax.