Candelilla wax, a valuable non-timber natural resource

Mexico's semi-arid zones offer highly prized forest resources, one of which is the natural wax extracted from the candelilla plant, which is used to manufacture cosmetics and some foods.

Candelilla wax, a valuable non-timber natural resource
Traditional candelilla wax extraction process. Image: National Forestry Commission

The semi-arid zones of Mexico provide us with very valuable forest resources, one of them is the natural wax extracted from the candelilla plant, which is used to manufacture cosmetics, some foods, etc. In the area known as the Chihuahuan Desert, which includes the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Hidalgo, Zacatecas, among others, a place with extreme conditions, is where the candelilla plant grows, which is endemic to Mexico, particularly in this area.

The candelilla plant (Euphorbia antisyphillitica Zucc.) is one of the few plants in the world that contains a high amount of hydrocarbons, which facilitates the extraction of natural wax. The discovery and use of this plant for medicinal purposes is attributed to the pre-Hispanic natives of northern Mexico, who boiled the sticks of the plant in clay pots to extract the wax and placed it on the string of their bows, thus protecting them from temperature changes.

Since candelilla wax production began in the mid-1900s, it has been of great economic importance to the semi-desert regions known as candelilla regions. For more than 100 years, it has benefited more than 3,500 producers distributed among 230 ejidos in 33 municipalities in northern Mexico.

In the desert there are opportunities for economic activities for the inhabitants of the ejidos and communities.

The wax obtained from this plant is of excellent quality and its production is vast, which is why it is considered extremely valuable. Approximately 90% of the wax production is exported to countries such as United States, Japan, Germany, Spain, France, Holland, England, Ireland, Italy, Colombia, and Argentina.

Candelilla Wax Pellets
Candelilla Wax Pellets

Candelilla wax applications

Candelilla wax is used in the cosmetics industry as an emollient and film-forming agent, as the market is driven by consumer preference for a "natural" cosmetic and there is an increase in demand for natural waxes. In foods, it has different kinds of functions such as anti-caking agent (release agent), bulking agent, emulsifying agent, coating agent.

Candelilla wax is used in some foods such as chewing gum, coffee, coffee substitutes, tea, herbal infusions, hot cereals and beverages containing high cocoa content, candies, including hard and soft candies, nougats, decorations (e.g. cake and cookie decorations), fine bakery products (sweet, savory, flavored), imitation chocolate products or chocolate substitutes, for artificially sweetened beverages, on the surface of fresh fruits, on the surface of vegetables, pulses, and legumes, seaweeds, nuts, and seeds, in water-based flavored beverages, such as whey and electrolyte beverages.

Candelilla Wax Candles
Candles made from candelilla wax.

The candelilla plant for the extraction of pure and natural wax

Traditionally, to extract candelilla wax, sulfuric acid is used in a metal container with boiling water, which is not a safe process for the worker or the environment.  For this reason, the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR) financed the research project "Design of a high-yield process for the extraction of high-quality candelilla wax and formulation of end-use products from the prepared wax", where higher wax extraction yields were obtained with the use of new equipment and an organic extraction agent (tartaric acid), and the wax obtained was of higher purity; In this project, the efficacy of at least four different organic acids was evaluated and each one allows obtaining wax of excellent quality, which was corroborated through various studies.

The candelilla plant is found in Mexico.
The candelilla plant is endemic to Mexico.

Ejido Caopas, municipality of Mazapil, Zacatecas: the opportunity for the use of candelilla in the ejido

The current social conditions of the Caopas ejido correspond to families of ejidatarios dedicated to agriculture with an important contribution to the production and sale of candelilla wax in the state of Zacatecas, which, although appreciated worldwide, is not a really profitable economic activity for the wax producers or candelilleros because their economy only allows them to cover the basic food basket, with the possibility of growth and also with a high risk to their health.

One of the main problems is that they do not generate added value to the candelilla wax they obtain from their process, that is, they sell their product (without purification) to intermediaries who resell it to large companies that are in charge of transforming and commercializing it inside and outside the country. Currently, the Caopas ejido has a permit in place to harvest the non-timber resource of the candelilla plant, with a strong commitment from the ejido to ensure that it is sustainable and benefits the ejido as a whole.

Candelilla plant distribution map in Mexico.
Map of the distribution of the candelilla plant in Mexico.

Source: National Forestry Commission