Skip to main content


In 1817 a French chemist called Michel Chevreul heated up some gunk extracted from the head of a whale. Not just any old whale-head gunk, but a particular yellow oil from the huge snout of Physeter macrocephalus, otherwise known as the sperm whale.

Physeter macrocephalus is not one of nature's lookers. His figure is "robust", he has a humped back, small flippers and a usually toothless upper jaw. His skin has the appearance of a shrivelled prune - ironic, because the stuff he carries round in his head is one of nature's moisturisers.

This oil, now believed to aid buoyancy, was mistakenly thought to be coagulated semen and called spermaceti. While it did nothing for poor Physeter's sex life, thanks to M Chevreul it did get a role in humanity's mating game. The chemist mixed his warm whale oil - chemical name cetyl palmitate - with potassium hydroxide and produced cetyl alcohol. This, one of the first alcohols to be isolated from a fat, became an invaluable ingredient in many beauty-industry goos, including lipsticks. Cetyl alcohol doesn't break down on contact with water and is easily spreadable. (It is also now produced without whale involvement a case of "I can't believe it's not spermaceti"...?) So M Chevreul and the sperm whale won their place in lippy's hall of fame. Now, of course, it is all more complicated.

Oils, waxes and semi-solids form the bulk of a modern lipstick, and could be a mixture of candelilla wax (from a Euphorbia shrub that grows wild in northern Mexico), carnauba wax (a natural sun block produced by a Brazilian fan palm) and castor oil. Lanolin, a yellowish fat from wool, is often used to help the lipstick stick, and antioxidants are added to stop the fats going rancid (you didn't want to know that).

Then come the pigments, dyes and "pearls". For a dye we could pick a halogenated fluorescein, and for a nice sheen, well, some mica coated with titanium dioxide is fetching. The first shines were achieved with guanine, a natural pearl essence derived from fish scales. But if that doesn't appeal then try some bismuth oxychloride (bismuth is a metallic element that has been used to treat both syphilis and indigestion).

And once you have mixed and moulded, spare a thought for the whale and call it Physeter pink or Blubber boy - makes a change doesn't it?

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you