Spermaceti (from Greek sperma, seed, and cetus, whale) is a wax present in the head cavities of the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). Spermaceti is extracted from whale oil by crystallisation at 6 °C, when treated by pressure and a chemical solution of caustic alkali. Spermaceti forms brilliant white crystals that are hard but oily to the touch, and are devoid of taste or smell, making it very useful as an ingredient in cosmetics, leatherworking and lubricants. The substance was also used in making candles of a standard photometric value, in the dressing of fabrics, and as a pharmaceutical excipient, especially in cerates and ointments.
Spermaceti is insoluble in water, very slightly soluble in cold alcohol, but easily dissolved in ether, chloroform, carbon disulfide, and boiling alcohol. Spermaceti consists principally of cetyl palmitate (ester of cetyl alcohol and palmitic acid), C15H31COO-C16H33.
A botanical alternative to spermaceti is a derivative of jojoba oil, jojoba esters, C19H41COO-C20H41, a solid wax which is chemically and physically very similar to spermaceti and may be used in many of the same applications. Esters of cetyl alcohol and jojoba oil are used as a substitute for spermaceti.
Spermaceti was gathered during whaling and was considered a valuable resource by whalers due to the high price that could be fetched for it. The sperm whale's head was either brought on deck or lashed to the side of the ship where the whalemen would cut a hole in the case. The spermaceti could then be drawn out by bucket or a whaleman would enter the hole and manually remove the fluid. Once gathered the spermaceti would be placed in barrels for the voyage home. A large whale would have as much as three tons of spermaceti.