Adipocere 101- How to Prevent and Remove Grave Wax From Bones

What is Adipocere?

In terms of cleaning bones, adipocere is a white waxy or chalky substance that is sometimes seen on bones after being found in nature or after Macerating. Adipocere, also called corpse wax or grave wax, is formed by fats breaking down in ideal conditions (wet and low oxygen). In human decomposition it can encompass the entire corpse and turn hard, preserving the body for many many years- this is very different from what we deal with when cleaning bones. Adipocere for the most part is solely a cosmetic issue. I have read that eventually it can start stinking, but I find that hard to believe as long as the skull is properly degreased and whitened.

One of my liger skeletons that had adipocere all over its skull and on most of the long bones

What Materials are Needed to Prevent/Remove Adipocere?

1. Flesh-free bones/skull (see Maceration 101 if your bones aren’t flesh free yet)

2. Bucket Heater

3. Clear Household Ammonia

4. Recommended: Nitrile Gloves

5. Cheap/Old Tooth Brush

6. Scalpel Handle and Blades

7. Scouring Pad

8. Dremel Rotary Tool Kit and a Respirator for any dust

9. Wire Brush or Nylon Brush Attachment for Dremels (a different kind is included in the kit above that’ll work fine)

10. Optional: Dremel Adjustable Chuck– never need to change out collets again! One of my absolute favorite tools!

11. Optional: Dremel Flex Shaft Attachment– yet another useful tool! This attachment is much smaller than the actual dremel, and allows you to fit into tight places to remove adipocere

How to Prevent Adipocere/Grave Wax

I rarely have to deal with adipocere because I’ve figured out how to mostly prevent it. Preventing adipocere is a lot easier and less time consuming than removing it, so follow these instructions that way next time you won’t have to deal with removing it.

1. FLESH FLESH FLESH! Adipocere is produced when soft tissues (fats and other tissues) start breaking down, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to say that if you remove the soft tissues, you have less chance of adipocere being a problem! So grab a scapel and start slicing! My Maceration Guide goes in depth about the best way to flesh a carcass, so go give that a read if you haven’t already. My ligers (see photo attached above) came as mostly fleshed, salted carcasses but still had some meat on them. I chose not to hydrate them and further flesh them, which led to them having adipocere where the excess meat was.

2. Heat. Also mentioned in the maceration guide, heat will not only speed up macerating and degreasing, but will also limit adipocere. I’m not sure the exact science behind it, but from my personal experience and my fellow colleagues’, heat helps. It’s likely because maceration works faster when heated, thus removing the soft tissues/fats quicker, thus having less time for adipocere to form on the bones. I keep my maceration tank heated at roughly 110F (43.3C) and rarely experience grave wax. However, I macerated my 6 ligers in twelve 14-gallon barrels, so I did not have the chance to heat them, and they were covered in adipocere when they were done macerating.

3. Change out your buckets regularly! Adipocere is prominent in anaerobic (lacking oxygen) conditions, which can present problems for us because anaerobic bacteria is the main helper in maceration. However, when you first fill up the buckets, there is oxygen in the water. It is only after letting it sit for weeks that that oxygen has been used up and adipocere starts forming. If you change out your maceration buckets weekly or bi-weekly you’re much less likely to encounter adipocere.

If you combine these three tips, I guarantee that you will either no longer have to deal with adipocere on your bones, or you will have significantly less.

How to Remove Adipocere from Bones

If you’re looking for a super easy, fast way to remove adipocere, keep dreaming! I have colleagues that have tried all kinds of solvents, detergents, and other chemicals to remove adipocere without any manual labor- it doesn’t work without a little manual work. Follow the preventative steps listed above that way next time you won’t have to manually remove this stubborn substance! But now that you’re to this point and have learned your lesson, I might as well help you remove it.

1. Degrease. Adipocere is composed of saturated fatty acids. Though you can’t completely remove it solely by degreasing, you can break down those fats a bit and make it easier to remove by hand if you degrease the bones before scrubbing it off. Learn how to properly degrease by reading my Degreasing Guide!

2. Scrubbity dub dub! There’s no getting around it, you’re going to have to scrub a bit by hand. I personally recommend using an old or cheap toothbrush for smaller, more delicate bones, and a green scouring pad (like you use to clean pots) to larger sturdy bones. I personally dip the toothbrush or pad in some 2.5% clear household ammonia (from Walmart or dollar stores) and find that it helps dissolve the adipocere as I scrub it away. You’ll be left with a pool of cloudy ammonia under your bones after scrubbing. It’s very time consuming, but it gets the job done. You’ll struggle to get inside very small nooks of the skull, but by using a variation of different brushes (maybe even a small paint brush?) you should be able to remove most of it by hand.

3. Advanced Scrubbing. For the lazy person that wants to speed the process up a bit and doesn’t care about making a mess! This is not recommended for any delicate bones or for delicate areas of a skull. Simply attach a soft wire brush (the nylon ones also work) to your Dremel and get to work. Don’t press too hard or you’ll dull the brush and may start eroding away the bone. You only want it to very gently scrape the surface to remove the adipocere. Make sure to wear a Respirator while doing this to keep nasty adipocere dust out of your lungs! There’s a variety of Dremel brush sizes and shapes available on amazon, so click one of the links above and find a set that works for you. I’ve found that actual Dremel name brand wire brushes last MUCH longer than the generic ones, but feel free to try them out for yourself.

Tips to Make Removing Adipocere Easier

It’s important to note that I haven’t personally tried all of these, I’m simply passing along what I have heard

1. Remove it as soon as it appears. As soon as you pull things out of maceration, start scrubbing. It will clear up the “pores” of the skull and help degrease the skull faster.

2. Wait until the skull is completely degreased, whitened, and dry to remove it. Degreasing and whitening can make the grave wax brittle and flaky, sometimes you can even remove it simply with your fingernail. (Complete opposite to tip #1, I know….. try both ways and see which works better for you- OR just follow the preventative steps so you don’t have to worry about adipocere in the first place!)

3. Ether. Haven’t ever tried it, nor know anyone specifically who has had success with it, but supposedly if you soak the bones in ether it’ll either dissolve or help remove adipocere.

 

What Do I Do Now?

Now that your bones are done Macerating and your adipocere is prevented or removed, you can move onto Degreasing (unless you did that prior to removing the grave wax). After that, you’re done! You can whiten your bones if you want to (See our Whitening Guide), but its not required!

The same liger as pictured above after some scrubbing with ammonia and a scouring pad. Was able to remove about 95% of the adipocere!

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