Morticians Wax, Collodion, Gelatin, Latex, Silicone, NecroDerm?
Updated: May 27
Repairing soft tissue defects in a realistic manner is a basic skill that all restoration artists embalmers must learn. In this blog I will discuss the various products that are available and the pros and cons of each.
The old standard for over 100 years has been wax. Countless embalmers were taught the basics of soft tissue repair using wax. While wax can create a nice repair and is usually inexpensive, it is fraught with problems that are difficult to overcome.
The good things about wax are that is relatively easy to use, is readily available, can be shaped pretty easily, can be textured fairly easily, is compatible with most cosmetics (when properly sealed), etc.
The bad things about wax are it is soft, so it is easily disturbed if the family touches, kisses, etc. This is probably the number one problem with wax. You can spend hours getting a repair just right and then it can be ruined in seconds by an errant touch. Wax also requires a solvent to smooth and blend. Dry Wash, acetone, lacquer thinner, etc. are common. These subject the embalmer to unneeded fumes and the possibility of chemical spills, eye damage, skin irritation, etc. Lastly, wax needs to be sealed before cosmetic application for best results. The most common sealer is flexible collodian (it is marketed under other names such as wax sealer, etc. also). Collodian is a mixture of ether, alcohol, and cellulose nitrates; more chemical exposure. For the most part, wax is no longer used much in the professional SPFX cosmetic industry and, with the possible exception of some light lip waxes, should be phased out in the funeral profession.
The next product we will briefly discuss is collodion. It was a staple in the kits of old time SPFX makeup pioneers like Lon Chaney and Jack Pierce. It was generally mixed with cotton and used to build up areas of the face. This is what Jack Pierce famously used to build the heavy brow on Boris Karloff for the Frankenstein's monster. I have read some very old accounts of it being used in a similar manner as a filler in the embalming restoration process. It did provide a much more solid foundation than wax but, thankfully, due to the extreme flammability, intense odor and difficultly of handling, it never really caught on for funeral restoration use.
Another product that is quite old but still in use today is Gelatin. It is a colorless, tasteless, protein made from collagen. Gelatin strength is measured in "Bloom". Food grade may be 30 to 100 Bloom. But cosmetic grade is a much tougher 300 Bloom with a mixture of ingredi
ents such as, glycerin, sorbitol, zinc oxide, pigments, and flocking. The good side of gelatin is that it is inexpensive, generally easy to work with, readily available, and can be created with an excellent translucent skin-like coloring and effect that is only rivaled by silicone. It was used in film and theater work for many years and is still used today, though silicone has replaced gelatin in many prosthetic applications. The main reason is gelatin's main drawback; it melts under hot lights and sometimes even from a higher than normal body temperature. It also doesn't hold up under wet conditions and can melt from an actors perspiration. In spite of its drawbacks for stage and film use, it is still an excellent medium for restoration work to create prosthetic ears, noses, lips, etc. since the heat and perspiration are not a problem. We have found that it can be foamed and encapsulated in a special flexible plastic compound that makes it an excellent choice for this application. It will accept most any type of cosmetic, has a very lifelike look and feel, and is easy to apply with NecroTack adhesive. We will soon have a line of encapsulated foamed gelatin prosthetics available on our online store.
Next we will discuss foam latex. For years it was the standard prosthetic material for prosthetic pieces in the SPFX film and stage industries. It is tough, molds great, is flexible so it can react well to an actors expressions, etc. The downsides are that it can't really be used as a skin filler material, it takes special equipment to mix, must be baked in a special oven in the mold, won't accept many cosmetics, and is not translucent or skin-like in its coloring; i/e: it is one solid color. It must be painted with special cosmetic paints to resemble skin. While it is still a popular choice for prosthetic pieces, it is quickly being replaced by silicone. For the most part, it is not a great choice for the embalmer restoration artist.
Silicone has become the de-facto choice of most special effects artists for prosthetic work. It is basically a room temparature vulcanizing rubber. There are platinum cure an tin cure silicones, with platinum generally having less shrinkage for critical projects. Silicone can be made to look almost exactly like real skin. Most of the skin and body effects you see in films and television are created with silicone. While there are silicones that can be applied directly to the skin and look very life-like, they are mainly for creating wounds or scars. Silicones come in many varieties and are tricky to wok with. It takes knowledge and practice to work with silicone. Much of it must be mixed in a vacuum chamber to remove bubbles before molding. Silicone prosthetics must be attached with special adhesives and colored with special silicone colorings. Silicone will not accept practically any normal cosmetic. While exploring silicone is definitely worthwhile for the determined restoration artist, its use is beyond the scope of most mortuary applications.
Lastly we will discuss NecroMetics NecroDerm Wax Replacer Compound. It is a flesh-toned, thick, tinted and flocked acrylic polymer paste mixture specially formulated to be used as a wax replacer in restoration work. Once dry, NecroDerm Compound will not distort or move like wax. Formulated especially for the mortuary restoration professional, NecroDerm is new technology that addresses all of the shortcomings of other products. It is easy to apply, smooths and feathers with water, can be stippled to a very skin-like finish, is available in light or dark flesh colors, dries to a firm rubber-like compound that will not move or be damaged by touching, kissing, etc., will accept most any cosmetic, and is made to adhere to cold flesh. NecroDerm has been proven in many restoration projects and is my go-to product for all soft tissue damage repair. There is simply not a better product for mortuary use available anywhere.
Shane A.S. Ritchie, CFSP is the President of NecroMetics®, a three-state licensed embalmer, funeral director, post-mortem reconstruction specialist, and a SPFX cosmetics enthusiast. He has written many articles for nearly every major funeral profession publication and is a public speaker and educator on topics of embalming, restoration, and mortuary SPFX cosmetics. He may be reached at email@example.com