5 Chemicals You Probably Didn’t Know You Use Every Day

by Kate Onissiphorou

Many of the consumer products we use on a daily basis contain chemical ingredients that might sound strange and unfamiliar. Yet some of these chemicals, including those found in cleaning, hygiene, and personal care products, are actually very common. In most cases, we’re more familiar with the commercial brand rather than the chemical or generic name. 

These are the five key chemicals that are used in the home (read on to find out more about the often surprising products in which they’re found):

  1. Sodium fluoride
  2. Cetylpyridinium chloride
  3. Sodium laureth sulphate
  4. Monosodium glutamate
  5. Sodium nitrate

And of course, if you want to familiarise yourself with the chemicals that are contained in the products you use every day, read the labels.

Household cleaning chemicals

Some household cleaning products are composed of several types of chemicals. Most of them, including drain cleaners, contain caustic active chemicals like sodium hydroxide. Others contain corrosive or acidic active chemicals like hydrochloric acid, while some have oxidisers as active ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide. Orange bucket full of household cleaning products

Strong household cleaning products are usually highly toxic. They can be lethal when ingested and can burn or irritate your skin upon contact. There are, however, effective household cleaning agents that have low toxicity levels, such as those that contain calcium bicarbonate.

What are 5 chemicals we use every day?

Want to know more about the chemicals you use every day? From sodium fluoride to monosodium glutamate, here are five common chemicals you’re likely to encounter without even realising it.

  1. Sodium fluoride
    Sodium fluoride (NaF) is an inorganic compound that’s commonly found in toothpaste. Its main purpose is to strengthen the teeth by forming a fluorapatite layer on the tooth enamel. Fluorapatite is a type of mineral that naturally forms on the tooth enamel through biochemical processes. It has the chemical formula Ca5(PO4)3F. Trace amounts of sodium fluoride are also added to municipal water for the same purpose of strengthening teeth.
  2. Closeup of toothbrush and toothpasteHowever, too much fluoride can have the opposite effect and weaken tooth enamel, causing decay. It can also lead to tooth discolouration, turning the teeth yellow or brown. Too much fluoride in tap water is linked to other medical problems such as skeletal weakness (osteoporosis), acne, and high blood pressure. It may even trigger seizures.
  3. Cetylpyridinium chloride
    Cetylpyridinium chloride, which has the chemical formula C21H38ClN, is one of the antimicrobial ingredients found in mouthwash. Its antiseptic properties are useful in treating minor mouth and throat infections. Many lozenges also contain cetylpyridinium chloride. When in an aqueous solution, the N-hexadecylpyridinium acts as the cation or the positively- charged ion and the chloride acts as the anion or the negatively-charged ion. The chemical penetrates and weakens the cell membrane of a large range of bacteria. This action kills bacteria and inhibits their ability to reproduce.
  4. Sodium laureth sulphate
    Sodium laureth sulphate (SLES) is an organic compound that has the chemical formula CH3(CH2)10CH2(OCH2CH2)nOSO3Na. A common ingredient in shampoos, it functions as a primary surfactant for lathering and cleansing.
  5. Close up of man washing his hair with shampooSLES has a chain structure with sodium as the cation and the rest of the molecule as the anion. It’s a very effective foaming agent when dissolved in water. SLES also acts as an emulsifier in various cosmetic products. It’s a common ingredient in herbicides too, helping to improve the absorption of the product on the plant’s surface.
  6. Monosodium glutamate
    Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is an organic compound with the chemical formula C₅H₈NO₄Na. It’s found in many cuisines and virtually all processed foods, especially fast food like burgers, chips, and fries. MSG is also added to food as a flavouring agent, creating the unique ‘umami’ taste. Umami is considered the fifth type of flavour along with bitter, sour, sweet, and salty. It’s a Japanese (nihongo) word that means ‘essence of deliciousness’. Although some people believe MSG can cause medical problems like chest pain and nausea, many studies have found no link to the so-called MSG symptom complex.
  7. Sodium nitrate
    Sodium nitrate is a common food preservative with the chemical formula NaNO3. It’s used as a preservative for hotdogs, sausages, bacon, deli meat, and jerky. Many canned food products also contain this preservative. Sodium nitrate has been linked to several medical problems, including heart disease and diabetes.

Dangerous chemicals in household products

The most dangerous chemicals in household products are those found in cleaning agents, such as laundry bleach, drain unblockers, and toilet cleaners.

Bowl of toilet cleaning supplies near a toilet bowl in a modern bathroom.They contain corrosive, caustic, and oxidising active ingredients. These products are also toxic when ingested and can damage the skin upon contact.

A lot of other seemingly innocuous household products are also toxic and flammable. Ironically, many of the so-called ‘air freshener’ products can actually be pollutants as they may contain formaldehyde, a strong irritant that’s potentially carcinogenic.


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