What is Acetone?

by Jessica Clifton

Ask anyone what acetone is, and they’ll probably tell you it’s something to do with nail polish. And they’d be right, in its capacity as a solvent, acetone is one of the volatile ingredients in nail polish remover. But with more than six million tonnes of acetone produced globally each year, it obviously has many more uses. Acetone can be mixed with water without separating and is an important solvent on its own, characteristically used for cleaning in laboratories.

Scientist cleaning a petri dishSo, what is acetone exactly?

Acetone (also called propanone, dimethyl ketone and β-Ketopropane amongst other names) is an organic compound with the formula (CH3)2CO. A liquid, it is colourless, volatile and flammable with a sweet, pungent smell, and is the simplest ketone – a ketone being a simple compound that contains a carbon-oxygen double bond.

The history of acetone

Acetone is thought that have been produced as early as 1300 to 1500 AD, but it was only during World War I that a process for the industrial production of acetone was developed. It’s called the Weizmann Process after Chaim Weizmann, an Israeli bio-chemist who later became the country’s president, and his work on the process was of immense service to Great Britain in the war effort in the preparation of cordite, a military-grade explosive.

Uses of acetone

Acetone has many uses as a solvent, in the laboratory, in the medical and cosmetic industries and domestically. Read our blog post on the uses of acetone to find out more.

The hazards (and non-hazards) of acetone

Acetone is extremely flammable and has a very low flash point of -20℃. At ReAgent, we store acetone in metal drums so that they can be earthed when the drum is either being filled or emptied. This reduces the chances of a static charge which can cause a substance to ignite. Additionally, when acetone is oxidised, acetone peroxide is created as a by-product. This is a very unstable compound which is highly explosive. On the other hand, a lot is known about acetone in health through extensive research, and it is labelled ‘generally recognised as safe’, or GRAS, by the American Food & Drug Administration. This designation means that a chemical is safe when added to food or cosmetics. Acetone as a chemical added to food and cosmetics in small quantities is obviously very different from drums of pure acetone!

Is it true that there’s acetone in the human body?

Yes. Acetone is a product of the breakdown of body fat, and is normally present in blood and urine. Diabetics tend to produce it in larger quantities, as do pregnant women, mothers who are breastfeeding and children. Some diets, including those with extended periods of fasting and high-fat, low-carb regimes can produce something called ketosis. Ketosis is a natural metabolic process which occurs when the body doesn’t have enough glucose, which is used for energy, so it burns stored fats instead. The outcome is a build-up of acids called ketones, of which acetone is one.

The truth about acetone is out there

In July 2015, a European Space Agency space rover called Philae landed on comet 67P, and detected 16 organic compounds including four, including acetone, which had never previously been found on a comet.

At ReAgent, we make and supply acetone for analytical, general and laboratory use, not for aliens.


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