Magic ingredients

Wonderstuff consultant Dr Mark Miodownik on the useful chemicals in everyday products

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Toothpaste
Look for: hydrated silica

“The key ingredient is an abrasive — it’s actually made from sand. The grit acts like a gentle scouring pad on your teeth, getting rid of gunk. Only the finest grit will do though, and hydrated silica is the Don Perignon of grits.”

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Citrus degreasers
Look for: limonene

“In the skin of oranges is limonene, a substance that absorbs grease from a frying pan better than almost anything else. It’s like a sort of liquid sponge. It’s an essential oil, too. So it’s one of those cleaning products that’s as sweet-smelling as it is effective.”

Toilet cleaner
Look for: sodium hypochlorite

“Sodium hypochlorite from the bleach spells death for bacteria. Although bleach kills bacteria effectively, it’s so reactive that almost all of it reacts away to leave quite benign products like salt or water, which can be washed away into the drains.”

Nonstick pans
Look for: PTFE

“Nonstick coatings on pots and pans look and sound metallic but they are not metals. They are a special type of plastic called PTFE (containing fluorine) — nonstick plastic that amazingly doesn’t melt when you fry an egg.”

Sun cream
Look for: avobenzone

“This forms an invisible barrier around your body, protecting you from harmful high-energy rays from the sun like a kind of molecular superhero.” Jane Moore adds: “And this invaluable little chemical can protect us from premature ageing!”

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Antifreeze
Look for: glycols

“The clue to solving the problem of frozen car engines lies in tiny insects called springtails that live in the Arctic,” says Jane Moore. “Their natural antifreeze keeps them alive. Our de-icers contain glycols, a chemical relative of springtails’ natural glycerol.”