The secret ingredients that make life easier

Grit to clean your teeth, insects to stop your engine freezing – Jane Moore reveals the wonderstuffs

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We’re all well aware of the downs of modern life: the traffic jams, the call centre where no one ever seems to answer the phone, the computer that stubbornly says no.

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So we then put on our rose-tinted spectacles and talk dreamily of the “good old days” when life was so much easier.

But was it? After all, what’s great about having to spend an entire day doing the family wash, boiling the whites and endlessly scrubbing the rest against a washboard?

Or how about cleaning your teeth with a mixture of cinnamon and the fossilised remains of ocean algae? Precisely. I rest my case.

By comparison, modern life is fantastic, with a dizzying array of labour-saving gadgets and products at our disposal.

We may take them for granted, but those tubes, cans and bottles in our bathroom cabinets and under our kitchen sinks are the unsung heroes of the modern world – the chemicals that efficiently work their magic to make our daily lives so much easier. We know they do the job – that’s why we buy them. But most of us, myself included, haven’t the first clue as to how or why they work.

That’s the premise behind Wonderstuff, a new six-part BBC2 series in which I travel the length and breadth of Britain speaking to the scientists and manufacturers behind some of our best-loved household products: the stain removers, the drain unblockers, the hair conditioners, the de-icers, the degreasers, the moisturisers and sun creams – to name but a few.

What I learnt was utterly fascinating and, occasionally, just plain weird. From the 250 computerised toilets that flush simultaneously in the name of loo-cleaner research, to the minus 25°C deep freezer in Cambridge that houses the Antarctic creatures that hold the key to the workings of antifreeze.

All testament, if any were needed, that the billions spent by various companies in scientific research is paying off, both for them and us.

But the biggest lesson of all was that, even though these wonderstuffs are now produced on an industrial scale in factories, the root source for the majority of them is Mother Nature.

We use 100,000 metric tons of soap a year, yet the basic recipe for it has changed little since it was first discovered around 2,000 years ago. It’s still a mix of fat and alkali, the only difference being that palm oil is used nowadays instead of animal fat.

Hydrated silica – the wonderstuff in toothpaste – is derived from sand, the limonene in citrus degreasers comes from orange pith, bleach starts life as brine, and a key factor in PTFE, that wonderful invention that stops our rashers of bacon from sticking to the pan, is actually the fluorine found in rocks.

And I finally learnt that the difference between bio and non-bio washing powder is that the former contains stain-eating enzymes, much like those that break down the food in our stomachs, and that the holy grail is to find one that eats tomato to thwart pesky pizza spillages.

These days, most of us know our way around a food label but still shop blind when it comes to cleaning and preening.

It’s all heavily regulated so there’s nothing to fear. However, if you know the wonderstuff to look for, then you will know if a cheap product has the right ingredient to make it work just as well as a more expensive brand that might cost extra for a fancier smell or posher packaging.

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So get to know your labels – you won’t just feel smarter and more cheerful about the wonders of modern life, it might save you money, too.