Sodium carbonate is the sodium salt of carbonic acid. It is a strong alkali base used in green cleaning products. Often found in powder form, it's used in a wide range of industries, such as cleaning and personal care products, as a fungicide, microbicide, herbicide, and pH adjustor.
Sodium carbonate may go by the following names:
- Washing soda
- Soda ash
- Disodium carbonate
- Calcined soda
- Carbonic acid disodium salt
- Solvay soda
- Molecular formula CNa2O3
Sodium carbonate is alkali with a high pH when in concentrated solutions. When it is added to water it breaks down into carbonic acid and sodium hydroxide (lye).
Sodium carbonate is used in several cleaning products, including green cleaning ones, due to its disinfectant properties and ability to cut through grease and soften water. You can find it in laundry detergents, automatic dishwashing detergents, all-purpose cleaners, glass cleaners, stain removers, countertop cleaners, sanitizing sprays, and bleach.
To clean and disinfect with sodium carbonate, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends using 2 ounces per gallon of water. This solution can be used to clean hard, non-porous surfaces, such as floors, walls, bathtubs, tile, and grout.
Sodium carbonate is considered an irritant at concentrations below 15 percent and caustic above 15 percent according to the EPA, so keep this in mind when mixing your cleaning solutions with it. Wear cleaning gloves and avoid getting it in your eyes or mouth.
In addition to its use in cleaning products, sodium carbonate is used in:
- Chemical manufacturing
- Food (e.g., anticaking agent)
- Glass manufacturing
- Personal care products (e.g., bubble bath, toothpaste, bath salts and soaks, scrubs)
- Pulp and paper products
- Swimming pool maintenance (to adjust the pH)
- Therapeutic treatments (e.g., to treat dermatitides)
- Veterinary medicine treatments (e.g., to treat ringworm, cleanse skin, treat eczema)
Product Brands Containing Sodium Carbonate
To see if certain products contain sodium carbonate, try searching the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Household Products Database, the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Guide to Healthy Cleaning, the Good Guide, or the EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetic Database. If using the general term "sodium carbonate" doesn't generate a lot of results, try entering one of its synonyms.
When sodium carbonate is used in personal care products, food, or drugs, it is monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For other uses, such as pesticides and cleaning products, it is monitored by the EPA.
Health and Safety
The EPA considers sodium carbonate a safe pesticide and the FDA designates it as generally regarded as safe (GRAS). In the 2006 "Reregistration Eligibility Decision (R.E.D) for Sodium Carbonate; Weak Mineral Bases," the EPA notes that there are no known human health hazards when sodium carbonate is used according to EPA and FDA GRAS guidelines and that "no additional information is needed" to assess its safety.
However, the EPA does note that sodium carbonate is a mild skin irritant and mild to moderate eye irritant if contact occurs. In addition, if the powder is inhaled, it can be irritating to the respiratory system and mucous membranes resulting in coughing and shortness of breath. And if it is ingested, it can irritate the gastrointestinal tract, and cause vomiting, diarrhea, circulatory collapse, and even death.
According to Medline Plus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health (NIH), you should seek immediate medical attention in cases of sodium carbonate poisoning. It has symptoms such as problems breathing, collapse, diarrhea, eye irritation, hoarseness, low blood pressure, shock, skin irritation, vomiting, swallowing problems, and severe pain in the mouth, throat, chest, or abdomen.
After seeking immediate medical attention, here are some home care, first-aid guidelines:
- Ingestion: Have the person drink a glass of water or milk unless otherwise advised by a health care provider. However, do not have them drink if they are having any of the serious symptoms such as vomiting, convulsions, or drowsiness and have difficulty swallowing. Do not have the person vomit unless to told to do so by a doctor or poison control center.
- Eye or skin contact: Flush with plenty of water for a minimum of 15 minutes.
- Inhalation: Move the person to fresh air.
According to the 2006 R.E.D document, the EPA considers sodium carbonate to be a naturally occurring chemical found in soil and water and doesn't expect any adverse effects on wildlife or water if low amounts are released into the environment. Therefore, it could be considered green.
Most of the world's supply of sodium carbonate is derived from processing trona ore, which is mined in southwest Wyoming according to General Chemical Industrial Products' "Soda Ash: Technical & Handling Guide."
Making Sodium Carbonate
Interestingly enough, you can also make sodium carbonate from baking soda by baking it in the oven.