Bicarbonate of soda

Bicarbonate of soda


  • Primary spotless use: powerful cleaner, disinfectant and deodoriser
  • Yet very gentle – won’t irritate skin or scratch surfaces
  • Other uses: antiseptic, heart burn remedy, fire extinguisher, raising agent, deodorant
  • Main cleaning action: reacts with fatty acids to form soap while you clean, softens water to increase its cleaning power
  • Used extensively in its natural form by the ancient Egyptians, now produced industrially in the Solvay process
  • Also known as: sodium bicarbonate, baking soda, sodium bicarb, cooking soda, or bicarb


This amazingly versatile and harmless cleaner is likewise a disinfectant and powerful deodoriser. Bicarb keeps skin soft and nails white and strong so your hands will benefit from cleaning with it. It is far cheaper than the cleaning products it replaces, several of which contain it. It is gentle enough to use on hair and body, but also effective enough to clean ovens and clear drains.

Bicarb should not be confused with baking powder, which contains several other ingredients, or washing soda. Washing soda (also known as soda ash or sodium carbonate) is related to bicarb and is another useful non-toxic cleaner that releases no hazardous fumes. However it is much more caustic than bicarb (with a pH of 11) and gloves must be worn when using it.

What is it?

Bicarb is a white crystalline compound (NaHCO3) normally appearing as a powder. It has a mildly salty taste. Bicarb is slightly alkaline with a pH of 8.1 (7 being neutral). It has a useful characteristic of maintaining its pH even when acids (which lower pH) or bases (which raise pH) are added to a solution containing it.

When bicarb occurs in nature it is known as nahcolite (from its chemical formula). It is found in natural mineral deposits and dissolved in mineral springs, either alone or mixed with other minerals in the form of natron. It is an evaporite, meaning it is a sedimentary mineral formed from the evaporation of seawater or other bodies of water. It is relatively rare in nature because it tends to lose carbon dioxide when exposed, changing its chemical makeup and becoming trona (another sedimentary mineral), which is far more common and is mined to produce soda ash and bicarb.

Bicarb (nahcolite) is also produced by our bodies, as by most vertebrates. It is made in the liver as an ingredient of bile, which is stored in the gall bladder and released into the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine) when food passes through. It aids the digestion of fats and other lipids, helps eliminate bacteria and fungi that may be present in food being digested, and neutralises acidity in the body, especially of stomach acid.

Bicarb has an indefinite shelf life if stored in an airtight container in a cool dry place. If it bubbles when vinegar or lemon juice is added to it, it is still viable.

How is it made?

Nahcolite and natron deposits are sometimes mined directly, but more commonly bicarb is manufactured from the more stable mineral soda ash (sodium carbonate). Soda ash is either mined from trona or manufactured from common salt (sodium chloride) using the Solvay process.

Trona is found in large deposits in various sites around the world, most notably in the Green River formation in Wyoming, USA. This deposit is vast and because mining trona is cheaper, it has now almost completely replaced the Solvay process as the source of bicarb in the USA. After trona ore is mined it is refined into an intermediate soda ash product (which contains both soda ash and bicarb).

In other parts of the world most bicarb is produced using the Solvay process. The Solvay process is the reaction of calcium carbonate, sodium chloride, ammonia, and carbon dioxide in water, to produce soda ash. The ingredients for the Solvay process are cheap and easily available, being seawater (or other brine) and limestone (from mines). The process produces wastes, mainly calcium chloride, which are deposited in waste beds that lead to water pollution. At seaside sites the calcium chloride is discharged into the ocean, apparently without environmental harm.

With either process (mining and refining trona, or using the Solvay process), soda ash is then reacted with carbon dioxide to produce bicarbonate of soda.

It has been suggested that the Solvay process could be modified to allow carbon sequestration, where carbon dioxide from burning coal in industry or for energy generation is used to form bicarbonate of soda which can be stored, so avoiding carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

What is it used for?

Bicarb has many medicinal uses, primarily to neutralise acidity. Today’s diet tends to result in our bodies being too acidic. This acidity has been linked to an array of health problems including heartburn, thrush, arthritis and even cancer. Drinking a quarter teaspoon of bicarb dissolved in water once or twice a day helps enormously to reduce this acidity and assists the liver, which normally has to cope with trying to restore the body’s pH. In fact bicarb is used to treat patients with liver problems, including chronic liver failure. Applied topically, bicarb is also soothing, antiseptic and a potent fungicide. (Bicarb is even being used and studied as a possible cure for a wide range of cancers, based on the theory that cancer is caused by a type of fungus. See here for more.)

The best known use of bicarb is as a leavening agent in baking, and commercial bakers are among the chief bicarb consumers. Bicarb releases carbon dioxide when heated or when it reacts with acids, which causes dough to rise. It is also an effective fire extinguisher for grease or electrical fires. It smothers flames in two ways. It reacts with grease to form a smothering soapy foam, and it produces carbon dioxide when heated. Carbon dioxide is heavier than air and so keeps oxygen out. Bicarb is used in some fire extinguishers and can also be used neat for this purpose in the home.

Bicarb is used as an animal feed supplement, especially for ruminants (aids digestion) and poultry (for stronger eggshells). It is used by carbonated soda makers and in the production of glass, pharmaceuticals and several other industrial processes. It is used to control air pollution by absorbing acid gas emissions, and for water treatment as it reduces levels of heavy metals such as lead.

The cleaning and deodorising properties of bicarb give it a huge range of household cleaning and personal care uses, as you’ll see in the site. Bicarb is gently abrasive and so can effectively clean delicate surfaces without scratching them. Its alkalinity acts on fatty acids in grease and grime to break them down and produce a form of soap that dissolves in water and can be rinsed easily. It neutralises odours chemically, as opposed to masking or absorbing them. Using bicarb as a cleaner and deodoriser has advantages for anyone, as it is innocuous and effective. It is especially helpful to anyone who suffers from skin irritations or respiratory conditions, which are often exacerbated by commercial cleaning products and air fresheners. See here for a host of other uses for bicarb.

What is its history?

Natron (a natural mineral made up mostly of bicarb and hydrated soda ash) was used extensively by the ancient Egyptians as a cleaning agent for the home and body. It was blended with oil to form an early soap, was used to clean the teeth and mouth, as an antiseptic for cuts and wounds, and in mummification.

The first method of producing bicarb was devised by French chemist Nicolas Leblanc in 1791. Sodium chloride (common salt) was heated with sulfuric acid, producing sodium sulfate and hydrochloric acid. The sodium sulfate was then heated with coal and limestone to form sodium carbonate, or soda ash, from which bicarb is made.

In the late 1800s, another method of producing soda ash (and hence bicarb) was devised by Ernest Solvay, a Belgian chemical engineer. This is the Solvay process, discussed above, and which replaced the Leblanc process. Though the Solvay process is still widely used, mining trona ore (from which soda ash and bicarb can be refined) produces less pollution and is cheaper where trona is available. Trona mined from the massive Green River Basin deposit has become the main source of bicarb in the USA.

Bicarb was first produced in a factory in 1846 by two New York bakers, and its use as a raising agent has remained what it is principally known for.