What Is It?
Baking soda, a naturally occurring chemical formally known as sodium bicarbonate or soda ash, can do much more than raise bread. Enterprising homemakers have long relied on the versatile white powder for everything from cleaning and deodorizing to soothing minor aches and pains. In fact, the medicinal and self-care uses for baking soda were recognized by the United States Pharmacopoeia (USP) more than 150 years ago.
Today many home chefs don’t realize that baking soda is actually a component of the valuable leavening agent known as baking powder. This is how it works: When mixed into a dough or batter, the components of baking powder–baking soda, starch, cream of tartar–work together to create a chemical reaction that causes the mixture to rise when it’s heated.
As a neutralizer. Many uses of baking soda stem from the fact that it’s a chemical buffer–a pH-balancer. As a mild base (or alkali) itself, baking soda can neutralize most acid solutions; it can also convert extremely basic solutions to ones that are less so.
For years, baking soda was recommended because of its antacid effects, mainly to neutralize stomach acids that can cause heartburn, acid indigestion, and related discomforts. As it mixes with the hydrochloric acid in the stomach, baking soda triggers a chemical reaction, and its end products are salt (NaCl, or sodium chloride), carbon dioxide (CO2), and water.
The water is harmless, and the carbon dioxide gets released as a gas, producing a familiar burp once the acid is neutralized. The considerable amount of salt produced, however, is problematic, particularly for people with high blood pressure or heart failure. For them, baking soda is probably best limited to short-term use for stomach acid symptoms. As a cleanser. When dissolved in water, baking soda, a mild alkali, acts like soap and can help remove grease and dirt. Its mildly abrasive qualities make baking soda an effective scouring agent as well.
And when it comes to self-care uses, these cleansing properties make baking soda effective for polishing teeth (without scratching the tooth surface) and fighting bad breath (sprinkle a little on the toothbrush bristles). It can even be tried for exfoliating skin when acne is a problem (add a little to a facial cleanser in place of using a commercial facial scrub).
Numerous commercial toothpastes and bad breath gums and lozenges feature baking soda, although you should feel free to try your own homemade formulas as well.
As a deodorizer. Baking soda can deodorize just about anything, from underarm and foot odors to kitchen sinks. In these situations, it works as a pH-balancer, bringing acidic (think sour milk) and basic (think old fish) odors to a neutral, more odorless, state. (For foot and underarm odors, mix 8 ounces of baking soda with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch to prevent clumping, and apply when needed.)
The same deodorizing actions are at work when you place an open box of baking soda in your refrigerator to absorb odors and keep it smelling fresh.
As an anti-itch agent. When baking soda is added to bath water, sunburn sufferers often have a notable reduction in pain. Place 1 cup (8 ounces) of baking soda under the running bath faucet so it dissolves completely. Soak in a lukewarm tub for about 30 minutes. Such a bath will soothe the pain–and you won’t have to undergo the stinging sensation of a shower.
In addition, baking soda can be used in cool (but not cold) bath water to soothe skin irritations and lessen itching associated with prickly heat, bee stings, and other minor skin irritations. A paste (made with just enough water to get the desired sticky consistency) placed on an insect bite or sting and allowed to dry is a time-tested approach for drawing out and neutralizing poisons.
People with skin allergies who tend to react to commercial laundry detergents might find washing clothing and bedding in baking soda is less irritating.
Certain medications need the acids in the stomach in order to be effective. It’s probably best not to take baking soda internally along with any prescription medication, including over-the-counter antacids.
One of the great appeals of baking soda is its safety; it’s completely nontoxic and is fine to use in cooking and around children and animals.
While gentle, baking soda is a salty compound, so avoid applying it directly to raw or tender skin (as a deodorant after shaving armpits, for example) because this will cause a temporary stinging or burning sensation. For the same reason, avoid baking soda baths if you have a sunburn that has caused any open blisters or cracking of skin.
People on a salt- (sodium) restricted diet should not use baking soda as an antacid.