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Wonderful stuff

Posted 26/07/2011 by KatieJ

BBC2’s new series Wonderstuff earlier this week was exactly that – a spellbinding half an hour of some of the best science coverage I have seen on TV for some time.

The first instalment of the six episode series kicked off with a peek at what is inside our bathroom cabinets, with a look at the chemical composition of soaps, shampoos and conditioners and toothpaste. Viewers learned not only how to create their own soap and toothpaste, with several basic ingredients derived from sand and seaweed, but also about some of the special properties of sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) – the chemical responsible for the detergency effects of soaps and many other household products – and QUATS – ingredients in hair conditioners that neutralise the negative charges left on hair washing.

Knowing what is in the products we buy also makes consumer purchasing decisions that much easier too. You can probably get away with buying a relatively inexpensive shampoo, for example, but using a conditioner with plenty of QUATS will definitely see an improvement in the manageability and general condition of your tresses, according to presenter Jane Moore. As for modern toothpaste, meanwhile, its cleaning or abrasive power we learned is all down to the size of the constituent silica particles – surprisingly similar in fact to the nasty-looking cinnamon-based concoction used in Victorian varieties when put to the test.

I hope a good friend of mine – an obsessive ingredients watcher who regularly tackles me about the various chemicals used in everyday items – watched it. Even as a chemistry graduate, much of the programme’s content was refreshingly novel. What a nice change to look at some of the wonders of what these modern chemicals can do rather than hear more negative scare stories. Although why we really need or want all those extra colours and fragrances remains a mystery.

Next week’s instalment is all about household cleaning agents – so it may be time to polish up on petrochemicals.

Cath O’Driscoll – Deputy editor

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