Have you seen all those news posts about plastic, BPA, and everything in between?
Plastic is a growing concern for parents, environmentalists, and consumers everywhere. Plastic can be very dangerous.
If you follow any lifestyle magazines, home goods blogs, or anything of the sort, then you’ve likely seen an enormous rise in silicone all throughout the home.
From the kitchen cupcake liners, to the comfort cushions in your mouse pads, even down to your toothbrush holders. Silicone is everywhere.
Is silicone plastic?
No, and that’s particularly why it’s become so popular. Plastic comes with a ton of issues, such as leaching toxic chemicals into your food and drink, which silicone fixes.
Silicone isn’t a plastic, even though it does share some characteristics with common plastic that we’re all used to. We’re going to go over everything that you need to know about silicone in this guide.
- 1 Science Behind Silicone
- 2 History of Silicone
- 3 Is Silicone Better Than Plastic?
- 4 What Are the Different Grades of Silicone?
- 5 Is Silicone Safe to Use?
- 6 Is Silicone as Bad for the Environment as Plastic?
- 7 Is Silicone Eco-Friendly?
- 8 Can You Recycle Silicone Just Like Plastic?
- 9 Is Silicone Toxic to Humans?
- 10 Is Silicone a Carcinogen?
- 11 Why is Silicone Better Than Teflon?
- 12 Basic Handling Guide for Safe Silicone Use
- 13 Silicone is a Scientific Wonder
Science Behind Silicone
Silicone is a polymer, which means that it has been arranged in a formula to be as unbreakable as possible. Silicon is actually related to silicon quartz, where silicon is the precursor to all silicone polymers.
Consisting of carbon, silicon, hydrogen, and oxygen, silicone’s design involves extracting silica from silicon, and running it through hydrocarbons.
It all sounds a bit nuts, but it’s basically a way to say that silicon is manipulated to a different form, and fortified with other elements.
Because of its manufacturing methods, it’s relatively easy compared to other similarly rated silicone, which is partially why it’s gained such popularity. The science is simple enough to replicate for most major manufacturers.
History of Silicone
Silicone has been around a lot longer than most of us think. In 1930, a man by the name of J.F. Hyde began the first series of research efforts into silicone to be used for commercial purposes.
While he is generally hailed as the father of silicone, there’s another man in the mix who actually discovered its predecessor material.
1854 was when silicone really began. A man by the name of Henry Sainte-Claire Deville actually discovered crystalline silicon, which is the 14th element on the periodic table. Without his discovery, we wouldn’t have the ultra-durable polymer that we now possess in all of our homes.
While we’re here, since not many people really honor Mr. Deville the way he should be honored, he’s also the person we have to thank for the first economical process for producing aluminum, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Additionally, he is also partially to thank for platinum as we know it today.
When Mr. Hyde found out how to industrialize silicone, it was a slow process from there.
It took until about 1940 for Frederich Stanley Kipping – who used research provided by Hyde – attempted to mold the material known as silicone, but famously called it a “sticky mess” and stopped before making any vast improvements.
Later, in 1949, James Wright, an engineer at GE, wanted to find a rubber substitute. Instead, and completely by accident, he created Silly Putty after mixing boric acid with silicone oil. 1950 is when production of silicone really took off and began being used in more places.
Fast forward to 1990, and we saw the first use of silicone in contact lenses.
It blew up from there. Silicone is now included in everything from cookware to shampoos, solar panels and smart phones, and more. There are new uses for it found every single day.
Is Silicone Better Than Plastic?
Silicone is better than plastic in almost every single way. The number one use comes down to food-grade purposes, and for a very, very important reason.
Common plastics actually leach their chemicals into your food and your drinks, which can slowly poison you over time. I don’t mean to make that sound so dramatic, but what else would you call polymers coating your food and beverages? It’s not exactly a supplement.
Food-grade plastic isn’t as good as we thought it was, which is why silicone has basically started to take over. Food-grade silicone utilizes a different blend of polymers that don’t come apart simply by being in contact with food.
That being said, a lot of it comes down to how you use it. Plastics shouldn’t be heated up, but most of the time, we put tupperware containers in the microwave.
Silicone has a melting point of around 450°F for most food-grade varieties, which makes them good for low-heat oven mitts, but nothing more than that.
You shouldn’t heat either of them up too high. The difference is, non-heated plastics still leach chemicals, while non-heated silicone doesn’t. For food use, it’s far better, and more economic. You throw out plastic food storage bags, but you wash and reuse silicone bags.
What Are the Different Grades of Silicone?
To go through every single grade and what they’re used for would be exhausting. Instead, let’s talk about the grading system that silicone uses, which we can then use to determine what that specific type of silicone is used for.
Silicone can be graded on a scale of 10 to 100, and it’s called the IRHD scale. The higher the number, the harder that specific strand or grade of silicone is. Harder silicones are needed for heavy-duty industrial purposes, while softer silicones may be used in cookware and contact lenses.
Grading also depends on the form that silicone takes, whether it’s a liquid silicone solvent, or a solidified piece of silicone.
For the most part, liquid silicone has a very limited use, so we don’t see it out for public consumption nearly as often. For this reason, they need less grading systems in place since the primary users are manufacturers and industries.
Is Silicone Safe to Use?
Silicone is absolutely safe to use, and it’s remarkably handy in so many different areas of life.
After thorough scientific testing and experimentation, not to mention countless real-world applications, silicone has gone through the ringer and been tested down to the wire. These are some of the safe places that you can see silicone being used today.
Most of the time, you can find silicone beads in facial scrubs and exfoliators. It’s not good that they go down the drain and all, but as far as your personal health is concerned, there is nothing wrong here. Silicone microbeads do not get stuck in your pores or harm your skin in any way.
You can also find silicone used in a number of other products, from deodorants, shampoo, and even sunscreen. The good thing about including it in sunscreen is that because it’s not getting absorbed by your skin, it provides a protective shield to block out the harm of UV rays.
If you start paying closer attention to the ingredients lists at the supermarket when you pick out your personal healthcare products, you’re going to silicone a lot more.
Silicone has a heavy presence in solar panels, allowing photovoltaic panels to function properly. Without silicone, it would be a difficult thing to create. Why is this important for your safety?
Because in recent years, we’ve seen solar panels included on emergency flashlights, generators, and even just 5V fold-and-go panels that you can use to charge your phone when you’re out and about.
You actually come into contact with the physical panels more than you think since it’s not just the ones on your roof that we’re talking about. Contact with these panels isn’t harmful in the slightest.
Almost All Your Electronics
Most of the electronic devices that we use every single day have some sort of silicone in them, and you come into contact with those, don’t you?
Silicone is so similar to rubber that it doesn’t conduct electricity, making it a great insulator for many electronic devices.
We might have very small traces of silicone in things like bluetooth headsets or smartphones, but larger electronics that pump more voltage and have a higher volatility rating might actually have more silicone than you think.
From silicone spatulas to different inclusions in appliances, silicone is everywhere in the kitchen. Some of us end up going the all-steel route, but let’s be honest, isn’t it getting tiring cleaning eggs off of a stainless steel spatula?
Silicone is great for mess-free cooking in the kitchen. We talked about electronics earlier, and that applies to major kitchen appliances as well when they need good insulation for wiring to keep everything grounded.
Ever go diving? Did you ever want to?
Rubber is good, but it breaks and splits far easier than silicone does, which is why you’re so likely to see silicone used in diving masks and goggles more than anything else nowadays.
Apart from that, it’s used in waterproofing hunting jackets, boots, and other sporting/outdoor gear. If you do anything in the realm of sports or outdoor activities, and you’ve bought equipment recently, then it’s likely built with some grade of silicone in it.
Is Silicone as Bad for the Environment as Plastic?
If you put a pound of silicone into the ocean, it’s not as bad (inherently) as a pound of plastic. Why?
Plastic breaks down from sunlight. Most plastic floats, and those UV rays break it down, leaching the chemicals that were used to make the plastic into the water. Those plastic particles can not only be consumed by marine life and lead to fatalities, but it also toxifies the water, which fish need to breathe.
We wish it would happen sooner (and safer), but plastic does break down in the environment, it just takes an obscenely long time. Silicone actually takes even more time, which is about 500 years.
From that point, it does degrade, but doesn’t have the same toxicity for soils and plants, since silica (the primary ingredient for silicone) is actually made from sand.
Don’t get me wrong: they’re both bad for the environment. We should always be trying to reduce our footprint and waste, but that’s why silicone is so important – it’s the ultimate plastic alternative for your in-home use.
It means you won’t be using as much plastic, since it’s generally single-use and silicone can be used again and again, and because silicone is 100% recyclable, it doesn’t end up in landfills half as often as plastic.
Is Silicone Eco-Friendly?
You might be surprised to find this out, but silicone is one of the most eco-friendly manmade materials that we currently have at our disposal. Silicone is formed from silica, which is naturally occurring.
Now, all the things we’ve used to make different types of plastic were at one point “naturally occurring,” otherwise we wouldn’t have had anything to manipulate and create these plastics.
However, silicone acts differently. There are some key characteristics about silicone that are very exciting, and that I want to share with you right now to really show you just how powerful silicone is.
It’s Non Threatening to Aquatic Life
We hear it all the time: plastic is the biggest aggressor in the ocean that’s constantly killing marine life and the ocean. That’s because plastic breaks down and leeches its chemicals into the ocean, which immediately hurts the water, algae growth, and can kill fish.
Millions of fish have been found to have traces of multiple different plastic chemicals inside of them (usually in excess of 20+ chemical types), which ends up not only being ingested by us humans, but also ingested by larger marine life through those fish.
It ripples into everything. Silicone doesn’t break down in water. In fact, in water, it would most likely sustain its form without leaching chemicals for longer than its intended lifecycle. It’s still not good to have it in the oceans, but it’s highly better than
Silicone is Highly Recyclable
Silicone can be recycled at an extremely high rate, utilizing almost everything except the surface layer of the silicone. While recycling has its own issues with energy consumption and emissions, it’s still better than the silicone ending up in a landfill.
In a landfill, it’s not going to break down for a very long time, but it will still shield over items from breaking down through direct UV exposure, and still be a problem. You can recycle silicone to kingdom come and back.
Long Decomposition Rate
Silicone still decomposes, and it’s still not good to have its components in the soil and oceans. I believe it’s common sense that we all know that.
With that being said, it still takes far longer to decompose and break down, so it takes longer to leach into the soil. Silicone can take up to 500 years to decompose in landfills, and just to tell you how monumental that is, we’re talking about half of a millennium.
Can You Recycle Silicone Just Like Plastic?
Yes, you can basically do the same thing with silicone as you can do with plastic. Silicone is fully recyclable. To actually recycle it, you have to break it down, silicone is shredded into very tiny pieces that mix in with other, newer silicone shreds.
These are all mixed up and broken down into a mold that forms, for all intents and purposes, new silicone (despite being half old silicone and half newly manufactured silicone). You’ll see when something is made of recycled silicone on packages, but I have a little bit of news for you.
Recycles silicone and new silicone are the same thing. One is not stronger than the other, because they’re manufactured in the same way.
If you see any company promoting recycled silicone in their products, they might do it to raise the prices more than anything else, since there’s no real feat in using recycled silicone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it’s not in a landfill or the oceans, but it’s not something that you should pat people on the back for.
Is Silicone Toxic to Humans?
Silicone is food-safe. It’s not toxic to store your food on silicone, or drink out of a silicone cup (I don’t know why you would want to, but that’s an option). It’s even used in implantable medical devices.
It’s used in breast implants because it doesn’t break down in the body, or leach chemicals even from body heat over the course of five to ten years.
But the thing is, it’s still a mass of silica that isn’t naturally found in your body. If it breaks away and gets into an area that it’s not supposed to be in, there’s a chance for it to hurt you. That being said, that’s a very low chance with implantable devices.
Overall, silicone isn’t natural: it’s always going to pose some sort of a risk, but it is one of the lowest risk polymers that we’ve ever developed, and continues to prove it’s well worth the minute risk to continue adding it into more and more items.
Is Silicone a Carcinogen?
No, but a quick Google search is going to tell you about silicon, which is the 14th element – it is not silicone, which people often assume are the same, just with different spellings.
There is no link between silicone use and cancer in children or adults, which is primarily where all carcinogen studies are rooted.
Because silicone doesn’t break down easily, there’s very little exposure to humans apart from those who work in silicone factories where they grind down silica beads. Apart from extreme circumstances by working in these places, there’s no chance you’re going to breathe in silicone dust or anything of the sort.
That being said, just about any chemical or substance can be a carcinogen (technically) when inhaled. Sawdust can even be linked to a lot of respiratory problems, some links even pointing to lung cancer.
From basic exposure in the way that most people use silicone, it’s not harmful to you whatsoever, just like how your wooden coffee table isn’t going to kill you. All depends on the form it’s in, and you’re not likely to come into contact with shredded, airborne silicone dust.
Why is Silicone Better Than Teflon?
We’ve talked a lot about how silicone is powerful and useful. Teflon was a widely beloved material as well for a very long time, until laboratory testing and years of research showed us the true colors of teflon.
It’s not America’s sweetheart kitchen material anymore; it’s quite the opposite. Teflon is linked to quite a lot of things that silicone just isn’t. Let’s take a look at some of the worst offending qualities of teflon.
Carcinogen and Hormone Disruptor
With full disclosure, this issue was remedied in 2015, but that’s a little too close, isn’t it?
Teflon cookware in the kitchen has been rated to last for decades, so that means you might even have teflon in your kitchen right now. In 2015, a chemical was taken out of the main construction of teflon called PFOA.
This stod for perfluorooctanoic acid, which is a known carcinogen, hormone disruptor, and toxic for your reproductive systems. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? When teflon breaks off and gets in your food, it can be ingested in high volumes and cause these issues.
Chipping and Flaking
Teflon breaks away, gets in your food, and apart from health-related issues caused by this, it’s just nasty. Nobody asked for enormous pepper-looking chunks of blackened chemicals in their morning omelette.
At the end of the day, it’s just a weak material. Yeah, it’s non-stick, but so is ceramic, and so is silicone. It’s not a good material to use for anything anymore, even though they took PFOA out of it.
It actually makes teflon harder to use, because while that was a dangerous chemical, it had its reason for being in there. Teflon was bad, and now it’s worse.
There’s still millions of pieces of teflon cookware out there, and people are blissfully unaware of how dangerous it is. There’s a reason that you don’t really see it advertised anymore; everything is switching over to silicone, which has actual promise.
Basic Handling Guide for Safe Silicone Use
Silicone is safe to use, but it’s still a synthetic polymer, so under extreme conditions, it can become dangerous (just like every other material out there). This is all you need to know about handling silicone properly.
Don’t Heat Past Limit
For silicone oven mitts that have a cap of 450°F, make sure you actually pay attention to that.
Personally, I like to keep a twenty-five degree buffer just to make sure. Past this point, you can actually break the silicone, which can release fragments that can be accidentally consumed.
Do Not Create Dust
This would really have to be intentional, but I’m just going to say it anyway as a precaution: don’t grind down silicone until it becomes dust. Sounds insane, but that’s when it becomes toxic.
The same goes for just about anything. When you grind something down into a dust-like substance at an incredibly low micron level, it can be inhaled, and cause respiratory problems. Your windows aren’t dangerous, but you’re not going to breathe in powdered glass, are you?
The same ideas apply for silicone.
Never Handle in Liquid Form
You’d be surprised at what you could find online and have shipped to your house, and liquid silicone is one of those chemicals. Only handle silicone in solid form in products that you purchase.
Don’t try to melt it down in your home and mold your own silicone products, otherwise you could end up inhaling toxic fumes. Consider the fact that all silicone has to be handled in OSHA-approved facilities when it’s manufactured just so that it’s safe for you to use in your own home.
Silicone is a Scientific Wonder
From extracting different elements to seeing how they interact, to then making the most high-function, in-demand polymer material in the world. Silicone isn’t going away, and even if another material comes into play in the future, you can still expect silicone to be used throughout various industries.
Think about this – silicone can be used in implantable medical devices that are supposed to stay in your body for a decade or more, they have the highest recyclability rate of any polymer material we have, and actually make life a heck of a lot better.
As with anything, appearing in oceans and landfills is bad, but at least silicone doesn’t leach chemicals into the ocean the way plastics do.