Diatomaceous earth is a material made up of fossilized diatoms. Diatoms are a type of hard-shelled algae or phytoplankton that once made their home in oceans and lakes that covered a portion of the western United States in times past and still exist today. These microscopic organisms, tiny as they are, are an important part of the food chain for underwater dwellers. Diatomaceous earth is also referred to as diatomite. Millions of years ago the hard shells of these diatoms aggregated together in the ocean to form hard, chalky deposits. These chalky deposits were mined and then milled and processed to form diatomaceous earth.
This finely milled, chalky white, talc-like powder known as diatomaceous earth or diatomite has an interesting history. Alfred Bell combined it with sodium carbonate and nitroglycerin to create the world’s first dynamite. These days diatomite has a variety of other applications and is commonly used as an ingredient in household, cosmetic and personal care products.
There are two types of diatomaceous earth – food grade and industrial grade. Food grade diatomaceous earth is safe for oral and cosmetic use. Some people mix it with water and use it orally as a colon cleanser, although this isn’t necessarily condoned by the mainstream medical community. Some alternative health practitioners believe the diatomites “scrub” the inside of the intestines and remove parasites and other intestinal debris that cause intestinal problems. In addition, diatomaceous earth is a source of trace minerals.
Diatomite has other applications as well. It’s used as a natural and non-toxic pesticide. When bugs walk through it, it clings to them and absorbs fats on the surface of their exoskeleton. This causes the bugs to lose critical amounts of water, which eventually kills them. Gardeners appreciate the fact that it controls garden pests, including worms and slugs, without the use of chemicals. Diatomaceous earth has excellent absorptive properties and is used to clean up spills and absorb odors. It’s also an ingredient in cat litter. In addition, some people place it in their shoes to absorb foot odor.
Diatomaceous earth is also used in the manufacture of cosmetic and personal care products. It’s an effective absorbent that absorbs water, and it functions as an anticaking agent. This makes it a useful additive in facial powders, foundations, eye shadow and other powder-based products that need to absorb moisture. Diatomite also acts as bulking agent. Bulking agents are added to power-based blush, eye shadow and face powder to give the product a more “slippery” texture and help it go on more evenly.
One of the other functions of diatomaceous earth in cosmetic products is to serve as an opacifying agent in order to make cosmetics look less transparent so you can’t see through them. This is a benefit for products formulated to cover blemishes, skin discoloration or redness. Because it serves so many important functions, it’s used to formulate a variety of cosmetic and personal care products including facial cleansing products, soaps, bath products and body cleansers. It also has mild exfoliating action. This makes it an ideal ingredient for facial scrubs and polishing products. Some people mix food-grade diatomaceous with water and use it as a facial scrub or mix it with a cleanser for more exfoliating power. Of course, you can buy pre-made facial scrubs that have diatomite already added.
Is it safe? Food-grade diatomaceous earth is non-toxic when used by mouth or applied to the skin. The only potential hazard from diatomaceous earth comes from breathing in the powdery dust. Because diatomite contains silica, it’s a respiratory irritant. Silica can irritate lungs, leading to coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, and it increases the risk of a lung condition called silicosis. This is only a risk when a product containing the dry powder is inhaled. At high concentrations, diatomaceous earth can also be drying to the skin.
All in all, diatomaceous earth has a variety of functions in household, cosmetic and personal care products. It has the ability to opacify products, absorb odors and moisture, prevent caking of powders, add bulk and act as a mild abrasive. Food-grade diatomaceous earth is also safe, but care should be taken not to inhale the powder.