If you’ve bought shoes, torn into beef jerky, or taken certain medication recently, you have likely handled at least one tiny silica gel packet. After briefly wondering why your new backpack contained a squishy little warning-labeled pillow, you probably chucked it into the garbage with the rest of the packaging.
Yet those little packets are as useful as they are ubiquitous, and you can find plenty of uses for silica gel around your home. It’s better to give them a second, third, or fourth life instead of sending them directly to the landfill.
What is silica gel?
Before we get into alternative uses, it helps to understand why these silicone dioxide-based packets are in so many products. The jewelry-like silica gel beads are a desiccant, a category of materials used to keep products dry by attracting water to their surface (meaning they adsorb, not absorb, moisture). Their moisture-wicking power makes silica gel packets immensely appealing to manufacturers, preventing water damage to products in transit or sitting on store shelves.
Although silica beads are not gems, the porous mineral does come from the ground. Silica is harvested through a “straightforward” mining process using open pits or dredging, according to Robert Goodin, a mineral commodity specialist with the US Geological Survey’s National Minerals Information Center. He says this usually removes vegetation and disturbs the ground’s top layer, and adds that explosive charges will occasionally be used to break apart the rock.
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“These little silica gel packets, they’re in everything, but [use in desiccation is] actually a very small percentage of what this industrial sand is used for,” Goodin explains. “It’s less than 1 percent of the eventual end use.” He estimates that over 60 percent of silica sand—similar to regular sand but with much more silica—goes to the oil and gas industry for fracking and other needs. Glass production uses up another roughly 10 percent.
“Recently, [the US has] been the top producer, a major exporter and self-sustaining in a lot of these end-uses for silica, so we have a strong silica—or industrial sand—mining industry” in this country,” Goodin says.
What happens if you eat silica gel?
Despite their ominous, all-caps warnings about consumption, silica gel packets are generally considered non-toxic. The real concern is the size of the beads—it’s pretty easy for a child to choke on the packet or the beads within it, although some beads are large enough for adults to choke on, too. Swallowing silica gel can also lead to dehydration, which could irritate your throat and nose, and cause stomach pains, vomiting, constipation, or nausea.
Even so, spending a lot of time up close with silica can lead to health problems. According to Goodin, industrial workers exposed to silica dust may develop respiratory illnesses if inhaled.
And Britta Baechler, senior manager of ocean plastics research at Ocean Conservancy, notes that some silica gel packets feature a color-changing moisture indication. These aren’t supposed to be used near food and contain a compound known as cobalt chloride, which several chemical manufacturers list as an irritant and a carcinogen.
“Overall it seems that when they do not contain cobalt chloride, silica gel packets are relatively safe to use,” Baechler says. Nevertheless, you should avoid reusing these packets for any food-adjacent uses, just in case.
How to use silica gel around your home
Even if you shouldn’t use silica gel packets around food, there are still plenty of ways to safely reuse the desiccant, but you’ll have to reactivate the packets first.
Keep meaningful papery goods safe
Passports, birth certificates, and insurance papers are all easier to use when they aren’t soaking wet. While they may survive a round in the washing machine or dryer, keeping them as dry as possible makes the most sense. Silica gel packets can do just the trick for your box of important papers.
Paper-based heirlooms—think old books, Gramma’s wedding photo album or your children’s handmade holiday decorations—are also frequently threatened by insidious moisture, leaks, or humidity. Tuck some silica packets into your memory box and breathe a little easier.
You’ll need quite a few to be effective, but keeping silica gel packets packed away with cameras, film, smartphones, video tapes, laptops, and other water-sensitive electronics and accessories can keep them safe until subsequent use. Dropped your phone or tablet in the bath? Try using a slew of silica gel packets to adsorb the water and bring the device back from its watery doom.
Keep moisture-prone areas dry
Your bathroom, basement and attic, are all places that can accumulate moisture easily. Adding silica gel packets near areas that might fog up, like windows and mirrors, can help prevent that slightly-annoying or even damaging condensation and slow down the growth of mold.
Abate rust and tarnish concerns
Metal tools, razors, or materials risk rusting if exposed to moisture. Add some silica gel packets to your toolbox, for example, to reduce that chance of exposure. You can also use the packets to mitigate tarnish or corrosion of metals, so stick some in your jewelry box, silverware drawer, or tackle box.
Dry out your travel gear
The ickiest part about swimming is figuring out how to bring home a soggy bathing suit. But storing the suit with silica gel packets can help wick that moisture away and make it easier to transport. That goes for other travel gear, too; tents, sleeping bags, and luggage can all benefit from a little less wetness.
Preserve unique, special-purpose, or expensive materials
Leather and sports gear might be fine in a bit of rain, but prolonged exposure to moisture can ruin, stain or mildew different specialty fabrics. And any boxes of seasonal clothing or items you only use once a year (think: holiday sweaters and decor) might get wet long before you open them up and realize it. Silica gel packets tucked into pockets and between layers of fabrics can adsorb water before anything is ruined. Other water-sensitive materials such as seed packets can benefit from nearby silica gel packs, and you can even speed up drying flowers with silica.
What happens to silica beads in the environment?
For most silica gel packets, a single use is all they’re likely going to get. Still, the packets that encase the silica gel beads are a relatively understudied source of single-use plastic pollution, Baechler explains.
“By function, [silica gel packets are] a desiccant,” Baechler says. “So if these packets are being dumped into waterways, or even onto land, it can dry out whatever environment ends up in, which can be problematic.”
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Additionally, silica works as an insecticide for indoor and outdoor uses in powdered form on “stored grain, other food, feed and ornamentals; in food handling areas; and on pets and their living/sleeping quarters,” according to a US Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet.
“That means it’s being applied in an environmental setting,” Baechler adds. “I would surmise that if silica is used in this way and released into the environment, especially in large quantities that could have some impacts in terms of water retention in ecosystems and, perhaps, impacts on [animal and plant life] as well.”
For now, at least, the environmental effects of silica gel are uncertain, but we think it’s better to be safe than sorry.
This story has been updated. It was originally published on July 27, 2022.