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What Is Acetone?

Nail polish remover containing acetone.
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  • Written By: M. McGee
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 18 August 2014
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Acetone is a colorless and highly flammable liquid, most commonly associated with nail polish remover. This substance is a ketone, a group of materials that all have similar molecular makeup consisting of a carbonyl group bound to two other atoms or molecules of any kind. Ketones are a very diverse group and contain a large number of disconnected substances like sugars, pheromones, polymers and solvents. Acetone is a very simple ketone, consisting of a carbonyl and two CH3 molecules.

The chemistry of acetone seems a lot more complex than it actually is. The center of the substance is a carbonyl group; this is simply a carbon and oxygen atom that are double joined with one another. Next, the carbonyl group is bonded to two CH3 molecules, which means a molecule comprised of one carbon and three hydrogen atoms. This simple construction gives acetone a wide range of properties and makes it easy to transform into other materials.

The material has a wide range of different properties. It is a colorless liquid that both evaporates and auto-combusts at relatively low temperatures. It is heavier than air, so the vapor will move along surfaces rather than float. This makes it especially dangerous as the vapor can move to an ignition source and travel back to the liquid. In addition, it is a solvent, which means is can dissolve other materials, and miscible with water, meaning it will easily mix in any quantity.

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Most of the acetone used in the world today is produced artificially, but it is a natural substance. Most mammals and some other animals naturally produce acetone within their bodies. Some studies have also found that diets rich in ketones will increase acetone levels and reduce the likelihood of seizures in children. The amounts produced inside a person’s body pale in comparison to the over 6.5 million tons produced annually around the world.

While many processes use acetone as is, many others require further processing in order to turn it into a different substance. The most common end product is bisphenol A (BPA) a substance found in a huge number of products. BPA is used to create polymers and artificial resins and can be found in everything from plastic water bottles to metal can liners to thermal paper.

Most Americans recognize acetone as fingernail polish remover. This capitalizes on its abilities as a solvent, it is harmless in low quantities to human skin but it rapidly dissolves the polymer-based polish used in modern cosmetics. Even so, acetone is a dangerous substance and prolonged bodily contact should be avoided.

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