Silica beads are small, round balls of silica gel. While silica gel may sound like a soft or liquidy material, it is actually a solid form of silicon dioxide, a natural material found in the earth. These colorless beads are primarily used to control the moisture content of consumer goods. While many people mistakenly believe that silica gel is toxic, the gel itself is found in food and beverages. Silica beads are therefore only harmful when they are treated with dangerous chemicals that help to enhance their moisture-absorption properties.
The process of making silica beads starts when natural silicon is extracted from the earth. When silicon is exposed to the air, it oxidizes, resulting in a product called silicon dioxide. By adding sodium silicate to silicon dioxide, manufacturers can create silica gel. Depending on the conditions under which it is produced, this gel can take the form of tiny grains or larger silica beads.
Silica beads are used in a number of manufacturing and household applications. They can be formed into glass or quartz to make countertops, tile, and other products. These beads also serve as a highly-absorbent form of cat litter, which is used in place of traditional sand or newspaper. Silica beads also are a common food additive, and are even added to water in some areas as part of the purification process. These beads are the primarily component in diatamaceous earth, which is used as a natural alternative to chemical pesticides.
Perhaps the most common use for silica beads is as a dessiccant, or dehumidifying material. Due to the highly porous nature of silica, these beads are a highly effective moisture absorption agent. They are added to packs of food, such as dried meats, as well as various types of medicine. Many clothing and shoe manufacturers add packs of silica beads to their products to prevent moisture damage during shipping or storage.
In its pure form, silica gel is essentially harmless. Despite this fact, packages of silica beads are often marked with dire warnings that the contents should not be consumed. Silica is frequently treated with highly toxic chemicals that can be deadly if consumed. For example, beads coated with cobalt chloride can cause both short and long term illness, while those treated with methyl violet can cause severe illness or death. While chemically treated beads are often colored to help identify them, this is not always the case, so consumers should never eat these beads.