Nail polish remover commonly contains achemical called acetone.
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It is a well knownsubstance that is good for dissolving many things,some of which are in nail polish. The size ofacetone is very small, which makes it easilyintegrable into the spaces of the larger moleculesin nail polish. In fact, acetone is used asone of the solvents for nail polish such that nailpolish stays in liquid form. When the polish isapplied to a nail, the acetone evaporates quickly,and the polish becomes dry. The large molecules inthe polish now interact more strongly with oneanother and becomes a solid film.
When a remover is applied to dried polish,acetone is essentially allowed to re-enter thespaces between larger molecules in the nailpolish, and begins to disrupt the large-moleculeinteractions, thereby re-dissolving and allowingthe polish to be wiped/washed away. This processapplies to other substances used as nail polishremovers, such as ethyl acetate and isopropylalcohol. Strictly speaking, the interactionbetween the polish and the remover is not achemical one - no chemical bonds are broken orformed in the process; the dissolving processis only physical.
The active ingredient in nail polish remover isacetone (chemical formulaC3H6O). The reaction whichoccurs is a dissolution reaction, which isa reaction, but different from a chemicalreaction.
The acetone gets between the polymer chains of thepolish, breaking up the polish andsuspending the molecules in a liquid which caneasily be wiped off. This is purely a physicalchange though; there are no chemical changestaking place (no new chemical species areformed).
The primary ingredient in nail polish remover isacetone, which gives it that distinctivesmell. Acetone is a common solvent used inlabs (though in much higher concentrations) thatis good at cleaning chemical residues off ofglassware, for example.
Acetone is a great general solvent because of itsmolecular structure (shown below). You may befamiliar with the phrase "like dissolveslike" , referring to the fact thatnon-polar molecules (molecules with lots of C-Hbonds) are good at dissolving non-polarcompounds, while polar molecules (whichcontain oxygen, sulfur, chloride, etc.) are goodat dissolving other polar compounds.
Acetone is a small molecule that hasvery non-polar and polar propertiessimultaneously. Its polar C=O bondmakes it miscible (soluble) in water, whileits non-polar methyl (CH3)groups can interact with non-polarcompounds. This is why a non-polar substancelike wax is hard to remove with water, butgoes away easily when you use a solvent likeacetone.
Nail polish has a number of ingredients, one ofwhich is resin, which can be very non-polar (thinkof tree sap, for example). This is why acetone canremove nail polish even though water can"t.
It varies, but nail polish is usually a polymerthat dissolves in an organic solvent that leavesthe polymer behind when the solventevaporates. Generally you want an organicsolvent to re-dissolve the polymer in order toremove it. According to Wikipedia, acetone is themost common one used, but ethyl acetate issometimes used instead because it is lesstoxic (in particular, acetone will dissolveyou as well as the polish if you aren"t careful!).
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Nail polish remover is a liquid that dissolvesnail polish, like water dissolves sugar or salt. It"s not so much a chemical reaction asjust a liquid or solvent that the nail polish issoluble in. My bottle of nail polish remover hasmostly acetone and water, but the article belowsuggests that ethyl acetate is probablysafer than acetone.