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What is Diatomaceous Earth?

Jeff Petersen
Updated May 21, 2024
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While science fiction authors might suggest that fossils are best used to clone dinosaurs, diatomaceous earth shows us that fossils have a great number of uses in day to day living. Diatoms are tiny, single-celled algae found in plankton. Diatomaceous earth is a fine, white, crystalline powder made up of the fossilized shells of diatoms. Lightweight, gritty, and porous, it finds a surprising array of uses.

Most people are likely to associate diatomaceous earth with its use in swimming pool filters. The structure of the fossilized diatoms resemble small sponges with many openings. With so many places for particles to become stuck, it makes excellent filter material. Besides swimming pools, diatomaceous earth can be used to filter drinking water, beer, and syrup. Chemists also use it to filter particles out of liquids.

The gritty nature of diatomaceous earth makes it useful as a polish. It is non-toxic, so it can be used as an ingredient in toothpaste, or to clean metal products, even those used with food. It is a naturally occurring mineral with a very low environmental effect, and it's safe to use around people and animals. Even though it is non-toxic, people should never attempt to treat themselves with diatomaceous earth, either externally or internally. Medical professionals use a special medical grade in cases in which it is used on patients.

The abrasive quality of diatomaceous earth also makes it a safe yet effective insecticide. It scrapes the protective outer shell off of insects. Without this protective layer, the insects quickly dry up and die. The substance can be used to remove external parasites from people and animals, and can be spread on crops to kill insects without dangerous chemicals. Some farmers even add a very small amount to their livestock's feed to control internal parasites.

Diatomaceous earth's high porosity makes it very absorbent. Liquid is quickly absorbed and trapped by all the tiny pores in the diatom's shells. This absorbency makes it a key ingredient in some brands of cat litter. It is also used to clean up spills, especially of dangerous or toxic chemicals. When the chemical is completely absorbed, it is prevented from spreading and can be more easily removed.

Truly an under-appreciated substance, diatomaceous earth performs a wide variety of tasks. It already acts as a safe insecticide, an efficient filter, and a spill cleaner. Who knows what other uses people might find for these humble fossils.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is diatomaceous earth and where does it come from?

Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a naturally occurring, soft, siliceous sedimentary rock that is easily crumbled into a fine white to off-white powder. It is formed from the fossilized remains of diatoms, a type of hard-shelled algae. DE is mined from ancient, dried lake beds and is used in various industries due to its abrasive and absorbent properties.

How is diatomaceous earth used in pest control?

Diatomaceous earth is a popular non-toxic insecticide for home and garden use. It works mechanically, not chemically, by puncturing the exoskeletons of insects upon contact, causing them to dehydrate and die. It is effective against a range of pests including ants, fleas, and bedbugs, and is safe for use around pets and children when food-grade DE is used.

Can diatomaceous earth be consumed by humans or animals?

Food-grade diatomaceous earth is considered safe for consumption by both humans and animals. It is sometimes used as a dietary supplement due to its high silica content, which can support hair, skin, and nail health. However, it's important to only consume DE that is labeled as food-grade, as other types may contain harmful contaminants.

What are the industrial applications of diatomaceous earth?

Industrially, diatomaceous earth is used for its filtration properties, particularly in the production of beer, wine, and syrups, where it helps to clarify liquids. It's also used as a mild abrasive in products like toothpaste and metal polishes, as a thermal insulator, and as a stabilizing component of dynamite, known as diatomite.

Is diatomaceous earth environmentally friendly?

Diatomaceous earth is considered an environmentally friendly product. It is a natural, sustainable substance that does not require chemical processing. Its insecticidal properties are mechanical rather than chemical, reducing the need for synthetic pesticides. Moreover, DE is biodegradable and does not accumulate in the environment, making it a preferred choice for eco-conscious consumers.

Are there any safety concerns associated with using diatomaceous earth?

While food-grade diatomaceous earth is safe for consumption, inhaling any form of DE dust can be harmful to the lungs. It's important to use it with caution, avoiding creating airborne dust. The crystalline form of silica present in some non-food-grade DE can cause silicosis if inhaled over time, so always use food-grade DE and follow safety instructions.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jeff Petersen
By Jeff Petersen

Jeff is a freelance writer, short story author, and novelist who earned his B.A. in English/Creative Writing from Creighton University. Based in Berkeley, California, Jeff loves putting his esoteric knowledge to good use as a AllThingsNature contributor.

Discussion Comments

By ExploreLife4 — On Jun 08, 2014

Some of these questions mean the reader did not completely comprehend the article, or they were posted before the article included the information.

This is the first article to refer to a medical grade DE. The FDA, EPA, and USDA have guidelines for what is safe and how it should be handled. Food grade DE has been approved for use in foods. Vets use food-grade DE externally and internally on animals to kill insects (fleas, mites, parasites, worms). It's not harmful to earth worms, but is harmful to bees. You may be able to help bees if you had a filter that allowed mites in but was too small for the bees to enter. I've read many articles on this.

By anon129178 — On Nov 22, 2010

Can you use diatomaceous earth to control varoa mites in bee hives without harming the bees?

By anon102879 — On Aug 09, 2010

What is Diatomaceous earth made out of? E.g. elements or minerals?

By anon86837 — On May 26, 2010

I see that it gets rid of all sorts of insects. But I need to know if this product works to fight against stinkbug infestation. If so, which one of these do I purchase?

By anon86782 — On May 26, 2010

I have 24 pounds of Aqua chem DE media and Filter aid Pure Diatomaceaus earth. Can I mix it with water and spray it on my pasture to get rid of the many ticks that get on my horses (2)? Ed.

By anon80732 — On Apr 28, 2010

how can we use it in silicone rubber?

By anon42903 — On Aug 24, 2009

Can this be used as a deterrent to pack rats that keep getting inside a car engine?

By anon42150 — On Aug 19, 2009

for - anon28777, the person that mentioned they wanted to use the left over pool DE for home use. Do not use it! It's processed and the composition has been altered. It's honestly not good for the pool either. I'd recommend just disposing of it through your nearest facility in the safest way possible. As this is not the same chemical free safe DE that is considered food grade. Hope this helps.

By anon41572 — On Aug 16, 2009

Diatomaceous earth is non-toxic. Unless of course you ingest or inhale vast quantities of it. Farmers in the know use it considerably and have very healthy and pest-free animals and crops.

There are no 'fibers' present, only roughly contoured particles. These particles are excellent for killing roaches/ants/flies! A very light dusting on obvious areas and corners will rid you of infestations even so severe the bugs swarm in large numbers. Takes time, as eggs already laid must hatch so the new insects become dehydrated.

Can be taken internally by humans and animals. Small animals like cats and small dogs 1tsp a day, larger dogs 1tbsp a day, horses and cattle 1/2 to 1cup a day. Always for one week, then if no allergic or other reactions, continue for 30 days or as long as 90 days.

I've seen dogs and cats with worms cured more than one time. Also seen a horribly cockroach infested farmhouse cleared in two weeks, not a single one left after a month.

Again, non-toxic. No chemicals. It works because the particles are so rough, they scratch insects' shells and they dry out. Fleas, roaches, ants, silverfish and flies. Works. Guaranteed.

Inhalation can cause light bleeding in the lungs, so spread a fine mist around problem areas while wearing a painting or sanding mask and *keep out of eyes*. It will dehydrate your eyes severely!

Can be taken internally to cleanse colon. No more than 1tbsp daily before each meal. Take a very small amount with meals first several days to make sure you won't have any reactions. If taking internally use only food grade which is pure white.

By anon36357 — On Jul 11, 2009

How much do I give dogs and puppies and cats as worming them?

By anon28777 — On Mar 22, 2009

I used a d.e. pool filter at one time, but we switched to a sand filter and now have a case of d.e. leftover. I have read that it is good for insect control in the house and yard, but also read that d.e. for pool ue has been treated and can be dangerous to human and animal health.

I would love to use a 'natural' chemical for insect control but don't want to hurt the kids and cat. How can I know if this is safe to use in my yard?

By anon26660 — On Feb 17, 2009

is OK for grass or front yard?

By anon20842 — On Nov 07, 2008

Can I use this as a natural wormer for poultry, dogs and cats? We do eat the eggs and raise chicken to butcher so we want an all natural wormer that is safe.

By logo989 — On May 29, 2008

How did the Diatoms get their names and is it harmful to pests?

By ehampton55 — On Jul 09, 2007

i used diatommaceous earth in my swimming pool filter by mistake. i should have used sand. now it is on the bottom of my pool.How will i get it out and is it dangerous because of the silica fibers?

Jeff Petersen

Jeff Petersen

Jeff is a freelance writer, short story author, and novelist who earned his B.A. in English/Creative Writing from...

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