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What Is Tri Sodium Phosphate Used For?

author image Allison Adams
Allison Adams has worked as a registered dietitian since 1996. She began writing professionally in 2000, with work featured in a variety of medical publications such as "Women's Health Magazine" and the "New England Journal of Medicine." Adams holds a Master of Science in nutrition and food sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
What Is Tri Sodium Phosphate Used For?
Close-up of dishwasher tabs. Photo Credit: baratroli/iStock/Getty Images

Tri sodium phosphate is a strong chemical typically used as a cleaning agent, food additive, stain remover and degreaser. Commonly sold as a white powder, TSP is also known as trisodium orthophosphate or sodium phosphate. Formerly, you would find this chemical used in a variety of soaps and detergents, but manufacturers no longer use TSP in these products due to ecological concerns.

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Use as a Cleaning Agent

TSP has a pH of 12 meaning the chemical is an alkaline. Alkaline agents typically have a powerful capacity to penetrate greases and oils. However, due to ecological concerns manufacturers started to substitute sodium carbonate along with non-ionic surfactants and a small amount of sodium phosphates for TSP in many cleaning products. These newer, safer substances are not as effective as cleaning products with TSP. Additionally, you can use TSP to treat surfaces prior to painting. Further, you can mix TSP with bleach to kill mildew. TSP can damage metal and painted surfaces and can stain woods. Also, you should not use TSP on glass because it will leave a filmy residue.

Use as a Food Additive

TSP is also commonly used as an acidity regulator and emulsifier, and as a thickening and nutrition enlargement agent in manufactured foods. When used as a food additive, TSP is also known as E339. You can also use TSP in administering an enema due to its laxative effect. In the United States, you can purchase sodium phosphate enemas over the counter. However, you should consult with a medical professional prior to using a TSP enema.

TSP Poisoning

Some automatic dishwashing soaps and toilet bowl cleaners and many industrial solvents and cleaners such as construction agents, flooring strippers, brick cleaners and cements still contain small amounts of TSP. Poisoning can occur if your accidentally swallow, breathe in or touch your skin with TSP-based products. Poisoning symptoms include difficulty breathing; severe pain in the throat, eyes, nose, ears, lips or tongue; fainting; skin irritation or burns; vomiting; diarrhea; and severe abdominal pain.

TSP Substitutes

You can substitute products containing soda ash and zeolites for products that contain TSP. Sodium carbonate, however, is not as basic as TSP so it is less effective in demanding applications. Zeolites are, usually, added to laundry detergents as bulking agents. They rapidly break down in water. Therefore, zeolites are a more eco-friendly option than TSP-based products.

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