The Great Homeschooler Chemicals Hunt

Since my children are both doing school at home, I am their science teacher. I figured getting what they needed for science labs would be easy enough. After all, most substances, like Epson salts and steel wool without soap, were easy enough to find at local grocery stores or hardware stores. And when I needed a few tests tubes for an experiment, we found San Jose Scientific, a scientist supply store, ironically located in Santa Clara.

I figured San Jose Scientific would be my go-to place for any substances I couldn’t find easily. But even though they’ve got all the equipment for a laboratory, as far as I can tell, they don’t really carry a lot of chemicals.

I needed some hydrochloric acid for a geology lab for Neil, so he could see how some rocks (with calcite) fizz when a mild acid is dropped on them. It turned out that if I wanted hydrochloric acid, I needed to go to a pool supply store and buy muriatic acid, which is simply hydrochloric acid under another name. It was only sold in 2 gallon sets, and of the 1/2 cup of it I needed, I had to dilute it from 30% acid to 10% acid. But it worked for the experiment, and killed some weeds in my backyard as well.

Oh, and the rocks for the experiment I had to order online from Edmund Scientific, a big but somewhat pricey science supply store. On the other hand, the rock samples have continued to come in handy as Neil continued to study geology with the one book that turned out to be not too simple and yet not too boringly textbook bland and dry.

More recently, I had to get alum for an upcoming experiment. It’s one of the simplest things: it’s used in styptic pencils, which men used to use to heal up shaving cuts quickly, and as a deoderant, and I was told it could be found any decent pharmacy. But pharmacy after pharmacy didn’t stock it, so finally I put in a special order for some (for a whole $5) from the Longs drugstore.

At this point, I’d already identified myself as the crazy homeschooling science teacher, so I asked the pharmacist for some citric acid crystals as well. I want to use them for one of Kelly’s park craft days to create fizzy drinks and something vaguely similar to pop rocks. According to the books which gave me the formula, citric acid can be found at any grocery store. Ha! Smart & Final sure didn’t have it, and the clerks at Safeway had never heard of it. Of course, the clerks at Safeway have also never heard of sauerkraut, and I have had to lead them personally to red wine vinegar and liverwurst so they can witness these products are actually carried by their store, so if citric acid is in Safeway, there’s no way I would ever be able to find it without knowing where it’s supposed to be in the first place.

So when the pharmacist told me I could find citric acid crystals at a grocery store, I told her of my impossible quest in the face of clueless clerks. And so she (an Indian immigrant) directed me to the local Indian grocery store near my home, and not only wrote down the name for citric acid crystals in Hindi (which she also told me is sometimes called lemon flour), but also the names of the people at the Indian grocery who would help me. And when I went there, the proprietor called a stock clerk to help me, but when he couldn’t find it, one of the other customers came up and pointed it out to me. The store was no bigger than two aisles at Safeway, but this Indian grocery had citric acid crystals and knew where to find them. It was packaged in small convenient packages and inexpensive; so if you need citric acid crystals, apparently, the lesson is to go to your local Indian grocery.

And I’ve had all this adventure only while Neil was studying geology, and while Kelly is dabbling in early science concepts. I wonder how wide and far I’ll be needing to search for “household” chemicals when Neil is actually studying chemistry next year.


  1. Chris

    Alum is used in pickle making, and some play dough recipes call for it if you still have some on hand and want to use it up. has one such recipe.


  2. Mary

    Try “Fruit Fresh.” Very useful to have on hand…especially good for treating produce that oxidizes to an unlovely brown (avocado, cut pineapple, apple, potato, etc.). Found near canning products, or possibly in the fresh produce section.


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