If there's a more versatile and inexpensive home product than baking soda, it's waiting to be discovered.
For years baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, has been sort of a domestic security blanket - a trusted, natural helper whose usefulness outstrips its commonly known uses in leavening baked goods or deodorizing a refrigerator.
That's why Vicki Lansky keeps a jumbo-size box in her bathroom.
"It may sound strange, but you can use it for brushing your teeth, cleaning the sink, or as an underarm deodorant," says Ms. Lansky, the author of "Baking Soda: Over 500 Fabulous, Fun, and Frugal Uses You've Probably Never Thought Of."
Lansky is hardly alone in singing the praises of baking soda, which was first introduced as a leavening agent in 1840.
Today, many dairy farmers use it to increase milk production. In fact, cows are the chief consumers of baking soda, which helps them achieve optimum digestion when it's blended into their feed.
Peter Ciullo, a chemist, has also written a book, "Baking Soda Bonanza" that sets forth "hundreds of ingenious household uses."
A personal favorite, he says, is to use baking soda to clean the windshield of his car, which gets oily driving to and from work.
Mr. Ciullo suggests sprinkling the soda on a damp sponge to create a paste that is wiped on the glass. Once dry, it can be wiped off, leaving a clean, streak-free window or windshield.
As a glass cleaner, it "tends to be a little messy," he agrees but it does the job with no harm to the car's finish.
To remove spots from fabrics and rugs, the same basic procedure can be followed. He recommends testing it on a small area first, though, since over time baking soda changes into another chemical "that's a little more aggressive" in contact with fibrous materials.
Arm & Hammer is the most familiar brand on the store shelves. Its simple orange-yellow box, introduced 150 years ago, dominates the consumer market and can be found in an estimated 90 percent of United States homes.
While books like Lansky's and Ciullo's toot baking soda's horn, the New-Jersey-based Church & Dwight Co., which manufactures Arm & Hammer does not endorse these books, since some of the suggestions push the envelope.
The company does, however, promote roughly 100 "approved" uses, found on the Internet at www.armhammer.com, and is looking for more. It is seeking input on family-rated everyday solutions for the home (FRESH). The consumer hot line is 800-524-1328.
According to a survey conducted by the company, the No.1 use Americans make of baking soda is to deodorize refrigerators and freezers (an open or vented box remains effective for weeks, sometimes months). Other primary uses are baking, household cleaning (it is mildly abrasive), and personal care.
Ciullo says that the folk-uses for baking soda are "pretty much an American cultural phenomenon." In the rest of the world, he explains, it is largely known for its pharmaceutical and industrial uses, not as a household wonder.
Baking soda is really a byproduct in the production of soda ash, which is heavily used in industry.
A vast Wyoming mineral deposit of trona, from which ash and baking soda can be economically processed, essentially makes the US the globe's baking soda source and a good place to buy it inexpensively (59 cents for a one-pound box is about average).
HOUSEHOLD USES FOR BAKING SODA
* Sprinkle on a toaster-oven tray to eliminate the burnt smell of crumbs.
* Add a pinch of baking soda to a pot of spaghetti sauce - it reduces acidity.
* To clean the grime off white aluminum house siding, pour baking soda into a garden hose, screw on the nozzle, and spray.
* Remove plaque from teeth by flossing with dental floss dipped in soda.
* Tenderize tough meat by rubbing it with baking soda. Rinse after several hours.
- From 'Baking Soda: Over 500 Fabulous, Fun and Frugal Uses You're Probably Never Thought Of,' by Vicki Lansky (Book Peddlers)
* Remove oil and grease spots from the garage floor by sprinkling them with baking soda. If stains remain after absorption, wet the area and scrub it with more soda.
* To inflate balloons, place two tablespoons of water and one teaspoon of baking soda in a clean, empty soda bottle. Then add four tablespoons of lemon juice or white vinegar. A balloon attached to the bottle's mouth will fill with carbon dioxide.
* To soften and freshen fabrics, add half a cup of soda with the laundry detergent.
* When camping, extinguish open fires with a spray bottle containing one teaspoon of baking soda per pint of water.
- From 'Baking Soda Bonanza,' by Peter Ciullo (HarperPerennial).
* To maintain a septic tank and control sulfide odors, flush a cup of soda down the toilet once a week.
* To clean stuffed toys, sprinkle with baking soda, let sit 15 minutes, then brush off.
* Make a paste of soda and water for wire-brushing barbecue grills.
- From 'Joey Green's Encyclopedia of Offbeat Uses for Brand-Name Products,'