Acetone, (CH3)2CO, is a common solvent, first discovered by alchemists during the Middle Ages, where it was known as “spirit of Saturn.” In 1836, its chemical structure was determined by chemists Jean Baptiste Dumas and Justus von Leibig.
In previous eras it was made from the distillation of starches. A key component in explosive manufacture during the First World War, acetone was so critical to the war effort that the British government paid schoolboys to find horse chestnuts to distill into acetone. Acetone is usually derived from fossil fuels in the modern era, by the petrochemical industry.
Acetone has common household uses, such as a cleaner and nail polish remover, acetone is used as an industrial degreaser, in the pharmaceutical industry, and in medicine, especially in dermatology. (Acetone mixed with alcohol is a common ingredient in skin peels.)
Unlike other solvents available to consumers such as toluene and turpentine, acetone is safe for environmental and human exposure. Acetone is a VOC-exempt solvent since it is produced by nearly all plants and animals and is completely biodegradable in the air, water, and soil. Health concerns with acetone exposure are almost negligible as its toxicity is on par with table salt. In fact, the human body produces acetone as a part of fat metabolism and detection of acetone on one’s breath can be an invaluable healthcare diagnostic tool.