What Are Common vs. Trade Names of Chemicals?

by Kate Onissiphorou

Common names of chemicals are determined by cultural and historical factors, whereas trade names generally refer to the substance’s chemical name.

The latter is typically based on the scientific standard nomenclature, the almost universally accepted standard of which is the IUPAC nomenclature, or the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry nomenclature.

Trade names of chemicals may also refer to brand names, especially when it comes to medicines and other pharmaceutical products. However, for the purposes of this article, we only refer to the chemical names based on standard scientific nomenclature. 

Standard nomenclature is scientific because it takes account of the elemental composition of substances, along with the molecular structure and positions of the functional groups. In contrast, many of the common names have historical significance and cultural influence. For example, some of the earliest elements discovered have alchemical and magical equivalence based on the beliefs of ancient people.

The difference between the chemical name and common name

The main difference between chemical names and common names is the scientific standardised basis of naming. Common names are influenced by culture and history and can vary from one language to another, depending on the country or region. They may also have mythical and traditional origins.

Cultural basis of naming

The element mercury is derived from the name of the Roman god Mercury (based on the Greek god Hermes), who was the god of translators and interpreters. He was also the messenger of the gods because of his super speed, as symbolised by his winged feet. In English, the element mercury is also called quicksilver due to its shiny, silver-white colour when in liquid form.

Scientific basis of naming

It was only much later, in the 19th century, that chemical naming became more scientific. As the magical thinking of alchemy gave way to the empirically-based thinking of chemistry, the naming of chemicals also became more rational and organised.

Elements were organised in a periodic table that reflected their shared and transitional properties. Undiscovered elements at that time were predicted based on the periodic table developed by Dmitri Mendeleev. The periodic table

The development of quantum mechanics and molecular orbital theory in the late 19th century also paved the way for understanding how chemical compounds and structures are formed. This knowledge was then integrated into the naming of chemicals.

Popular searches for common chemical names

These are seven of the most common chemical names that are frequently searched for online, along with their equivalent standard scientific chemical names.

  • Chemical name of water

Water is considered a universal solvent because it can dissolve such a wide range of substances. It’s also the most abundant substance on the planet and plays a big role in sustaining life and regulating the weather and climate.

The chemical name of water is sometimes playfully referred to online as “dihydrogen mono-oxide,” which is purportedly toxic and harmful. However, the IUPAC-compliant name of water is oxidane.

  • Chemical name of rust

Close up of rusted metalRust, particularly the rust on iron or steel surfaces, is an oxide of iron. Its formal IUPAC name is iron oxide and it has the chemical formula Fe2O3.

Iron oxide is one of the most common minerals on the Earth’s crust. It serves as magnetic data storage for the earth itself and in electronic devices. The mineral’s unique colour also makes it useful for cosmetics and paints. Some iron oxides are used as catalysts for various types of chemical reactions, including the mass production of ammonia.

  • Chemical name for bicarbonate of soda

Bicarbonate of soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate or simply baking soda, is a common chemical compound used in baking. It has various other applications too, including use in fire extinguishers. Its standard IUPAC name is sodium hydrogen carbonate, and its chemical is formula NaHCO3.

  • Chemical name of vitamin A

Vitamin A is one of the fat-soluble vitamins and micronutrients we need to keep us healthy. It helps our body to function efficiently and is essential for good vision and healthy bones. There are two types of dietary vitamin A – the preformed vitamin A, such as retinol, and provitamin A carotenoids, such as beta-carotene.

  • Chemical name of vitamin C

Foods rich in vitamin C shown around a chalk board saying 'vitamin C'Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin. If water is considered a universal solvent, vitamin C is a master antioxidant. It can neutralise free radicals that might otherwise cause long-term cell damage. Vitamin C is also referred to by its chemical name of ascorbic acid. Commonly found in citrus fruits, it has the chemical formula C6H8O6.

  • Chemical name of petrol

Petrol is a complex mixture of various hydrocarbons. It can refer to either crude oil or processed petroleum products, such as gasoline. That means the chemical name for petrol can be a long list of its various constituents, including benzene. However, petrol can also simply be called hydrocarbon.

  • Chemical name of blood

As blood is a complex mixture of living cells, antibodies, nutrients, minerals, and fluids, it doesn’t have a specific chemical name. However, if you’re referring to the oxygen-carrying protein in a red blood corpuscle, then this is called haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is a complex structure of amino acids that have an iron centre. 

Blood can also refer to other types of oxygen- and nutrient-carrying fluid in organisms, such as the blood of a horseshoe crab. The main functional protein of horseshoe crab blood is hemocyanin, which has a copper centre.

If you want to learn more about the various chemical names and formulae of common chemical or trade names, here are more examples.

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