It most commonly occurs as a crystallinedecahydrate, which readily effloresces to form a white powder, the monohydrate. Pure sodium carbonate is a white, odorless powder that is hygroscopic (absorbs moisture from the air). It has a strongly alkaline taste, and forms a moderately basic solution in water. Sodium carbonate is well known domestically for its everyday use as a water softener. Historically it was extracted from the ashes of plants growing in sodium-rich soils, such as vegetation from the Middle East, kelp from Scotland and seaweed from Spain. Because the ashes of these sodium-rich plants were noticeably different from ashes of timber (used to create potash), they became known as "soda ash". It is synthetically produced in large quantities from salt (sodium chloride) and limestone by a method known as the Solvay process.
The manufacture of glass is one of the most important uses of sodium carbonate. Sodium carbonate acts as a flux for silica, lowering the melting point of the mixture to something achievable without special materials. This "soda glass" is mildly water-soluble, so some calcium carbonate is added to the melt mixture to make the glass produced insoluble. This type of glass is known as soda lime glass: "soda" for the sodium carbonate and "lime" for the calcium carbonate. Soda lime glass has been the most common form of glass for centuries.
Sodium carbonate is also used as a relatively strong base in various settings. For example, it is used as a pH regulator to maintain stable alkaline conditions necessary for the action of the majority of photographic film developing agents. It acts as an alkali because when dissolved in water, it dissociates into the weak acid: carbonic acid and the strong alkali: sodium hydroxide. This gives sodium carbonate in solution the ability to attack metals such as aluminium with the release of hydrogen gas.
It is a common additive in swimming pools used to raise the pH which can be lowered by chlorine tablets and other additives which contain acids.
In cooking, it is sometimes used in place of sodium hydroxide for lyeing, especially with German pretzels and lye rolls. These dishes are treated with a solution of an alkaline substance to change the pH of the surface of the food and improve browning.
In taxidermy, sodium carbonate added to boiling water will remove flesh from the bones of animal carcasses for trophy mounting or educational display.
In chemistry, it is often used as an electrolyte. Electrolytes are usually salt-based, and sodium carbonate acts as a very good conductor in the process of electrolysis. In addition, unlike chloride ions, which form chlorine gas, carbonate ions are not corrosive to the anodes. It is also used as a primary standard for acid-base titrations because it is solid and air-stable, making it easy to weigh accurately.
Soda ash is used as a water softener in laundering: it competes with the magnesium and calcium ions in hard water and prevents them from bonding with the detergent being used, but does not prevent scaling. Sodium carbonate can be used to remove grease, oil, and wine stains.
In dyeing with fiber-reactive dyes, sodium carbonate (often under a name such as soda ash fixative or soda ash activator) is used to ensure proper chemical bonding of the dye with cellulose (plant) fibers, typically before dyeing (for tie dyes), mixed with the dye (for dye painting), or after dyeing (for immersion dyeing).