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Periodic Graphics

Periodic Graphics: What is Play-Doh made of?

Chemical educator and Compound Interest blogger Andy Brunning rolls out the chemistry behind the colorful, nontoxic modeling material

by Andy Brunning, special to C&EN
September 26, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 35


Infographic explaining what Play-Doh is made of. 
Water and starch are the main components of Play-Doh. Play-Doh usually contains wheat flour. Wheat flour starch is approximately 25% amylose and 75% amylopectin. 
When warm water is added, starch granules swell and gelatinize because of hydrogen bonding between water molecules and the molecules in starch.
When Play-Doh cools, amylose molecules crystallize, causing retrogradation (hardening). Adding more amylopectin as a retrogradation inhibitor stops this.
Salt reduces starch's water of hydration and helps stop mold growth. The salt can be sodium chloride, potassium chloride, or calcium chloride. 

Extra amylopectin added to prevent retrogradation makes Play-Doh sticky. Lubricants (mineral or vegetable oil) and surfactants (such as polyethylene glycol esters) reduce stickiness.
Preservatives can include calcium propionate, sodium benzoate, parabens, or borax. They prevent microbial growth.
Fragrances, including vanilla, improve the smell of Play-Doh. Adding various pigments produces vibrant colors.

Credit: Andy Brunning

To download a pdf of this article, visit

References used to create this graphic:

Doane, Linwood E., Jr., and Lev Tsimberg. Starch-based modeling compound. US Patent 6,713,624 B1, filed May 2, 2002, and issued March 30, 2004.

Ward, Jason. “The Chemistry of Playdough.” Curriculum Units by Fellows of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 2020 Volume II: Chemistry of Food and Cooking.

Wilson, Tracy V. “How Play-Doh Works.” HowStuffWorks, Feb. 19, 2021

A collaboration between C&EN and Andy Brunning, author of the popular graphics blog Compound Interest

To see more of Brunning’s work, go to To see all of C&EN’s Periodic Graphics, visit



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