Different kinds of methylcellulose can be prepared depending on the number of hydroxyl groups so substituted. Cellulose is a polymer consisting of numerous linked glucose molecules, each of which exposes three hydroxyl groups. The Degree of Substitution (DS) of a given form of methylcellulose is defined as the average number of substituted hydroxyl groups per glucose. The theoretical maximum is thus a DS of 3.0, however more typical values are 1.3 - 2.6.
Different methylcellulose preparations can also differ in the average length of their polymer backbones.
The CAS number of methylcellulose is 9004-67-5.
Methylcellulose dissolves in cold water. Higher DS-values result in lower solubility, because the polar hydroxyl groups are masked. The chemical is not soluble in hot water, which has the paradoxical effect that heating a saturated solution of methylcellulose will turn it solid, because methylcellulose will precipitate out. The temperature at which this occurs depends on DS-value, with higher DS-values giving lower precipitation temperatures.
Preparing a solution of methylcellulose with cold water is difficult however: as the powder comes into contact with water, a gluey layer forms around it, and the inside remains dry. A better way is to first mix the powder with hot water, so that the methylcellulose particles are well dispersed in the water, and cool down this dispersion while stirring, leading to the dissolution of those particles.
Methylcellulose has an extremely wide range of uses, of which several are described below.
Methylcellulose is often added to hair shampoos, tooth pastes and liquid soaps, to generate their characteristic thick consistency. This is also done for foods, for example ice cream or croquette. Methylcellulose is also an important emulsifier, preventing the separation of two mixed liquids.
The E number of methylcellulose as food additive is E461.
When eaten, methylcellulose is not absorbed by the intestines but passes through the digestive tract undisturbed. It attracts large amounts of water into the colon, producing a softer and bulkier stool. It is used to treat constipation, diverticulosis, hemorrhoids and irritable bowel syndrome. It should be taken with sufficient amounts of fluid to prevent dehydration.
Because it absorbs water and potentially toxic materials and increases viscosity, it can also be used to treat diarrhea.
Aqueous methylcellulose solutions have been used to slow bacterial cell motility for closer inspection. Changing the amount of methylcellulose in solution allows one to adjust the solution's viscosity.
Methylcellulose is used as sizing in the production of papers and textiles. It protects the fibers from absorbing water or oil.
Methylcellulose is the main ingredient in many wallpaper pastes.
It is also used as a binder in pastel crayons.
Methylcellulose is used in book conservation to loosen and clean off old glue from spines and bookboards.
Methylcellulose finds a major application as a performance additive in construction materials. It is added to mortar dry mixes to improve the mortar's properties such as workability, open and adjustment time, water retention, viscosity, adhesion to surfaces etc. Construction grade methylcellulose is to not to be identified with food and pharmaceutical grade methylcellulose and hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose, since it may be cross-linked with glyoxal for easy dispersion in water.
The construction materials can be cement based or gypsum based. Notable examples of dry mixture mortars which utilize methylcellulose include: tile adhesives, EIFS, insulating plasters, hand-trowed and machine sprayed plaster, stucco, self-leveling flooring, extruded cement panels, skim coats, joint & crack fillers, and tile grouts. Typical usage is about 0.2% ~ 0.5% of total dry powder weight for dry mixture
Derivatives of methylcellulose, which improve upon the performance characteristics, include Methyl Hydroxypropyl Cellulose (MHPC), Hydroxypropyl Methyl Cellulose (HPMC), Methyl Hydroxyethyl Cellulose (MHEC) and Hydroxyethyl Methyl Cellulose (HEMC). These derivatives typically improve the characteristics such as water retention, vertical surface slip-resistance, open time, etc.
Manufacturers of such construction grade methylcellulose include SE Tylose, Dowwolff, Shin-Etsu, Samsung Fine Chemicals, Hercules Aqualon, and various smaller manufacturers.
Methylcellulose is also used in cell culture to study viral replication. Methylcellulose is dissolved in the same nutrient containing media that cells are normally grown in. A single layer of cells are grown on a flat surface, then infected with a virus for a short time. The strength of the viral sample used will determine how many cells get infected during this time. The thick methylcellulose media is then added on top of the cells in place of normal liquid media. As the viruses replicate in the infected cells they are able to spread between cells whose membrances touch each other, but are trapped when they enter the methylcellulose. Only cells closely neighboring an infected cell will become infected and die. This leaves small regions of dead cells called plaques in a larger background of living uninfected cells. The number of plaques formed is determined by the strength of the original sample.
Methylcellulose is also used in the manufacture of vegetarian capsules in nutritional supplements, its edible and non-toxic properties provide a safe alternative to the use of gelatin.
The slimy, gooey appearance of an appropriate preparation of methylcellulose with water, in addition to its non-toxic, non-allergenic, and edible properties, makes it popular for use in special effects for motion pictures and television wherever vile slimes must be simulated. In the film Ghostbusters, for example, the gooey substance that supernatural entities used to “slime” the Ghostbusters was mostly a thick water solution of methylcellulose.
Methylcellulose is often used in the pornographic industry to simulate semen in large quantity, in order to shoot movies related to bukkake fetish. It is preferable to food-based fake semen (e.g., condensed milk) because this last solution can often cause problems, especially when the ingredient used contains sugar. Sugar is thought to encourage yeast infection when it is injected into the vagina.