Silica gel is most commonly encountered in everyday life as beads packed in a semi-permeable plastic. In this form, it is used as a desiccant to control local humidity in order to avoid spoilage of some goods. Because of poisonous dopants (see below) and their very high adsorption of moisture, silica gel packets usually bear warnings for the user not to eat the contents. If consumed, the pure silica gel is unlikely to cause acute or chronic illness, but would be problematic nonetheless. However, some packaged desiccants may include fungicide and/or pesticide poisons. Food-grade desiccant should not include any poisons which would cause long-term harm to humans if consumed in the quantities normally included with the items of food. A chemically similar substance with far greater porosity is aerogel.
In World War II, silica gel was indispensable in the war effort for keeping penicillin dry, protecting military equipment from moisture damage, as a fluid cracking catalyst for the production of high octane gasoline, and as a catalyst support for the manufacture of butadiene from ethanol, feedstock for the synthetic rubber program.
Silica gel's high surface area (around 800 m²/g) allows it to absorb water readily, making it useful as a desiccant (drying agent). Once saturated with water, the gel can be regenerated by heating to 120 °C (250 °F) for two hours. Some types of silica gel will "pop" when exposed to enough water.
Silica gel may also be used to keep the relative humidity inside a high frequency radio or satellite transmission system waveguide as low as possible. Excessive moisture buildup within a waveguide can cause arcing inside the waveguide itself, damaging the power amplifier feeding it. Also, the beads of water that form and condense inside the waveguide change the characteristic impedance and frequency, impeding the signal. It is common for a small compressed air system (similar to a small home aquarium pump) to be employed to circulate the air inside the waveguide over a jar of silica gel.
Silica gel is also used to dry the air in industrial compressed air systems. Air from the compressor discharge flows through a bed of silica gel beads. The silica gel adsorbs moisture from the air, preventing damage to the compressed air users due to condensation or moisture. The same system is used to dry the compressed air on railway locomotives, where condensation and ice in the brake air pipes can lead to brake failure.
Silica gel is sometimes used as a preservation tool to control relative humidity in museum and library exhibitions and storage.
Chelating groups have also been covalently bound to silica gel. These materials have the ability to remove metal ions selectively from aqueous media. Chelating groups can be covalently bound to polyamines that have been grafted onto a silica gel surface producing a material of greater mechanical integrity. Silica gel is also combined with alkali metals to form a M-SG reducing agent.