Wikipedia says

WD-40's formula is a trade secret

How can it remain a secret today? Can't mass spectrometers, NMR and other equipment be used to determine the structure of the compounds that go into it?

To put the value of the secret into perspective, the WD-40 company (whose flagship product is its namesake) makes \$76M a year and is currently worth \$2.7B


2 Answers 2


"How can it remain secret?". Trivial answer is - it can't (it isn't).

WD40 is a Fast Moving Consumer Good (FMCG). It is also a reasonably cheap product - as an industrial chemist this suggests at least two things to me:

  1. It doesn't contain anything rare or expensive
  2. It isn't difficult to manufacture

As an ex-petroleum chemical analyst, with access to a reasonably complete lab, checks to do :

  • Get the Safety Data Sheet (below is composite information from a number of WD-40 Penetrant SDS)

    cas %

  • 64742-47-8 50-70 isoparaffins petroleum hydrotreated HFP

    64742-56-9 30-35 paraffinic distillate, light, solvent-dewaxed

    61789-86-4 <5 calcium petroleum sulfonate

    111-76-2 1-3 ethylene glycol monobutyl ether

    Not Available 1 fragrance

  • Check the SDS info using physical/chemical testing If you have the gear available : Density Distillation FTIR GC (GC-MS if you have it) AAS/ICP - metals (ICP multielement would be best) CHOSNP analysis for hetero atoms

  • Rebuild the product from data. Check to see if it performs the same.

  • Improve on the product (believe me - WD-40 is NOT the be all and end all of penetrating oils - technology has improved since its formulation).

  • $\begingroup$ No one is asking for the precations, read the question carefully $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2020 at 8:20
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ What are "precations"? The questioner asked why the product's formulation couldn't be determined by spectroscopic/chemical means. Trivial answer is - it can (it has been). The process is trivial if you have the right equipment and background.I included a schema to follow to derive the formulation - it completes the answer. $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2020 at 8:38

A fundamental problem in analytical chemistry is that we never analyze a complete unknown mixture simply because of time and money constraints. Finding each and every component of a complex unknown mixture is quite impossible. NMR is good for pure compounds only, mass spectrometer is "blind" to several analytes because they do not ionize very well. It is unable to distinguish the masses of isomers. You may ask what can't we make synthetic gasoline? The reason is that it literally contains thousand and thousands of compounds and people are even discovering more by using million dollar Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometers. So back to the question, is it worth analyzing a completely unknown mixture?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Having said that, WD-40 is rather far from being completely unknown. $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2019 at 6:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ No idea if it's worth it (It's big business AFAIK). How much do you think it would cost to analyze it? $\endgroup$
    – MWB
    Dec 21, 2019 at 6:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Several thousand dollars at the minimum. See here, someone attempted gas chromatography wired.com/2009/04/st-whatsinside-6 $\endgroup$
    – AChem
    Dec 21, 2019 at 6:26
  • $\begingroup$ WD-40's annual revenue is \$381M and income is \$76M (they have other products too though) $\endgroup$
    – MWB
    Dec 21, 2019 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, NMR can handle mixtures even if it does have a somewhat high detection limit and all those overlapping alkanes might prove challenging (if not impossible) to disentangle. Not push-button technology exactly. You can also use hyphenated techniques (GC-NMR) in parallel with GC-MS which would be a step up from the quick analysis in the linked wired article. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn
    Dec 21, 2019 at 12:26

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