Zinc chloride and calcium chloride, as well as potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide (and many different salts) are so hygroscopic that they readily dissolve in the water they absorb: this property is called deliquescence (see below). Sulfuric acid is not only hygroscopic in high concentrated form, its solutions are hygroscopic down to concentrations of 10 Vol-% or below.
Because of their affinity for atmospheric moisture, hygroscopic materials may need to be stored in sealed containers. When added to foods or other materials for the express purpose of maintaining moisture content, such substances are known as humectants.
Materials and compounds exhibit different hygroscopic properties, and this difference can lead to detrimental effects, such as stress concentration in composite materials. The amount a particular material or compound is affected by ambient moisture may be considered its coefficient of hygroscopic expansion (CHE) (also referred to as CME, coefficient of moisture expansion) or coefficient of hygroscopic contraction (CHC)—the difference between the two terms being a difference in sign convention and a difference in point of view as to whether the difference in moisture leads to contraction or expansion.
A common example where difference in this hygroscopic property can be seen is in a paperback book cover. Often, in a relatively moist environment, the book cover will curl away from the rest of the book. The unlaminated side of the cover absorbs more moisture than the laminated side and increases in area, causing a stress that curls the cover toward the laminated side. This is similar to the function of a bi-metallic strip. Inexpensive gauge-type hygrometers frequently seen domestically make use of this principle.
The similar-sounding but unrelated word hydroscopic is sometimes used in error for hygroscopic. A hydroscope is an optical device used for making observations deep under water.
The seeds of some grasses have hygroscopic extensions that bend with changes in humidity, enabling them to disperse over the ground. An example is Needle-and-Thread, Hesperostipa comata. Each seed has an awn that twists several turns when the seed is released. Increased moisture causes it to untwist, and, upon drying, to twist again, thus the seed is drilled into the ground.
Thorny devils collect moisture in the dry desert via night-time condensation of dew which forms on their skin and is channeled to their mouths in hygroscopic grooves between the spines of their skin. Water also collects in these grooves during rain events. Capillary action allows the lizard to suck in water from all over its body.
Deliquescent materials are substances (mostly salts) that have a strong affinity for moisture and will absorb relatively large amounts of water from the atmosphere if exposed to it, forming a liquid solution. Deliquescent salts include calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, zinc chloride, potassium carbonate, potassium phosphate, carnallite, ferric ammonium citrate, potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide. Due to their very high affinity for water, these substances are often used as desiccants, which is also an application for concentrated sulfuric and phosphoric acids. These compounds are used in the chemical industry to remove the water produced by chemical reactions, to increase the yields. In everyday life people are most likely to come across deliquescence when they spill some instant coffee. This turns from a dry powder to sticky liquid when exposed to air for a few hours.