Sea ice plays an important role in Earth’s climate system. The lack of direct indications of past sea ice coverage, however, means that there is limited knowledge of the sensitivity and rate at which sea ice dynamics are involved in amplifying climate changes. As such, there is a need to develop new proxy records for reconstructing past sea ice conditions. Here we review the advances that have been made in using chemical tracers preserved in ice cores to determine past changes in sea ice cover around Antarctica. Ice core records of sea salt concentration show promise for revealing patterns of sea ice extent particularly over glacial–interglacial time scales. In the coldest climates, however, the sea salt signal appears to lose sensitivity and further work is required to determine how this proxy can be developed into a quantitative sea ice indicator. Methane sulphonic acid (MSA) in near-coastal ice cores has been used to reconstruct quantified changes and interannual variability in sea ice extent over shorter time scales spanning the last ∼160 years, and has potential to be extended to produce records of Antarctic sea ice changes throughout the Holocene. However the MSA ice core proxy also requires careful site assessment and interpretation alongside other palaeoclimate indicators to ensure reconstructions are not biased by non-sea ice factors, and we summarise some recommended strategies for the further development of sea ice histories from ice core MSA. For both proxies the limited information about the production and transfer of chemical markers from the sea ice zone to the Antarctic ice sheets remains an issue that requires further multidisciplinary study. Despite some exploratory and statistical work, the application of either proxy as an indicator of sea ice change in the Arctic also remains largely unknown. As information about these new ice core proxies builds, so too does the potential to develop a more comprehensive understanding of past changes in sea ice and its role in both long and short-term climate changes.