What Are Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS)?

by Gio
why you can't trust material data safety sheet

“Gio, I’ve heard that this ingredient can cause cancer, birth defects and even lung problems. It’s in 5 of my skincare products. Am I going to die tomorrow?”

I get emails like this a lot. The conversation usually goes like this:

Me: Where did you hear that?

Reader: It was on some random website, I don’t remember the name…

Me: Ok, do you remember what source they cited to support the claim?

Reader: Emmm… no… I didn’t look for any sources… I mean… This thing could cause cancer… I’m panicking here… I don’t have the time to check if they quoted any sources…

Me: I totally get it. Those are scary claims. It’s only natural you panicked. Let me see what I can find, ok?

After some digging, turns out the source of these dangerous and scary claims is almost always a Material Safety Data Sheet (or MSDS for short).

MSDS don’t lie. But they can’t be used to determine if an ingredient is dangerous or not. Let me explain:

What are material safety data sheets?

There’s a reasons why you’ve never heard of MSDS before. They’re documents used by people who handle chemicals at work, like scientists and cosmetic chemists.

Think of them as identity cards for cosmetic ingredients. On these documents, you’ll find the composition of a chemical substance and information on the way it needs to be handled, stored and used, its health and fire hazards and safety emergency procedures (i.e. what to do when something goes wrong).

MSDS are usually supplied by the manufacturer. The law is clear. In the EU at least, you can’t sell a chemical without providing its MSDS to the buyer too.

Wha’s the purpose of material safety data sheets?

MSDS are made to keep the people who work with these chemicals safe.

If you’re a chemical engineer, a soap maker, a cosmetic chemist or anyone who works with chemicals every single day, you need to know how to handle both ingredients, how to clean up any spillage, what to do when an accident happens or a fire starts and what ingredients it will react badly with (you don’t want to cause any explosions or anything like that).

Why you should NOT worry about MDSD

MSDS are for professionals. They were never meant to reach the average consumer. Not because brands have something to hide. It’s because they’re not relevant to the way YOU use these chemicals.

You see, the information in MDSD refers to 100% concentrations of a substance. But no one puts 100% propylene glycol in a skincare product. In your lotions and potions, most ingredients are used at 5% and lower concentrations. 

Concentration matters. Something dangerous in a high dose may be totally harmless at a low dose (yes, there are some substances that are dangerous even in minuscule doses but they don’t end up in your cosmetics.)

Let’s take propylene glycol, for instance. It’s an ingredient that helps stabilise formulations and hydrate skin. The MSDS for  for Propylene Glycol states that it can cause skin irritation, and affect the kidneys, liver and the cardiovascular system.

Isn’t it scary? I don’t blame you for reading this and wanting to throw out all your skincare products with propylene glycol. Don’t. That nasty stuff can happen if you misuse propylene glycol at 100% concentrations. The tiny amount used in cosmetics is too small to do any harm.

It’s the same thing with food and drinks. Red wine is loaded with antioxidants. Drinking a glass at dinner every night may be good for your health. Drinking a bottle or two alone every day? That’ll destroy your liver and kill you.

It is the dose that makes the poison.

The Bottom Line

MSDS are documents that help professionals stay safe and handle chemicals properly when creating your precious skincare products. But they can’t be used to determine the safety of your skincare products.

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Ana August 8, 2012 - 12:30 am

God, I love your brain!

beautifulwithbrains August 8, 2012 - 5:45 am

Ana, awww thank you!

Janessa August 11, 2012 - 1:05 am

Ah, you’re so smart, Gio! <3 I feel smarter now haha 😀 I really like this post

beautifulwithbrains August 11, 2012 - 5:38 am

Janessa, awww thank you! I’m glad you do. 🙂

Rmbutle February 6, 2015 - 9:46 pm

Can you tell me a few examples of things that we use all the time that in no way cause harm to us, but if you look at the MSDS, you would think we were trying to hurt ourselves? One example that’s a hot topic right now is the whole thimerosal in vaccine debate. I’m just looking for some input on something that can be related to use against the irrational scaremongering going around. Thanks

Gio February 7, 2015 - 8:04 pm

Rmbutle, according to MSDS,, pretty much every ingredient can cause irritation to skin and eyes. Of course, it depends on the dose. Citrusy oils could be considered nasty, if you only take into consideration what the MSDSs say. For instance, the MSDS for lemon oil says “Harmful , dangerous for the environment; Irritating to skin and eyes; May cause sensitization by skin contact; Very toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment; and Harmful: may cause lung damage if swallowed”:


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