Material Safety Data Sheets (or MSDS, for short) are very useful documents, or they are very misleading – it all depends on how you use them! This is because these documents often get into the hands of people who understand neither their real purpose, nor the actual information imparted or, even (in some cases) willfully misuse the information contained therein.
What is an MSDS?
These documents contain important safety information about substances and/or mixtures of substances. In the European Union, it is illegal to supply any chemical substance, or blend of chemical substances without an appropriate MSDS, which must comply with a specific format as laid down in EU Regulations. Many other territories have their own, similar, regulations.
Why do MSDS exist?
The purpose of these documents is SOLELY to give guidance on the safe handling of substances both for the benefit of people who handle the substance in question and in the event of any spillage or fire involving the presence of the material.
So what’s the problem with MSDS?
The problem arises when these documents get into the hands of people who neither need to use them for their intended purpose, nor know how to correctly interpret the information contained therein. It is a common sight on many blogs owned by what I will refer to as “chemophobes” (for the sake of simplicity) to see the statements made on an MSDS for a specific substance being quoted, such as “causes burns”, or “may cause damage to mucous membranes”, for example. The problem here is that no attempt is made to distinguish between the adverse effects potentially caused by the neat material (to which the MSDS actually refers), and the absence of those effects in the final product in which the substance is used. In other words, propylene glycol, for example, is portrayed as having exactly the same effect when used at a few percent in a cosmetic as it does when it is handled as the 100% pure material. To any rational person, this makes sense when it is properly explained, but when this information is used entirely out of context, it is extremely misleading. It is an unfortunate fact, but true that many, if not most, of the internet myths about adverse effects of cosmetic ingredients originate from the misuse of the information contained in these documents. MSDS highlight any hazards involved in the handling of the substance in question, and prescribe the appropriate personal protection required (eg. gloves, goggles, etc) but it is not the role of the document to make a judgement on the risk caused by exposure to anything other than the substance as described.
I was recently involved in a discussion on LinkedIn, and one of the contributors stated that she could not envisage why anyone would want to use mineral oil on the skin, as the MSDS stated that it should be washed off by flushing with water for 15 minutes. I explained to her that it was very different to have neat mineral oil in contact with skin than to have a much lower percentage contained within a cosmetic product, as it behaves differently at lower concentrations. The fact that no-one is ever told to flush their skin with water for 15 minutes after coming into contact with a cosmetic containing mineral oil because it is not necessary was something beyond her comprehension.
MSDS are useful ONLY when handling the material to which the document refers. To use that information to describe the effects of the said material when mixed with other substances is simply not valid (there may even be interactions that could increase the hazard/risk!) and any blog or web site that uses this type of information is not to be fully trusted as the blog owner clearly does not understand the science, or the concept of “hazard = risk x exposure”. Taken separately, hazard and exposure are almost meaningless. It is only when the risk is assessed by considering both of these factors that any meaningful measurement of safety can be applied. This fact is also the basic reason why the EWG Skin Deep database fails to deliver on its claims, as it only considers hazard.
In the hands of the wrong people, these documents become Machiavellian Scaremongering Data Sheets!