What Are Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS)?

Every now and then I get an email from one of my readers, who became worried about the toxicity of a particular ingredient after reading of its hazards in its Material Safety Data Sheet (or MSDS for short), asking me if it is really that dangerous and if so, why is it in our cosmetic products? The short answer is that MSDS are truthful, but they can’t be used to asses the safety of an ingredient when used in cosmetics. Here’s why:

What are material safety data sheets?

MSDS are documents that contain information on the handling, storing, health and fire hazards, use, safety emergency procedures and composition of a chemical substance or a mixture of substances (please note that everything is a chemical, even water and plants, so they too have their own MSDS), and are usually supplied by the manufacturer (in the European Union it is illegal to sell a substance without providing its MSDS too).

What is the purpose of material safety data sheets?

The purpose of MSDS is to provide information on the handling of a material, how to clean up eventual spillage, what to do when an accident occurs or when a fire originates, and with what other ingredients it may adversely react. But what most people do not realize is that they were created for professionals such as chemical engineers, soap makers, cosmetic chemists and anyone who handles these materials. They were never intended to be used by the average consumers who haven’t been trained to read them and can thus be easily mislead.

Why you shouldn’t worry about material safety data sheets

Reading material safety data sheets can be really scary if you don’t know how to interpret the data. Most of the myths about the toxicity and dangers of cosmetic ingredients have been originated by people who, often in good faith, have simply misused the information contained in them. It is important to understand that MSDS refer to 100% concentrations of a substance, not to the minuscule amount in which it is used in cosmetics.

For instance, the MSDS for Propylene Glycol (it helps stabilize formulations and attracts water from the environment into the skin helping to keep it hydrated) states that it can cause skin irritation, and affect the kidneys, liver and the cardiovascular system. Now this is really frightening and I can see how someone who doesn’t know what MSDS are can get scared and decide to avoid products that contain it. But these hazards only refer to Propylene Glycol when used in full concentration, not to the small amount used in cosmetics, which doesn’t pose a threat to human health.

It is the dose that makes the poison. For example, drinking a glass of red wine, which contains antioxidants (flavonoids and resveratrol), every day at dinner is beneficial for your health, but if you drink several bottles of it every day, you’ll damage your liver. Everything, including water, can be toxic at very high concentrations. So, next time you come across a MSDS, don’t worry. Read it if you want, but keep in mind that the information provided in them doesn’t apply to the way a substance is used in cosmetics.

The Bottom Line

MSDS are documents designed to give advice on the handling of materials, at their full concentrations, to professionals who come into contact with them, and explain to them what they should do in case an accident happens. But they cannot be used to asses the safety of these substances when used in small amounts in cosmetics.

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  1. Rmbutle says

    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 says

      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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