Reading and understanding Safety Data Sheets, aka SDS (formerly known as MSDS)

education msds sds

I had to learn about Safety Data Sheets (SDS) many different times throughout my schooling and then later in life in my professional career as well. It occurred to me that maybe not everyone is familiar with them and I find them immensely helpful to refer to from time to time so I wanted to share what they are used for and why they may be helpful to you someday.

Safety Data Sheets were formerly known as Material Safety Data Sheets or MSDS, this terminology change was announced in 2013 and enforced in the end of 2015 to mid 2016 with the goal of making them more consistent and easier to understand across the board. They now adhere to something called the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). There are even pictograms associated with this new system which is helpful for a quick reference.

There are 16 distinct sections to an SDS sheet:

1. Identification

2. Hazard(s) Identification

3. Composition/Information on Ingredients

4. First Aid Measures

5. Fire Fighting Measures

6. Accidental Release Measures

7. Handling & Storage

8. Exposure Controls / Personal Protection

9. Physical & Chemical Properties

10. Stability and Reactivity

11. Toxicology Information

12. Ecological Information

13. Disposal Considerations

14. Transport Information

15. Regulatory Information

16. Other Information


The first 8 sections are set up for quick reference for the people transporting and handling the chemicals as well as any emergency responders should there be an issue.

Sections 9-11 handles technical and scientific data. Sections 12-15 are not actually mandatory but they are required to be GHS compliant and section 16 will contain information on the SDS itself such as revision dates and changes since last version.

Employers are responsible for making sure there is an SDS sheet for every chemical on site and they must be available for employee reference in their immediate work area. These would most likely be for any cleaning agents in the workplace however essentially ANY product or raw material (i.e. base ingredients used to make soap and cosmetics too) can have an SDS sheet. 

Even "natural" products such as Dr. Bronner's Soap has SDS sheets as well as base ingredients such as Olive Oil. I am pointing this out because I have heard misinformed people many times refer to the information on an SDS sheet of a raw material while trying to make a point about the safety of the entire product. This is always going to be inaccurate because the SDS sheet is informing about the raw material in its most concentrated form and not as the material as used within a formulation in a diluted form.

I have read countless times someone who pointed out that the person handling "xyz" ingredient has to wear a respirator or hazmat suit or face mask to handle the ingredient so that must mean it's not safe. WRONG! This reasoning could not be further from the truth. I wear gloves and sometimes a respirator when mixing sodium hydroxide which is a necessary part of making handmade soap but that in no way means that the soap is dangerous or unsafe simply because sodium hydroxide was used in the making process. It simply means that in its concentrated form I am aware that it could cause me harm so I protect myself. 

So there you have it, SDS sheets in a nutshell. Links are below for further reading if you wish.

Stay wise my friends, 

~Your Soapsmith

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