Org Prep Daily

February 19, 2007

Ethanolamine can save your skin

Filed under: procedures — milkshake @ 12:37 am


I did many terrible things in the lab over the years. One of the earliest mishaps involved a beaker filled with thionyl chloride – about 250mL of it – that I spilled on myself. My advisor was standing next to me as this was happening – and in one instant motion he grabbed a 1 liter bottle of ethanolamine and poured it on me. A cloud of white smoke rose up, I ripped my clothes off and run for the shower. I suffered no burns from the incident.

From that time on, a friendly ethanolamine bottle has been sitting on the shelf in my lab. I later worked at a combichem company and accidental TFA splashes were a frequent occurrence there. Ethanolamine proved to be enormously useful in preventing TFA burns. 

There are many corosive liquids that soak into skin and cause painful burns: acyl chlorides, alkylating agents, bromine, strong acids like HCl in dioxane. The problem is that water, bicarbonate and acetone washing has limited utility if the agent is allowed to soak in – the burn develops from within. But if one applies ethanolamine onto the affected area the amine soaks into skin and neutralizes the corrosive agent there without causing much additional damage. Unlike many amines, ethanolamine is non toxic – it is actually a building block of some phospholipids within cell membranes.

Ethanolamine is applied on the skin in undiluted form for about half a minute and is washed off with water. Afterwards it helps to put a lotion or ointment on the affected area because skin tends to get de-greased and reddened from ethanolamine. A sterile bandage is probably a good idea. Ethanolamine must not be used in or around the eyes.  For HF burns, calcium gluconate in glycerin is more efficient since Ca(2+) can neutralise the toxic effects of fluoride. 


  1. Very informative and practical.

    Did you walk away from the thionyl chloride incident totally scot-free? No pain, no suffering?

    Comment by Tom — February 19, 2007 @ 11:35 am

  2. Totally scot free. We needed lots of anhydrous CdCl2 for CdMe2, for making Ph-P(Me)Cl from PhPCl2. Anhydrous CdCl2 is conveniently obtained by refluxing the hydrate with SOCl2. Not very pleasant chemistry – volatile phosphines stink and oxidize on air.

    Comment by milkshake — February 19, 2007 @ 7:59 pm

  3. You were very lucky. One day I grabbed a beaker from a rookie who was weighing huge amounts of SOCl2 outside of his hood. I got a whiff, and my nose had been leaking blood for more than a month; it was quite horrible and I thought I would end like a WWI vet…

    Thanks for the ethanolamine tip. Do you have other bottles like this one next to your hood?

    Comment by Spiro — February 19, 2007 @ 11:00 pm

  4. I don’t have, right now – apart from bicarbonate solution that I use for chemistry also – but there were moments in a project at the previous company when people were doing multigram DAST substitution reactions and some even run diazotation reactions on large scale using pyridine.9HF complex as a solvent, 200mL per reaction – and bottles with the calcium gluconate sludge in glycerin were mandatory everywhere around them, so were full facial shields and elbow-long gloves when working with the stuff. (Our safety officer was appaled when he found out what we were up to – he held special class about working with HF and he also advised the poison center and burn unit at a nearby hospital that they may get some partially-dissolved people from us, soon)

    Comment by milkshake — February 19, 2007 @ 11:43 pm

  5. I think Milkshake has his head up his ass. If he worked in my institution, I’d take his ethanolamine bottle and the rest of his chemicals away from him until such time as he could pass my retraining program. Alas, he may be beyond help and would have to be sent down the road.

    Medical professionals at my institution have emphasized that a 15 minute DELUGE of water (except for HF) from the required nearby shower is the only remedy for chemical injuries — even if the agent is highly water reactive as with Milkshake’s earliest mishap relayed above. My institution would provide NO legal assistance to an employee involved with treating a splash with any other agent – even bicarb. Our policy is written, all personnel have been told the policy. Breech of the policy results in disciplinary action.

    Have a lovely day, free of mishaps.


    CSULB Science Safety Office

    Comment by Jeff Mellon — February 23, 2007 @ 11:23 am

  6. There is a good point behind Jeff’s comments.

    I pulled the MSDS, and hope we are more like rats than rabbits.


    Harmful by ingestion, inhalation or if absorbed through skin. Severe eye, skin and respiratory irritant. Corrosive – causes burns. May cause CNS depression. Very destructive of mucous membranes. Typical TLV/TWA 3 ppm. Typical STEL 6 ppm.

    Toxicity data
    (The meaning of any abbreviations which appear in this section is given here.)
    ORL-RAT LD50 2100 mg kg-1
    SKN-RAT LD50 1500 mg kg-1
    IPR-RAT LD50 981 mg kg-1
    IVN-RAT LD50 800 mg kg-1
    ORL-MUS LD50 700 mg kg-1
    ORL-RBT LD50 1000 mg kg-1
    SKN-RBT LD50 1 mg kg

    Comment by BChem — February 23, 2007 @ 11:52 am

  7. I would want to see the skin/rabbit test reproduced . . .

    Toxicology may be voodoo, but a factor of a thousand difference seems high, especially since the oral data is pretty consistant between species.

    Bathing in it probably wouln’t be good, but there are OTC topicals with creepy msds forms (benzoyl peroxide, for example). Not that they are good for you either, but that’s off topic.

    Also, is Jeff being facetious?

    Comment by CET — February 23, 2007 @ 12:23 pm

  8. No, he is a dick. Ethanolamine prevents organic acid burns. The label on the bottle says that ethanolamine is a corrosive agent but I used it on my skin many times (last time two days ago, I got a perfluorobutyric acid dropplet on my hand that I did not notice until it started hurting) and it always worked great, instantly, without ill effects. But you can’t use it in the eye, and you are not supposed to leave ethanolamine on the skin forever – after half a minute you wash it away with water and put a lotion on and/or bandage. One should start by washing the skin with water and acetone first, to get the bulk of chemical off, but the burn relief will not happen until you put ethanolamine on because by the time the burn starts to hurt, a greasy acidic substance has had already soaked into skin. I had some thankful colleagues over the years.

    It kind of bothers me when an university official proclaims that their school would refuse a legal help to a burn victim, and would take disciplinary actions against the victim, for not adhering to the standard safety operating procedure mandated by a written policy. Especially if the standard procedure wouldn’t be too effective in this case.

    There are two kinds of safety officers: one that actualy tries to help people, to make them work better. The other kind worries about covering his ass. Not coincidentally, the other kind also likes to throw their weight around. Threatening people with dismissal and sending them to punitive courses for re-education. All I can say is that I am delighted to work at an institute where they actually don’t have such pompous trolls in the Safety Office.

    Comment by milkshake — February 23, 2007 @ 3:40 pm

  9. Is that your tummy? Very impressive for a chemist…. 🙂

    Comment by Javaslinger — February 24, 2007 @ 11:30 am

  10. I was about to display my hairy lager-tummy (to prove that no lasting thionyl chloride damage occured) but then I realized that it could be unsettling, to see it at lunchtime. I hope that the surrogate tummy that I found is more pleasing to behold.

    Comment by milkshake — February 24, 2007 @ 6:46 pm

  11. I find the tummy in question disturbing. plz flip upside down k tx.

    Comment by kinasepro — February 25, 2007 @ 2:02 pm

  12. The young missy is positioned correctly. Please rotate your monitor if the apparition of hair getting stuck in my denture frightens you.

    Comment by milkshake — February 25, 2007 @ 5:44 pm

  13. Ethanolamin gegen Thionylchlorid

    Falls man mal SOCl2 auf die Haut bekommen hat, sollte man sie mit Ethanolamin abwaschen um Verbrennungen zu vermeiden.
    There are many corosive liquids that soak into skin and cause painful burns: acyl chlorides, alkylating agents, bromine, strong acid…

    Trackback by — May 14, 2007 @ 8:07 pm

  14. I am so happy finding this website and milkshake’s advice from the same experience as mine. I recently got a burn from some chemical, probably thionyl chloride. I am not sure because I couldn’t remember when I got the chemical and how. Actually, I didn’t realize it was a chemical burn until 3 hours later after my experiment using thionyl chloride. It started as a very minor skin damage which looked like caused by a common heat burn which did happen during the experiment as well when I was trying to move a heating block with my gloved finger. But things changed after two hours. When I came home, I washed my hand and put a Bandy on the wound and started cooking. During the cooking, I caught some water in the Bandy, but not very much. So I didn’t change it until two hours later when I have to go to bath.I unwraped the Bandy and was terified by what I saw: all the skin covered by the Bandy’s bandage area becomes severely burned, three times larger and deeper than the burn before I put the bandy on. Then I relized that it was not a heat burn but a chemical burn which can develop as that. I went to the clinic of our school the next day, and the nurse just treated it as a heat burn by coating it with some polysporin and another piece of bandy. But they did recommmend me to leave the skin open to the air when I don’t have to use my fingers and this really helps. However, after I traveled out of town for the whole day today,3rd day after the burn, of course with the bandy on for the whole day, I found new damage developed even under the sticky part of the bandy: a piece of skin actually was peeled out with the adhesive part of the bandy when I unwraped it. What can I do with it? I am worried the chemical has already soaked in my skin and keep burning my skin as long as I give it a chance. Can ethanolamine help with this kind of damage that happened already? Can I still use it even without knowing it was 100% thionyl chloride that caused the burn? Where can I get ethanolamine? Please help me…Milkshake, or anyone who have experienced the same thing before. Very appreciated!

    Comment by Lucy — January 26, 2008 @ 12:34 am

  15. well the idea is to apply it briefly on the affected skin very soon after the exposure, before a blister or deeper damage develops, then wash it away. You should not use ethanolamine on old burns: ethanolamine is somewhat corrosive by itself and it is not gonna do you any good on a dead skin or in a festering wound.

    Ethanolamine = aminoethanol is a cheap chemical which you find in every chemical company catalog.

    If you were asked to work with thionyl chloride as a freshman, you should have been warned about the high nastiness of SOCl2 and advised specifically about taking the care to protect yourself when working with it – the gloves, hood sash down etc – the “read the label” is not good enough in this case. (Maybe you consider talking to an injury lawyer).

    Comment by milkshake — January 26, 2008 @ 1:30 am

  16. Thanks! Milkshake!
    They did warned us to be careful with it and we have to work in fumehood with gloves on. However, it was a crowded undergraduate organic lab. And in order to finish all the tasks during the 6 hours and not to be left behind, things were always done in a hurry. So although we are wearing gloves when work with chemicals, almost everybody wears the same gloves to write the notebook outside of the fumehood when waiting for the reaction to be finished. So everything spilled on the gloves contaminates the notebook and become potential hazard. Actually for my burn, I remembered that I got some spill on my gloves to be transfered to my notebook when I wrote down something on it and then somehow my ungloved finger touched it by accident. I can still find the trace of the droplet on my notebook…
    I guess even my burn can be finally cured, there would be a scar left on my finger forever. I think lab instructors should teach students a good habbit of working in a lab with hazardous chemicals, especially for those freshmen. Just telling them the hazardous truth is not enough. When the gloves should be on and when the gloves should be off are very important. And it is also important to keep others safe when some equipment has to be shared. Besides, some assignment reading and writing down the MSDS reagarding each harzadous chemical, which is required in some of my previous labs, is very necessary for an organic lab. Otherwise, students may not pay enough attention on it and the golve contaminating things may happen as in my case. Anyway, for me, some glove-procedure or habbit must be formed and followed in my future labs because I learned the importance of it from my scar…tears…
    Hope others would learn from mine not from themselves.

    Comment by Lucy — January 26, 2008 @ 11:10 am

  17. My dear Milkshake,

    I started to work at the good old Hoechst company at the age of 14. And of course I had some very little accidents. But once you learned your job, you do not have burns and trouble all the time. I feared HF, of course. But with most other chemicals in the lab, gloves give a false feeling of security. The real point is not to spill and mess around with chemicals.

    Regards from Frankfurt

    Comment by Wilfried Schuler — December 25, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

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