Safety Articles

The Reality of Epoxy Sensitization

Photos courtesy of Epoxy School and National Institutes of Health

Have you ever gotten, or heard of someone who’s gotten, a skin rash when working with epoxies? Well, that skin rash could well have been a form of epoxy sensitization. 

In simple terms, epoxy sensitization describes the process by which your body becomes more and more sensitive to epoxy products and/or the chemicals used in them. Perhaps the most common sign of epoxy sensitization occurs on the skin in the form of rashes; however, irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs can also occur.

The interesting thing about sensitization in general is that everyone reacts differently. Some become sensitized to certain chemicals very quickly, while others can experience high-level exposure their entire lives and never feel a thing!

Another interesting fact is that sensitization typically isn’t localized, which means that the symptoms don’t always line up with the cause. There have been contractors hospitalized, unable to see out of either eye, yet they didn’t get product anywhere near their face. So how can you protect yourself?

Avoiding Epoxy Sensitization: Tips
Obviously the thought of an itchy skin rash or swollen eyes isn’t very pleasant at all, and if you want a long, successful career in epoxy application, you must protect yourself. Here are a few key tips about avoiding epoxy sensitization:

  • Treat every chemical as though it will cause sensitization and avoid skin contact. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. If you get product on your clothing, then remove the item and wash the affected area with soap and water. If you wear short-sleeved shirts, then use barrier cream on your arms and hands.
  • Start wearing gloves. Many contractors shy away from using disposable latex gloves because they can be hard to change when their hands become sweaty. An effective way around this is to put on a thin pair of cotton gloves underneath the latex gloves, as the cotton absorbs sweat and makes it easier to change. Double gloving is also an easy way to keep clean: if the top gloves get dirty, you can just rip them off and keep going. While on the topic of latex gloves, you may want to buy powder-free gloves, as users can actually develop sensitization to the powder/sweat combination produced while they work.
  • Work as cleanly as possible and wipe dirty items on rags, not shirts or pants. Some chemicals will cause sensitization much quicker than others. Generally it’s not the epoxy resin (aka Part A) that causes the problem but the curing agent (aka Part B). Some curing agents are more reactive than others and can cause sensitization quickly if not handled carefully. Also, there are certain parts of your body that are more sensitive than others when it comes to skin contact. The underside of your forearms is a common point of exposure and often the first area to show up with a rash. It should go without saying, but as a reminder: wash your hands before eating or going to the bathroom, as these regions are also very sensitive.
  • Wear a mask. This should be a given for solvent-borne users to avoid breathing in harmful solvents; however, even solvent-less epoxies give off a small amount of vapor that can build up in confined spaces and cause problems.
  • Do not use a solvent to remove epoxy from your skin! If you learn nothing else from this article, take this away. The solvent breaks down the epoxy and makes it much easier to remove, but it also makes it much easier to penetrate through your skin and enter your body. This fact should be kept in mind for solvent-borne epoxies, as these products already have solvents in them that make skin contact even more dangerous in this context. 

I’m Sensitized. Now What?
Ok, so you get that epoxy sensitization isn’t a good thing, and you know how it can be avoided. What happens if all that fails and you become sensitized, or you’re reading this and are already sensitized?

If you are already sensitized to epoxies, then it generally goes one of two ways:

  1. You might be lucky and only develop sensitivity to a particular raw material within the epoxy — something that isn’t found in every product. In this case you can find a suitable alternative that did the same job and you can continue working (as long as you’re working cleanly). 
  2. You might be unlucky and become sensitized to the epoxy resin, which is a much bigger problem because it could mean every epoxy product is off limits. This situation is the real tragedy of epoxy sensitization because it can ultimately strip you of your livelihood. Your body is telling you that it can’t cope with the chemical exposure and, unfortunately, the only option at this point would be to seek another profession.

From the Start
If you want to work in the epoxy industry over a long period, then you need to develop the right habits from day one: work cleanly, protect your body, clean up without solvents, and read material safety data sheets to understand what the potential dangers are. If you ignore any or all of these things, epoxy sensitization could make your life misery and even spell the end of your career.

About the Author
Jack Josephsen entered the wider coating industry in 1999 through his first company, Tech Adhesives. It was set up as a Research and Development entity that looked at three specific fields of chemistry: rubber, specialist adhesive primers, and epoxies, of which epoxies became the primary field of interest. From residential flooring to off-shore repairs, he has applied his unique “real-world perspective” to every epoxy field  and in doing so built an extensive knowledge base covering product sales, formulation, manufacturing, application, training, troubleshooting, and project management. Today, he runs Real World Epoxies, a company that uses his experience and knowledge in this area to provide business owners with clarity, direction, and confidence. For more information, contact: Jack Josephsen, 

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