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Glove Up! Use personal protective equipment

What is a solvent?

From Glove Up! Protect yourselves and others while working with solvents

A solvent is a substance used to dissolve or dilute another substance to create a solution. Water is the most common solvent, but most solvents used in industry are ‘organic’, petroleum-based chemicals. They are often mixtures and can be very hazardous. Often liquids with the flammable symbol on the label contain solvents.

How do solvents enter the body?

There are three main ways that solvents enter the body:

  • Inhalation – Inhalation is the most common. Most solvents evaporate into the air very quickly. The fumes and gases that result can easily be breathed in, passed through the lungs into the bloodstream and transported to organs such as the brain and liver.

  • Skin absorption – With direct contact, solvents can be absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin even if it is healthy.

  • Ingestion – Solvent droplets can collect on the hairs in the nose and be sniffed in or swallowed. Touching the mouth with contaminated hands, food and cigarettes can also result in ingestion.

What are the health risks?

Solvents have different effects on humans depending on the type of solvent, the length and frequency of exposure, and the concentration of the solvent in the inhaled air.

Short term exposure can cause:

  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Dermatitis or skin problems (drying, cracking, redness, blistering)
  • Poor co-ordination
  • Nausea (feeling sick)

These effects usually occur quickly. Exposure to very high concentrations can lead to unconsciousness or even death.

Long term, repeated exposure may lead to:

  • Neurotoxicity (damage to the brain and nervous system)
  • Skin problems/dermatitis
  • Liver and/or kidney damage
  • Fertility Problems (in both men and women)
  • Damage to the blood forming system
  • Damage to the foetus (in pregnant women)

Some solvents, for example Benzene and Toluene, can cause cancer (are carcinogenic). Some solvents will have greater health effects if you smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol soon after exposure.

For more details view the symptoms of exposure here...

What is a carcinogen?

A carcinogen is defined as any substance or agent that tends to produce cancer. Carcinogens are divided into two categories. Chemicals are placed into these categories based on evidence of exposure to them leading to the development of cancer.

Classes of carcinogens

  • Category 1 – Known or presumed human carcinogens based on human evidence.
  • Category 2 – Suspected human carcinogens.

Commonly used solvents (many are used for non-paint industries)

Some solvents commonly used in industry are:

  • Acetone - industrial coating
  • Trichloro ethylene - degreasing
  • Toluene - industrial coating/manufacturing
  • Methylene chloride - paint removal
  • Methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) - printing ink
  • Perchloro ethylene - dry cleaning
  • White spirit - paints, printing ink
  • Benzene - varnishes, paints, adhesives

Workers in the following industries may be particularly at risk:

  • Cleaning
  • Dry cleaning
  • Spray painting
  • Painting
  • Chemical manufacturing
  • Plastics
  • Printing
  • Footwear

For more information on the individual solvents used in your industry some suggested websites to visit are:


Glove Up! Project yourselves and others while working with solvents

These web resources have been created by Annette and Tony Gibson to provide basic information on the dangers of using solvents in the workplace and how to protect yourself from exposure. The information is provided as a guideline only and not as a replacement for professional advice. If you have any questions, thoughts or comments you'd like to share with us please email us at

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