What is an MSDS?
An MSDS is an informational sheet which lists any potentially harmful ingredients in a product, along with instructions for safe storage, handling, and disposal. These sheets are prepared by the manufacturer in order to comply with OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard for chemical exposure in the workplace. Although manufacturers are only legally required to provide this information to employers, reputable companies make it available to anyone who asks.
Where can I find one?
There are several ways to find an MSDS:
- Look for the product in the Household Products Database or the National MSDS Repository.
- Perform a Google search for "msds productname."
- Contact the manufacturer's customer service department and request that the MSDS be e-mailed to you.
- Check with the OSHA compliance officer at your workplace.
Why should I care?
I mostly look up MSDS information to satisfy idle curiosity.
An MSDS lists the active ingredients in a product. You can use it to make informed choices as a consumer. If you object to the widespread use of Triclosan in toothpastes and deodorants, the MSDS will help you steer clear of it. If you have multiple chemical sensitivities, the MSDS can help you avoid products containing compounds similar to those to which you're allergic. It's also a good resource for budget-conscious consumers. By reading its MSDS, I learned that my mother-in-law's favorite carpet deodorizer powder is nothing more than sodium sulfate (to absorb moisture) and perfume. I also found that her "air freshener" contains a mild nasal anesthetic and lemon oil. Based on this information, I convinced her to try substituting baking soda for the carpet powder and potpourri for the liquid air freshener. It's equally effective, and much cheaper.
The MSDS will also tell you how to safely store and use the products. For example, this MSDS for generic bleach says that it is dangerous to store it at high temperatures, keep it in metal containers, or mix it with ammonia. The MSDS for Tide Granular Laundry Detergent points out that, while the product is nontoxic in normal use, it is a respiratory irritant; you should not use a vacuum to clean up spills. The MSDS for Soy-120 candle wax, a popular wax used in container candles, warns against using water to put out fires started by these candles.
Every time you request an MSDS, you make manufacturers aware that there is a demand for this safety information. This gives them an incentive to make it available online.
What if I can't find the MSDS online, and the company refuses to send it to me?
Some manufacturers, like Zero Pet Odor, will not release MSDS information unless you submit an official request on company letterhead. If this happens to you, write back to let them know why you won't be buying their product:
We do not deal with companies who fail to make full safety information available upon request. Until your policy is revised, we will be doing business with [a competitor that does provide an MSDS].
And then boycott that product!