Effects of Acetone on Skin

Acetone, also called propanone, is a chemical used to make many nail polish removers. It is also an ingredient in other household products, such as lacquer, varnishes, and paint removers. While it's found in many products we use, acetone can be harmful in cases of long-term exposure or overexposure.

A man removing the nail polish on his fingernails with a cotton pad

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What Is Acetone?

A small amount of acetone is produced by our bodies during the process of metabolism. When metabolism breaks down food and turns it into glucose for energy, insulin moves the glucose into cells from the bloodstream. If the body isn’t getting enough carbohydrates, the amount of glucose is limited, leaving the body to use fat stores as fuel. When fat is broken down by the liver, it creates chemicals known as ketones. Acetone is the main ketone created in this process.

Acetone can be found in trees, plants, volcanoes, forest fires, landfills, tobacco, and car exhaust. It exists in certain fruits and vegetables as well.

How Is Acetone Used?

One of the most notable uses for acetone is nail polish remover. Acetone is a solvent and can break down nail polish for easier removal with a cotton swab or pad. It is commonly used because it mixes easily with water and evaporates quickly. Its ability to quickly dissolve substances including paint, glue, and other stains is a reason why it is often an ingredient in industrial and household cleaning products, too.

Other uses for acetone include:

  • Removing gum, oil, and other sticky substances from wool and silk
  • Providing a protective coating for furniture and car finishes
  • Dissolving Styrofoam
  • Manufacturing drugs

Effects on Skin

Acetone can enter the body through the nose, mouth, or skin. It then gets into the bloodstream and is carried through the body to the organs. The effects it produces will depend on how much acetone is in the body. If just a small amount of the chemical is taken in—as usually is the case when the skin is exposed to it through the use of cleaning supplies or nail polish remover—the liver will filter it out naturally by breaking it down into nonharmful chemicals that can be used as energy.

In the event that the exposure is high, acetone poisoning can occur and lead to symptoms like:

  • Irritation of the eyes, lungs, throat, and nose
  • Headaches
  • Lightheadedness
  • Confusion
  • Increased pulse rate
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Coma (in rare and severe cases)

These effects are typically felt when acetone is breathed in in high amounts over a short period of time. Irritation to the nose, throat, and eyes can occur from breathing in acetone at 100 ppm–900 ppm (parts per million), whereas the more serious side effects, such as headaches and confusion, typically are felt at levels reaching 12,000 ppm.

When acetone gets on the skin, it can cause it to become red, dry, and cracked, referred to as dermatitis. Although using acetone on the skin for long periods of time can lead to dermatitis, it is generally safe to use in moderate amounts.

Typically, the amount absorbed through nail polish remover and household products is very small and doesn’t pose any health problems when used sparingly.

When to See a Doctor

Although acetone poisoning is rare, it can still cause serious health issues. If you believe you have been overexposed to acetone and are experiencing symptoms such as lethargy, slurred speech, headache, or a sweet taste in your mouth, seek medical care as soon as possible.

How to Prevent Skin Problems

To avoid overexposure to acetone, you can limit how often you use products containing the chemical. When using cleaning products with acetone, wear rubber gloves to protect your hands.

If you are most likely to be exposed to acetone while painting your nails, limit how much polish and remover you use and avoid soaking your nails in a liquid containing acetone. To completely avoid the effects of acetone on the skin in this way, you could opt for a nail polish remover without acetone.

If large spills of products containing acetone occur, wash the exposed area with soap and water as soon as possible for at least 15 minutes and apply a moisturizer to prevent drying effects. You should also take off any clothing or shoes that have acetone on them.

A Word From Verywell

Since acetone is a naturally occurring chemical within the body, it’s not as harmful as one might think, as long as exposure is low. It can still cause health issues if you are exposed to large amounts of acetone or use acetone for long periods of time. Getting acetone on your skin can lead to dermatitis. You don’t have to discontinue the use of all acetone products, but it’s important to remember that breathing in or getting a large amount of acetone on your skin can be dangerous. Use the product sparingly and you'll likely avoid any detrimental side effects of acetone.  

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Article Sources
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  1. Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Public Health Statement for Acetone. Updated January 21, 2015.

  2. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Acetone Fact Sheet. Updated January 27, 2016.

  3. Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety. Acetone. Updated January 4, 2017.