First aid for treating Caustic burns

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You, a member of your family or a guest could accidentally come in contact with lye or caustic chemicals, and the consequences can be pretty horrific.

Lye powder (NaOH or KOH) will absorb moisture from the skin and air and can rapidly become a concentrated solution, which may easily lead to deep tissue damage.

Pay attention to the pain signals and do something about it as soon as you feel discomfort.

That may sound like common sense, but chemical burns can act in sinister ways, and the pain may reduce as the burn destroys the most sensitive pain nerves. Many burns in shoes, for example, progress horrifically because the patient simply thought the problem had gone away, or wasn't that bad.

The results of wearing the wrong clothing when exposed to caustic chemicals...

caustic burns

It appears from various posts on the biodiesel forums that there is a common mis-understanding among us, which is to use vinegar for spills of lye on the body.

DO NOT USE VINEGAR on a lye or caustic burn.

If you are treating someone else who has been burned, don't become a patient yourself! If you can, use gloves and be careful not to get any of the corrosive chemical on yourself.

If the spill is on the chest or belly, do NOT pull a shirt, sweater etc. over the face, as this could transfer chemical to the face or eyes or airways. Instead CUT it off.

cut off clothing and protect yourself

Brush off any powder, taking care not to spread to other areas of the body, eyes, etc.

Remove any clothing from the affected part of the body, taking care not to spread the chemical, and flush and actively wash the area with copious running water for at least an hour and seek medical attention.

Do NOT try to neutralise a spill on the body.

cut off clothing and protect yourself

If the eyes have been affected, continue irrigating the eyes until medical help arrives. Do not use vinegar.

Because of the amount of time you will be irrigating the area, try to use tepid / warm water so that the patient does not become cold or hypothermic, but if that is not available, use cold water on the affected area.

Keep the patient wrapped in a blanket, because burns can cause the body's temperature regulation to fail, causing hypothermia, even in relatively warm weather.

Do not apply any ointments to the burn area, as the medical team may need to remove this to treat the burn properly.

Prevention is always better than cure. Make sure you keep all chemicals securely locked away so children, other members of the family or guests can't come into contact with them.

Wear protective clothing:- proper goggles for dealing with liquid chemicals, nitrile gloves, synthetic boots and a waterproof apron. Wash the work surface and tools, then wash your hands after every chemical procedure.

wear the correct safety equipment for the chemicals you are working with

Why not use Vinegar?

I emailed the folks at Harvard Medical School to ask for reasoning why not to use vinegar, this was their reply, and my original enquiry.

Please, regardless of what treatment you choose to use for yourselves, the prescribed treatment specifically excludes vinegar or other acids, so please don't promote the use of vinegar or any other acid to others. Thanks. GL


From: Graham Laming []
Sent: Fri 12/28/2007 3:22 PM
To: Demling
Subject: Lye burns - to neutralize or not?

Dear Dr. Demling

I would like to ask your advice on the matter of lye burn treatment. I am trying to establish a safe working protocol for users of NaOH and KOH

I notice in your page in section B, para 7, it is stated ..

"- do not attempt to neutralize acids with alkali or vice versa, just use copious water "

I am meeting with repeated resistance to this, by folks who understandably feel that vinegar is a valid treatment regimen.

As this goes against your good advice, and indeed the advice on all MSDS I can find, I wonder if you would be able to help me by explaining the key reasons for advising against neutralizing, as the question is always "But why can't we use vinegar?"

I can guess at the reasoning, but would greatly appreciate your experienced guidance on this.

Many thanks, in anticipation of your help.

Graham Laming
Shefford, UK



The most important treatment is to flood the area with copious water to flush the alkali away not to try and neutralize.

Alkali are hard to remove and very hard to neutralize with a weak acid unless you have gallons upon gallons of vinegar

Copious flushing is needed for 20-30 min to be able to remove from skin as it soon is thru the upper layer of skin and needs flushing not futile attempts at neutralization which will only affect the most superficial collection of alkali

As far as eye irrigation vinegar is toxic to the eye especially a damaged eye

Bob Demling Dr.
Harvard Medical School

See also your MSDS sheets, relating to spills on the body.

Feel free to contact me at

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