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formalin and phenol, yum yum...

Discussion in 'Medical Students - MD' started by Starflyr, Aug 29, 2001.

  1. Starflyr

    Starflyr Manic Faerie 10+ Year Member

    Apr 11, 2000
    Dickinson, Tx
    Im sure that this is a problem that every 1st year has faced at some point - how do you get the smell off your hands, out of your hair, etc etc etc? Maybe it's b/c we have lab every day for 2+ hours (our gross class is only 8 weeks long), but despite showering, scrubbing, scented shampoo, soap and lotion, I still canNOT get this lovely odor out of my hair or skin. If any upperclasspeople have any advice/tips/tricks, please share!

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  3. turtleboard

    turtleboard SDN Advisor 10+ Year Member

    Jun 3, 1999
    New York, New York
    Nothing short of burning your skin and hair off will take the smell out. And those clothes you've been wearing to lab (hopefully you've been wearing the same thing day after day)? They're screwed. No matter how many times you wash them with a really good detergent or gallons of bleach, the smell just won't leave. It clings onto EVERYTHING.

    Remember that Seinfeld episode? The one with the valet who had the bad B.O.? The B.B.O.? The "Beast?" That's what Gross Anatomy is like.

    Yours is only 8 weeks long, so that's good. Mine was 5 months at 3+ hours everyday.

    Good luck.
  4. TheAce

    TheAce Attending 10+ Year Member

    May 2, 2000
    You can't do anything about the smell in your hair. Frankly, I didn't notice it in my hair after the first day or so. But for the smell on your hands, you can use Nitrile gloves. Much more impremeable to the chemicals than latex gloves. Maybe twice the cost, but well worth it.
  5. Starflyr

    Starflyr Manic Faerie 10+ Year Member

    Apr 11, 2000
    Dickinson, Tx
    *sigh* well, I already HAVE vinyl gloves, which are better than latex (tried those first), and I double glove. I guess IM just going to have to live with it until October. phooey :(

  6. Smurfette

    Smurfette Antagonized by Azrael Administrator Physician 10+ Year Member

    Jun 6, 2001
    I so glad I don't really have to worry about that!

    We have anatomy lab all semester long, but our cadavers are not kept in the traditional formalin--ours are in an ethanol mix. So, we just put on a lab coat over our clothes, and a pair of gloves. I haven't really had to worry too much about the smell penetrating my hair and clothes! Some of the anatomy instructors don't even always wear a lab coat and none wear gloves. I've always been able to get the smell of lab off my hands, and no one's commented that they "smell like lab", at least not yet.

    Have you tried asking an instructor if they know of anything that will help take care of the smell? It may be a long shot, but maybe they know of something that works a little better.

    At least you only have to tolerate the smell for a few months...could be worse! ;)
  7. w5kxo

    w5kxo New Member

    Aug 29, 2001
    San Antonio, TX
    Hi there from a PA Student's Spouse:

    My wife's lab class was having the same problems as y'all are describing. I am an experienced environmental scientist and did some checking on health/safety issues related to formalin/phenol.

    On the bright side...your limited (1 or 2 semesters) exposure to these chemicals will likely keep you from ever getting above OSHA exposure limits. Industrial Hygiene's mantra though is "prevent exposure...prevent exposure...prevent exposure..." With that in mind, I submit the following.

    You should know that formalin is (by definition) a 10% to 37% formaldehyde/water solution. Formaldehyde is a suspected carcinogen and should not be taken lightly. Other than ingestion/inhalation, it enters the body dermally and through the eyes.

    The government-required Material Safety Data Sheet for formalin can be viewed at:

    It seems that the folks that should be most concerned about occupational health/student health issues (doctors/med schools, etc.) are actually quite unconcerned about your health. I call this the "We had to do it and so you have to do it too" syndrome.

    Anyway, for best hand protection from formalin, you SHOULD NOT use latex gloves. According to one manufacturer's guidance documents, latex only provides 10-minute breakthrough protection (that is, the chemical will come through the glove in ~10 minutes). Granted, this rating is for full strenghth formaldehyde...not formalin. But given that the active chemical in formalin is formaldehyde (@37%)...I'd increase the breakthrough rating for latex to ~30 - 40 minutes.

    The recommended glove for formalin is NITRILE. These provide almost unlimited breakthrough protection and are relatively cheap ($11 to $16 per box of 50 pairs). They can be found at most industrial supply houses (WW Grainger --

    <A HREF="" TARGET=_blank>[/URL]

    or Northern Tool + Equipment --

    The other chemical of concern is apparently a 10% to 20% Phenol/water solution. It also enters the body through ingestion/inhalation, dermally and through the eyes. The MSDS for phenol can be found at:


    The glove for phenol is a NEOPRENE glove. Best protection would be had with a neoprene overglove and a nitrile underglove.

    I think the main thing to remember is...LATEX DOESN'T PROTECT YOU THAT WELL. Don't let the instructors make you feel like a wimp for wanting good health/safety gear...or even using a respirator if you need/want it. Cadavers don't decay in this stuff because NOTHING can live in it. These are dangerous chemicals and you should protect yourselves from them.

  8. Annette

    Annette gainfully employed Lifetime Donor Classifieds Approved 10+ Year Member

    Aug 24, 1999
    The Land of Lincoln
    One of my undergraduate jobs was cleaning up the anatomy lab after the med students. The best solution I found was to grease up with thick hand lotion and hair conditioner. Immediately shower and change clothes as soon as you possibly can. And take John's advice about the gloves!

    Thankfully, I had a prodisected cadaver for anatomy!
  9. guardian

    guardian Senior Member 7+ Year Member

    Apr 25, 2001
    Do your hands feel calloused after a couple weeks of lab? That would be a bad sign.
  10. Firebird

    Firebird 1K Member 10+ Year Member

    Mar 15, 2001
    So, what you do have to worry about is getting pulled over by a police officer after anatomy lab...and then you have the task of explaining why you smell like "ethanol". After which, the cop replies, "so what you're telling me, is that you store dead people in whiskey?" After which he begins laughing and makes you say your ABC's backwards.
  11. Smurfette

    Smurfette Antagonized by Azrael Administrator Physician 10+ Year Member

    Jun 6, 2001
    LOL! :D I can see it now "...but Officer, today we removed the kidneys"...the cop either thinks I'm drunk or a psycho killer...guess I'll be taking a ride downtown!
  12. kd

    kd Senior Member 7+ Year Member

    Jun 2, 2001
    Anybody else get a bone box they let you take home? Try explaining to a cop why you have an entire disarticulated human skeleton laying around your house.
  13. DaveB

    DaveB Slave to The Man 10+ Year Member

    Jul 24, 2001
    Take a lemon wedge and rub it around between your hands for a little while.
  14. cg1

    cg1 Senior Member 10+ Year Member

    May 23, 2000
    It's probably too late after-the-fact, but oily skin/hair absorb odors more readily than dry skin/hair.

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