The Epoxy Allergy and How to Avoid It

Clark March 6th, 2018

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The Epoxy Allergy, more specifically allergic dermatitis, is the curse of the marine industry: The few who develop it are marked for life, never to come near epoxy again. The rest of us can go on working with these wonderful products with impunity. The key concept is that the allergy is developed over time. One is not born with it, as with many other allergies.

In New Zealand, during a 100-day blister and bottom job, my friend Ian developed the allergy as we went. We worked away, day after day, filling ground-out blisters with epoxy and fiberglass mat, rolling out the bubbles with ridged metal rollers. The boat being above us, much epoxy dripped down on us. One day Ian felt sick and had some swelling. We wrote it off to a cold or flu. Then a week later a big gob of thickened epoxy fell on his cheek. We cleaned it off (I think with acetone…eh gads) and within a few hours he looked like the Elephant Man, with one eye completely swollen shut for a week. Ian had to stand 100 yards away for the rest of the project if we were working with epoxy, and can’t go anywhere near the stuff for the rest of his life.

It turns out that cleaning it off with acetone was the worst thing we could have done. This puts the epoxy mixture in suspension in a solvent that is easily absorbed into the skin. If you get epoxy on your bare skin, just wash it with soap and water. Vinegar is also supposed to be good. Letting it dry and peeling it off later is preferable to using solvent.

Some people can develop the allergy after just a few contacts, but for most it takes months or years of exposure.

A few tips for working with epoxy:

1. Wear vinyl gloves (not latex)…always!
2. Wear a protective suit, or at least long sleeves, and tuck your sleeves into your gloves. No matter how careful you plan to be, you’ll somehow get it on your wrists or arms, even if you’re wearing gloves.
3. Never clean epoxy from your skin with solvent.
4. The thinner the epoxy, the worse it is for causing the allergy. Just as cleaning it with acetone puts it into an easily-absorbed suspension, epoxy-based paints, thinned epoxy, and penetrating epoxy are more easily-absorbed into the skin.
5. It’s the hardener, not the epoxy. The allergens for most people are in the hardeners (part B), not the epoxy base (part A). You’ll seldom have one without the other, but something to keep in mind.
6. Epoxy is generally considered safe to use without a respirator in a well-ventilated area. If you’re going to be in an enclosed area, wear a respirator, as the concentrated vapors can cause irritation to the respiratory tract and eyelids (and hasten your road to developing the allergy).
7. Epoxy dust, from sanding, can be especially insidious. We often refer to epoxy being “green,” as in dried, but not completely cured. Full curing can take as long as a week, and during this time the epoxy dust still contains some of the same volatile compounds as wet epoxy. If you must sand green epoxy, wear a respirator and eye protection.

Epoxy products are ubiquitous in the boating world, and they should be. They’re strong, versatile, easy to work with, resistant to chemicals, and create a barrier to moisture. Take a few very basic precautions, don’t ever clean it off with solvent, and you’ll have a lifetime of ahead of you in the wonderful world of epoxy. Blow it, develop the allergy, and you are forever banished!

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