How to Read a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS)

Material safety data sheets are technical documents that provide comprehensive information about a controlled chemical or hazardous substance. This information includes the potential health effects of product exposure, hazards related to handling, storage or use, how to protect workers, and emergency protocol. MSDSs must always contain complete, accurate, and up-to-date information.

What’s in an MSDS?

Example of an MSDS

An example of a material safety data sheet

Material safety data sheets may differ slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer, but they all contain the same basic information and an international 16-section format has been developed and is documented in ANSI Standard Z400. These sections are:

  1. Identification of the substance/mixture and of the company/undertaking
  2. Hazards identification
  3. Composition/information on ingredients
  4. First aid measures
  5. Firefighting measures
  6. Accidental release measures
  7. Handling and storage
  8. Exposure controls/personal protection
  9. Physical and chemical properties
  10. Stability and reactivity
  11. Toxicological information
  12. Ecological information
  13. Disposal considerations
  14. Transport information
  15. Regulatory information
  16. Other information

Who needs material safety data sheets?

MSDSs are not only written for people working directly to manufacture or supply the chemical in question. For example, firefighters, doctors, hygienists, environmental specialists, and engineers may need to access some or all of the information on a material safety data sheet. Not all of the information will be relevant to every person, e.g. some of the information a doctor needs may not be needed by an engineer. 

How to read an MSDS

While material safety data sheets appear to be complicated, they are actually fairly easy to read. In essence, an MSDS should be used to make necessary determinations about the chemical product in the capacity that you will be handling, using or storing it. For example, this could mean whether the product is hazardous, how best to store it, the personal protective equipment (PPE) that should be worn, and how to properly dispose of it.

Be aware that an MSDS isn’t a complete source of information, as they provide a general summary. Additionally the chemical or material in question may also be affected by local legislation, which isn’t typically found in an MSDS.

When you read a material safety data sheet, bear in mind that there are four hazards types:

  • Health hazards
  • Fire hazards
  • Reactivity hazards, i.e. potential risks of mixing chemicals
  • Environmental hazards

Some of the language used can be technical or product-specific – there’s a great summary of what the technical language and common terms used in an MSDS mean here.

An example of how to read an MSDS

Each of the sixteen sections in a material safety data sheet has a number of sub-sections. These sub-sections are designed to provide further information and clarity on a particular topic. Some sections will have more information than others; it completely depends on the chemical. For example, you can see that the glycerol MSDS has a much lengthier section four (first aid measures) than the deionised water MSDS.

Section 4 of a glycerol material safety data sheet

Section 4 of a glycerol material safety data sheet


Section 4 of a deionised water material safety data sheet

Section 4 of a deionised water material safety data sheet

Sections and sub-sections of an MSDS

Let’s take section five of an MSDS – ‘Firefighting measures’ – as an example of how to read it. This section has three sub-sections:

  1. Extinguishing media
  2. Special hazards arising from the substance or mixture
  3. Advice for firefighters
Section 5 - an example of how to read a material safety data sheet

Section 5 – an example of how to read a material safety data sheet

The purpose of this section is to describe any fire hazards associated with the chemical. This can help determine how and where it would be best to store the product, how to handle it, where to place fire extinguishers and which type of extinguisher is best to use, how to best respond to a fire, and emergency procedures. This information is typically used by firefighters and employees handling the chemical.

Find a complete MSDS database of common chemicals here.

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