Fiberglass is a synthetic material that contains fragile glass fibers. These fiberglass particles can penetrate the skin, leading to pain and a rash. When a person cuts or saws fiberglass, the dust can irritate the eyes and airways.
This article discusses what happens when the skin comes into contact with fiberglass, how to remove fiberglass from the skin, and the potential risks of working with this material. We also look at how people can work with fiberglass safely.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, fiberglass exposure can lead to the following symptoms:
- skin irritation and pain
- eye irritation or redness
- temporary stomach discomfort
- soreness in the nose or throat
The symptoms a person develops will depend on how they became exposed to the fiberglass.
Skin exposure can result in a rash or fiberglass dermatitis. This occurs when fiberglass fragments or dust become embedded in the skin’s outer layer.
A fiberglass rash typically looks like a patch of small blisters with dry, flaky skin. On pale skin, the inflammation will be red. If long glass fibers get stuck in the skin, a person may see them protrude from the surface.
The extent of the rash depends on several factors, such as:
- how deep the fibers penetrate the skin
- the thickness and length of the fibers
- environmental factors, such as humidity or heat
Short, thick fibers are more likely to cause irritation.
Fiberglass dermatitis is usually temporary, and people who regularly come into contact with fiberglass often develop a tolerance. However, in rare cases, a person may develop ongoing symptoms if they frequently work with fiberglass.
Sometimes, fiberglass can work its way out of the skin on its own. However, this takes time, and not all of the fiberglass may leave the skin.
It is best to remove any visible fiberglass from the skin and treat the rash. If symptoms persist, a person may need medical treatment.
A person may be able to remove larger fiberglass particles from the skin themselves. They can do this by:
- washing the affected area under running water and gently patting dry with a clean towel
- carefully placing a piece of tape on any glass fibers that stick out from the skin
- peeling the tape off the skin to remove fibers
This technique can help doctors diagnose fiberglass dermatitis. It will remove larger fibers from the skin surface but may not extract all of them, particularly if they are small or deeply embedded.
Avoid scratching or rubbing the affected area, as this can push fibers deeper into the skin. To soothe itching and dryness, a person can try emollient creams, such as Eucerin or E45, or topical corticosteroids. Doctors can prescribe further treatment if needed.
People who work with fiberglass are at risk for fiberglass exposure and its symptoms. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), this includes those who work in:
- fiberglass installation
- boat manufacturing
- heating, ventilation, and air conditioning ductwork cleaning and installation
Fiberglass exposure can cause temporary eye, skin, lung, and nose irritation as well as stomach discomfort. Inhaling long fibers can also lead to lung injuries.
However, compared to ceramic fibers, fiberglass dissolves rapidly in lung fluid, so this may be less of a risk.
However, preliminary studies did show sufficient evidence for the carcinogenic potential of glass fibers and glass wool in animals.
Scientists need to carry out more research to determine if fiberglass may be carcinogenic in humans.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommend that workplaces not expose employees to more than 15 milligrams per cubic meter of fiberglass dust in one 8-hour work shift.
While working with fiberglass, the following protective measures are important:
- wearing loose-fitting clothing
- wearing nitrile rubber gloves to prevent contact with fiberglass
- wearing a NIOSH-approved N95 particulate respirator
- wearing protective goggles with side shields
- cleaning fiberglass from surfaces with a wet cloth or a vacuum
People should also wash the clothing they wear while working with fiberglass after each work shift.
People should seek medical attention if they show persistent symptoms of fiberglass exposure, even after removing fiberglass from the skin or washing it away.
A person should speak to a doctor if they have difficulties removing fiberglass from the skin, or they suspect it has become embedded. Deeply embedded fiberglass may cause an infection, which may require antibiotics.
Symptoms of skin infection include:
- warmth in the affected area
Fiberglass is a synthetic material commonly found in building insulation, boats, automobiles, and pipes. This substance can penetrate the skin, leading to discomfort and rashes.
People can safely remove some fiberglass particles by washing the affected area under running water and gently pulling fibers away from the skin using tape. Emollients and corticosteroid creams can help ease symptoms.
If someone experiences persistent symptoms of fiberglass dermatitis or infection, they should speak to a doctor.