Acetone is a colorless solvent. Solvents are substances that can break down or dissolve other materials. In the household, people may come across acetone in products such as nail polish remover or paint remover.

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Acetone occurs naturally in the environment in trees, plants, volcanic gases, and forest fires. Small amounts are also present in the body. But exposure to acetone can irritate the eyes, nose, or skin. Consuming it can lead to acetone poisoning.

This article examines what acetone is, including its uses, potential risks, and how to use it safely.

Acetone is a clear, colorless liquid. It is a solvent that can dissolve or break down other materials, such as paint, varnish, or grease. It evaporates quickly into the air.

Acetone is naturally present in trees and other plants, as well as tobacco smoke, vehicle exhaust, and landfills. It also occurs in the body. Other names for acetone include:

  • dimethyl ketone
  • 2-propanone
  • propanone
  • beta-ketopropane

Companies use acetone in small amounts to create products that break down or dissolve other substances, such as:

  • nail polish
  • paint
  • varnish

In industry, manufacturers use acetone for a variety of purposes, including:

  • removing grease or gum from textiles such as wool and silk
  • making lacquers for cars or furniture
  • making plastics

According to Addiction Resource, some people also consume or inhale acetone-based nail polish remover in order to achieve a “high”. This is because nail polish remover can also contain alcohol. Doing this is very dangerous, as the chemicals in nail polish remover can seriously damage the kidneys, liver, brain, and nervous system.

In humans, acetone is a natural byproduct of the breakdown of fat.

The body can make energy in several ways. The first is by turning food substances such as carbohydrates into glucose. The body then releases insulin, which allows the body’s cells to use glucose for energy or store some of the glucose in fat, the liver, and muscles.

But if a person is not eating many carbohydrates, the body cannot use dietary glucose for energy. Instead, it switches to glucose that was converted and stored for energy reserves, including within fat. If this occurs, the liver will begin breaking down fat reserves. In the process of doing this, the body makes ketones as a byproduct. Acetone is a type of ketone.

Once the body begins producing excess ketones, this state is known as ketosis.

Being in ketosis can be safe or even beneficial for some people. For example, the ketogenic (keto) diet deliberately induces a state of ketosis. There is evidence this can reduce seizures in children with epilepsy, and research into potential benefits for other conditions is ongoing.

But having too many ketones is dangerous, especially for people with diabetes mellitus. High levels of ketones can be associated with an increase in the acidity of a person’s blood. This may lead to diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a serious complication that can cause a diabetic coma or death.

The warning signs of DKA include:

  • dry mouth
  • frequent urination
  • high blood sugar levels

The symptoms that follow include:

  • constant tiredness
  • flushed or dry skin
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fruity-smelling breath
  • difficulty breathing
  • confusion or difficulty paying attention

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies acetone as Generally Recognized as Safe. It has a low potential for causing acute or chronic health problems. But it does have some risks.

Flammable

Acetone liquid and vapor catch fire easily. People should never use acetone-based products around an open flame or while smoking.

Irritation

Acetone is an irritant, which means it can irritate the skin. For this reason, some people cannot use acetone-based nail polish removers.

If a person is exposed to or inhales acetone fumes, it may also irritate the eyes, nose, throat, or lungs. This can cause:

Severe exposure to acetone vapor may cause damage to the nervous system, confusion, or unconsciousness.

Poisoning

Typically, ingesting a small amount of acetone will not harm an otherwise healthy person. Certain amounts could harm a child, and adults who ingest a large amount of acetone may be at risk for acetone poisoning.

The symptoms of acetone poisoning include:

  • fruity-smelling breath
  • low blood pressure
  • feeling lethargic or drowsy
  • slurred speech
  • slow breathing
  • lack of physical coordination
  • severe headache
  • loss of consciousness

People can help prevent the adverse effects of acetone by using it safely. This means using acetone-based products:

  • in a well-ventilated space
  • away from open flames or cigarettes
  • away from food or drink
  • away from children
  • while wearing protective equipment, such as gloves and shirts with long sleeves
  • for short periods of time

Always close bottle lids tightly when not in use, and dispose of any cotton wool with acetone on it in a bin with a tight-fitting lid to help prevent fumes from escaping. When no longer using the product, wash hands thoroughly before eating, drinking, or touching the face. Keep acetone products out of the reach of children.

People who work with acetone can take further precautions, such as:

  • installing or using an exhaust ventilation system in the workplace
  • only using the amount of the product that a person needs
  • wearing protective goggles or masks
  • safely disposing of used chemicals

People with diabetes can help prevent ketosis by taking medication as prescribed, regularly checking blood sugar levels, and eating the correct amount of carbohydrates. They should speak with a doctor if their insulin dosage needs to change.

It is important to act quickly if someone has swallowed or inhaled acetone.

If they have just swallowed the acetone and do not have symptoms yet, use the webPoisonControl triage tool to get expert advice on what to do next. Alternatively, call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.

If the person becomes drowsy, collapses, or falls unconscious, call 911 or the local emergency number.

If someone has symptoms after inhaling acetone, they should go outside or get fresh air immediately. Ask someone to remove any items with acetone on them and to seal any bottles containing it. Then, ventilate the room well before returning. If this is not possible, call Poison Control for advice.

Acetone is a liquid solvent that can break down and dissolve other substances. Companies include acetone in products such as nail polish remover, paint remover, and varnish remover. Some also use acetone to manufacture plastics, lacquers, and textiles.

Acetone occurs naturally in the environment and the body, though in small amounts. The body produces acetone when it burns fat instead of glucose for energy.

Exposure to acetone fumes can lead to irritation in the eyes, nose, throat, or skin. Swallowing acetone can also cause poisoning. If someone consumes any amount of acetone or has the symptoms of DKA, seek help right away.