“Are lubricants a health risk? I’ve heard reports that lubricants can cause skin cancer.”
Material safety data sheets (MSDS) should be available in all work areas. Because they provide information relating to both health and environmental hazards, all personnel should have easy access to this important information. Use of appropriate safety protection is a must, including gloves and safety glasses when handling lubricants or greases. If lubricants accidentally contact the skin, wash immediately with an approved hand cleaner followed by normal soap.
With respect to skin cancer, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified mineral-based lubricants and rated them according to their risk. A summary of this system is given below. Note the groups do not relate to API base oil groups. Note also that additives and synthetic base oils are not included in this listing.
Group 1: These are lubricants with sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity to humans. This group includes base oils that are acid-treated oils, mildly retreated solvent-refined oils, aromatic oils and mildly hydro-treated oils.
Group 2: These are lubricants with no human data, but strong animal data exist that indicate possible or probable carcinogenicity. There are no base oils listed in this group.
Group 3: These are lubricants not classifiable as to carcinogenic to humans. They include base oils that are severely hydro-treated oils.
Group 4: These are lubricants that are probably not carcinogenic to humans. This group includes base oils that are white oils and petrolatums.
Generally, the MSDS must state the cancer hazard of a lubricant and define its risk category. As with any risk, caution is advised when handling any lubricant.