How to Get Polyurethane Off Your Hands

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No matter how careful you are when applying polyurethane-based finishes, it’s likely that you’ll get some on your hands or skin. There’s no need to panic if this happens, but it would be best to clean the polyurethane off as quickly as possible.

First dissolve the chemical, then clean it off quickly and thoroughly, using the instructions provided in this article. Here are the steps

Getting Polyurethane Off Your Hands

While mixing, pouring, or applying polyurethane, splashes and drips are inevitable. When it gets on your hands, it can be uncomfortable, making them feel sticky, dry, and tight. Remove the polyurethane to minimize your exposure and get back to focusing on the project at hand. 

  1. Avoid contact where possible. When applying polyurethane by brush, use chemical-resistant gloves to protect your hands while mixing and applying polyurethane. Nitrile gloves are best, as they are strong, flexible, and will not dissolve. Latex gloves are less expensive, but are only appropriate for working with water-based polyurethane. Vinyl gloves are also an option, but they don’t conform as well to the hand. Wearing long sleeves, pants, and closed-toe shoes can help minimize skin exposure to splashes and drops while applying polyurethane. 
  2. Remove polyurethane using mineral spirits. If you don’t have immediate access to mineral spirits, see the section below for alternative methods. When using mineral spirits, it is essential to have good ventilation. They are highly flammable and should not be exposed to open flames. Hold your hands over a sink and pour mineral spirits onto the affected areas. If the polyurethane is still liquid, mineral spirits will prevent it from setting and help it run off your skin. You can do this at the same time you clean your brush from the polyurethane. If the polyurethane has hardened, use a rag to work the solvent into the polyurethane and remove it from your skin. 
  3. Rinse off the polyurethane and mineral spirits. With your fingers pointing downwards, rinse your hands under running water. Start at the wrists, allowing the water to run down your hands and washing the chemicals off your skin and down the drain. Avoid tipping your hands up, as this will cause the polyurethane and mineral spirit mixture to run down your forearms. 
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  1. Wash off remaining mineral spirits. Using liquid dish soap, wash your hands thoroughly. Note that mineral spirits inhibit the lathering action of dish soap. If the soap isn’t lathering, this signals that there is still a significant amount of mineral spirits on your hands. Wash as many times as necessary, stopping when the soap fully lathers and your hands feel mostly clean. 
  2. Lubricate sticky spots. After dissolving the polyurethane and washing away the solvent, some sticky spots may still remain on your hands. Vegetable or baby oil can help lift remaining chemicals from these areas. Peanut butter, with it’s high oil content, can also be used to help polyurethane slide off the skin of your hands. Whatever oil you choose, rub it into the sticky spots. Wash again with liquid dish soap to remove the oily residue. 
  3. Moisturize your hands. Polyurethane, mineral spirits, and repeated washing can dry out your skin and strip it off its natural protective oils. Use a moisturizing hand lotion to restore the skin and prevent drying and cracking. 

Learn how to spray polyurethane safely in our guide.

Get Polyurethane Off Your Hands Without Using Mineral Spirits

Mineral spirits are a clear, liquid solvent that can be used to dilute polyurethane on your hands and weaken its bond to your skin. They are the quickest and easiest method for removing polyurethane from your hands. 

If you don’t have them, don’t worry. You can use common household items to get polyurethane off your hands. Either of these products can be used in step two to replace mineral spirits. Complete the rest of the steps as written. 

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  • Nail polish remover. Acetone is the active ingredient in many nail polish removal products. Non-acetone varieties won’t dissolve the polyurethane; be sure to check the label. Acetone can have a drying effect on skin, so if you choose this method pay extra attention to rehydrating and moisturizing your hands. 
  • Rubbing alcohol. Isopropyl alcohol can be found in many households and is commonly referred to as rubbing alcohol. This solvent will help break down the polyurethane stuck to your hands, but like acetone, it can be hard on the skin. If you don’t have access to mineral spirits, it’s fine to use rubbing alcohol in a pinch, but don’t make it a habit. 
Hand holding a can of polyurethane

Why You Need to Get Polyurethane Off Your Hands

Polyurethane is a durable sealer that is often applied to wood. It is inexpensive, easy to apply, and exceptionally durable when compared up against other finishers like polycrylic.  Polyurethane cures to a hard, shiny, plastic-like finish. 

The process used to produce polyurethane includes types of chemicals called ‘isocyanates’. These harsh chemicals are an irritant to the eyes, mucus membranes, and skin. Most people know to avoid fume inhalation while working with polyurethane, but minimizing skin contact is just as important. Other finishers like lacquer are just as hard on skin as polyurethane.

Related: Learn how to get wood stain off of your hands.

When these chemicals are introduced to the human body, they can sometimes generate an immune response. This is known as being ‘sensitized’. There is no set amount of exposure that is safe — someone can be exposed for years without becoming sensitized, or a single exposure may trigger symptoms. Whether through inhalation or skin contact, extensive exposure to polyurethane has been linked to the development of isocyanatic asthma

Preventing exposure to polyurethane is the first and most important step. Protective equipment, respirators, and good ventilation are all required for working with this material. It is equally important to know how to handle exposure and minimize its impact.

Knowing how to remove polyurethane from your hands quickly and safely makes this popular finish a safe choice for your next project

Learn how to remove polyurethane from different wood surfaces in our guide.

Conclusion

Polyurethane is used to seal and protect items made of wood. Exposure to the isocyanates it contains has long term health implications. It is best to avoid skin exposure to polyurethane where possible, preferably by using nitrile gloves. 

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When exposure does occur, a series of washes can help you get polyurethane off your hands. First, use a solvent to break down the polyurethane. Mineral spirits are best, but rubbing alcohol or acetone-based nail polish removal are also acceptable.

Use dish soap to wash off the dissolved polyurethane and the solvent. After washing, protect the skin on your hands from dryness and irritation with a moisturizing lotion.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.