Case Reports

Ocular Chemical Burns in the Dermatology Office: A Practical Approach to Managing Safety Precautions

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Chemical burns to the eyes are one of the few ocular emergencies that dermatologists may encounter in their everyday clinic. As such, dermatologists should be confident in their ability to urgently manage ocular chemical injuries should accidental exposure occur during a procedure. We report a case of accidental ocular exposure to aluminum chloride hexahydrate during skin biopsy of the cheek and subsequent transient ocular injury that resolved with early appropriate management. This article provides background information on acute chemical ocular injuries, offers practical step-by-step guidance for the dermatologist, and highlights immediate copious irrigation as perhaps the most critical step in determining the clinical course of the injury.

Practice Points

  • Dermatologists should be cognizant of potential hazards to the eyes during facial procedures and always take proper precautions to decrease the risk for ocular injuries.
  • If a patient’s eye(s) becomes exposed to a chemical during a dermatologic procedure, immediate copious irrigation for at least 15 to 30 minutes (longer for alkaline burns) is crucial, followed by prompt evaluation by an ophthalmologist.
  • The patient should be instructed to manually hold open the eye and move the eyeball in all directions to achieve the most effective irrigation of the chemical.
  • If the patient is wearing contact lenses, they should be removed promptly, but do not delay the irrigation to do so. Lenses should be removed once irrigation is underway.



Many dermatologic procedures are performed on the face, such as skin biopsies, surgical excisions, and cosmetic procedures, which can increase the risk for accidental ocular injuries.1,2 Ocular chemical burns have been reported to account for approximately 3% to 20% of ocular injuries3,4 and are one of the few ocular emergencies dermatologists may encounter in practice. Given the potentially severe consequences of permanent vision changes or loss, it is important to take precautionary steps in preventing chemical exposures and know how to appropriately manage ophthalmic emergencies when they occur.1,5-8 In this article, we describe a patient with a transient ocular chemical injury from exposure to aluminum chloride hexahydrate that completely resolved with immediate care. We also offer practical guidance for the general dermatologist in the acute management of acidic chemical burns to the eye, highlighting immediate copious irrigation as the most important step in preventing severe permanent damage. Given that aluminum chloride hexahydrate is an acidic solution, we focus predominantly on the approach to acidic chemical exposures to the eye.

Case Report

A 61-year-old woman was seen in the dermatology outpatient clinic for a shave biopsy on the left cheek followed by aluminum chloride application for hemostasis. Following the biopsy, the patient stated she felt the sensation that something had dripped into the left eye and she felt a burning pain. There was a 30- to 60-second delay in irrigation of the eye, as it was at first unclear what had occurred. The patient reported an increased burning sensation, and at that point she was instructed to begin flushing the eye with tap water from the examination room sink for 15 to 20 minutes; she wanted to stop irrigation after a few minutes, and convincing her to continue thorough irrigation was somewhat challenging. It was determined that aluminum chloride hexahydrate had dripped from an oversaturated cotton swab in transit from the tray to the biopsy site.

The patient was urgently directed to the ophthalmology clinic and evaluated by an ophthalmologist within 1 to 2 hours of chemical exposure. Visual acuity of the affected left eye was noted to be 20/30 -2 with correctional glasses, and slit lamp examination revealed moderate injection of the conjunctiva and sclera, and at least 3 punctate epithelial erosions and punctate staining of the inferior aspects of the cornea, consistent with a chemical injury. The remaining ocular examination was normal for both eyes. She was diagnosed with keratitis of the left eye from chemical exposure to aluminum chloride and was prescribed loteprednol etabonate ophthalmic suspension 0.5% and tobramycin ophthalmic solution 0.3% to be applied to the left eye 4 times daily, with follow-up 4 days later.

At follow-up, the patient denied any pain, though she was not using the prescribed eye drops consistently. On examination, the patient showed improvement in visual acuity to 20/20 -2 and complete resolution of the keratitis, with slit lamp examination showing clear conjunctiva, sclera, and cornea. Given complete resolution, the eye drops were discontinued.


Factors Contributing to Ocular Chemical Injuries
Chemical burns to the eyes during cosmetic or surgical procedures are one of the few acute ocular emergencies dermatologists may encounter in practice. If not managed properly, the eye may be permanently damaged. Therefore, dermatologists must be confident in the initial management of ocular chemical burns (Table 1; Figure).

A, When using aluminum chloride hexahydrate (AlCl3H12O6), ensure eye safety precautions. B, Irrigate the affected eye(s) for at least 15 to 30 minutes. Remove contact lenses as soon as practical or after several seconds of immediate irrigation.6,8 Patients should keep eyes wide open and rotate their eyes in all directions. C, Identify and verify the chemical and, if possible,
obtain the material safety data sheet. D, Refer the patient urgently to ophthalmology for a visual acuity test and treatment. Images courtesy of Deborah J. Moon, MD (Los Angeles, California).

Mechanism of Ocular Chemical Burns
The extent of injury is predominantly determined by 2 factors: (1) the chemical properties of the substance, and (2) the length of exposure.5,9,10 Potential chemical exposures and their reported ocular effects are listed in Table 2.11-21 Alkaline chemical burns often have the gravest outcome, as they can rapidly penetrate into the internal ocular structures, potentially leading to cataracts and glaucoma.9 Hydroxyl ions, often found in alkaline chemicals, are capable of rapidly denaturing the corneal matrix and triggering release of proteolytic enzymes through a series of inflammatory responses. Conversely, ocular damage from most acidic chemicals often is limited to the more superficial structures, such as the cornea and conjunctiva, given that acids may cause corneal proteins to coagulate, thus forming a barrier that slows further penetration into deeper structures.9 Nonetheless, corneal damage can still have a devastating impact on visual acuity, as the cornea provides 65% to 75% of the eye’s total focusing power.22 For both alkaline and acidic chemicals, immediate profuse irrigation is most critical in determining the clinical course.23-26 To provide perspective, potent alkaline chemicals may penetrate into the anterior chamber of the eye within 15 seconds,9 and delayed initiation of irrigation by even 5 to 15 minutes may lead to irreversible intraocular damage.27

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