Dr. Anthony Gustin is a board-certified sports chiropractor, functional medicine practitioner, entrepreneur, podcast host, and founder of Perfect Keto.
Did you know that the the active ingredient in nail polish remover is also found in your bloodstream?
Acetone is the smallest ketone body, found naturally (and safely) in the human body. It’s produced during the ketosis process, which has many health benefits.
However, because acetone is also produced in labs to create industrial and household products, there is widespread confusion over this substance and its safety.
In this article, all your questions will get cleared up. You will learn:
- What is Acetone?
- How is Acetone Found in the Human Body?
- Acetone Safety in the Human Body
- Acetone Safety When Found in the Environment
- Acetone Benefits on the Ketogenic Diet
- How to Test for Acetone
Acetone (also known as dimethyl ketone) is an organic compound. It is found naturally in the environment, but is also used in labs to create industrial products.
Acetone a flammable liquid, typically used in everything from paint thinner and plastics, to detergents and rubber cement[*]. In the United States, the FDA has even approved acetone as food additive for adhesives[*].
Acetone is a solvent—it dissolves other liquids (you may have seen it advertised as a “green solvent,” or a more natural cleaner). That’s why nail polish remover can swab last week’s manicure right off your nails. And while this colorless liquid might look harmless at your salon, acetone is quite heavy duty. It can strip the paint right from your walls, and can cut through varnishes, waxes, and glues.
If you breathe acetone in—say, while painting your home without proper ventilation—you can experience adverse health effects. High concentrations of acetone can cause acetone poisoning, meaning your body is taking in more acetone than your liver can break down[*].
While all this paints a picture of acetone as a harmful chemical, remember: Acetone is produced naturally in the environment. Acetone occurs in trees, forest fires, volcanic gases, and the body when fat is broken down [*].
Acetone is a natural metabolic product of both plants and animals — and yes, that includes humans[*]. Each one of us has small amounts of acetone in our bodies.
Acetone is a Type of Ketone
An individual following a ketogenic diet will produce large amounts of acetone compared to those eating a high-carb diet.
When someone eats a high-fat and low carb diet or engaged in prolonged fasting, there isn’t enough glucose in the body for fuel. Therefore, the liver starts breaking down fatty acids for energy to fuel the body and the brain. This is the process known as ketosis, the primary function and goal of the ketogenic diet.
How Acetone Enters Your Bloodstream
When ketosis happens, water-soluble molecules called ketone bodies, or just simply “ketones,” are released. These three ketones are:
Acetoacetate is created first, followed by beta-hydroxybutyrate and acetone. Acetone is created spontaneously from the breakdown of acetoacetate and is the simplest and most volatile ketone. It diffuses into the lungs and exits the body when you exhale.
Because acetone is found naturally (within the human body) and synthetically (in the production of industrial and personal care products), there is quite a bit of confusion surrounding its safety.
Remember: All of us have acetone in our bodies due to the breakdown of body fat. Acetone is just one byproduct of reaching ketosis, and its presence can be helpful for monitoring progress and improving the health of those who follow the keto diet.
Ketones produced while eating a low-carb, high-fat diet (like the ketogenic diet) puts the body in nutritional ketosis. This is NOT the same as the harmful state of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which can occur in people with unmonitored or uncontrolled type 1 diabetes or sometimes in alcohols. For a full explanation, see Dr. Gustin’s post – Is Ketosis Dangerous?
Ketosis is a safe metabolic state for those on a healthy, whole food keto diet and should not be confused with DKA. (If you have any confusion or concerns about what state you’re in, contact your doctor right away).
Acetone that isn’t produced by your own body is considered a toxic substance. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health classifies acetone as a volatile organic compound. Therefore, it’s important to practice chemical safety when dealing with acetone.
EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System program (IRIS) is dedicated to identifying any health hazards coming from chemicals found within the environment. So far, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not shown acetone to cause cancer. In one test, acetone was shown to not cause skin cancer in animals[*].
Health effects of acetone are mild. If you do come into contact with outside acetone, your symptoms will vary depending upon your exposure level. Small amounts of acetone will only irritate the skin and eyes, while repeated exposure could cause dermatitis[*].
Prevention measures include wearing protective gloves and clothing and keeping the space ventilated. If acetone comes into contact with your skin or eyes, first aid measures include removing any contaminated clothing and flushing the area with water[*].
Exposure to Industrial Workers
What makes acetone dangerous is that it is so highly flammable. It has a flash point of −20 °C (−4 °F) and a boiling point of 56.05 °C (132.89 °F). It’s important to keep it away from open flames or other ignition sources, as it can cause a fire at anything above its flash point[*]. Because acetone is a liquid, it can produce vapor that travels to a distant ignition source.
To protect workers who work with acetone, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of both the United States and Canada set “threshold limit values” for the substance. Essentially, this is an “exposure limit” to how much acetone a worker can come into contact with over his or her lifetime without adverse health effects.
One way that those on a keto diet ensure they maintain their ketosis, and receive the benefits of ketosis, is by measuring the amount of acetone on the breath. Typically, the higher amount of acetone present, the further they are into ketosis.
Weight Loss Benefits
There are many reasons someone might choose to follow a keto diet and put their body in ketosis. Benefits of being in ketosis include (but aren’t limited to):
- Significant and hunger-free weight loss
- More fat burn, since the body turns to fat stores instead of carbs for energy
- Stabilized blood sugar from little to no carb intake and slow fat burn
- Improved cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- Less chance of inflammation in the body, which has been linked to acne and other conditions
- Regulation of hormones
Plus, research has shown a strong correlation between the rate of fat loss and breath acetone concentration (amount of acetone on the breath)
One well-known connection in the medical community between a ketogenic diet and health benefits is the ability to calm neurological conditions like epilepsy.
- In a 2003 study with rats, researchers found acetone suppressed seizures in four types of experimental animal models
- Besides the benefits of a ketogenic diet itself, current data also shows ketone bodies, including acetone, could represent their own distinctive therapeutic qualities in those with epilepsy and maybe other neurological disorders
With these benefits in mind, the importance of monitoring ketone levels while following a keto diet makes sense. Thankfully, monitoring is fairly easy.
There are a few different ways to measure ketones in the body, but acetone is most commonly monitored on the breath.
When ketones are created during fat metabolism, they are released from the body in different ways, meaning they can be measured in three different areas of the body.
As mentioned above, acetone is most detectable on the breath, and often produces what many describe as a characteristic fruity smell. (Some people report it actually has the faint smell of nail polish.)
One can test for the presence of acetone on the breath using a ketone breath monitor, like the Ketonix meter, which measures how much of the ketone is exhaled on the breath. Typically, a breath monitor reading of between 40 and 80 indicates nutritional ketosis.
It might seem pricey initially to buy a breath meter, but the benefit is that you’re able to use it forever. By comparison, the repeat purchase required for urine or blood testing strips may actually make breath testing a more cost-effective method.
The downside to measuring ketone levels through acetone on the breath is that it’s not always the most reliable method for testing, so you might want to sometimes combine it with other testing methods. However, it’s still a nice, non-invasive way to monitor your ketone levels, especially when first starting on a keto diet.