Acid attacks: Why do they happen and what should you do?

Acid attacks are on the increase in the UK with over 400 reported in the last 6 months alone. Perpetrators of these forms of violent attacks throw acid at their victims, usually in the faces to disfigure, torture or kill. The long term affects can be devastating with victims suffering from permanent physical scarring / disfigurement and psychological distress.

Understanding the problem

The term “Acid Attack” is being used to describe attacks with corrosive chemicals. Whilst acids, and in particular Sulphuric, Nitric, and the slightly less, but still damaging Hydrochloric acid are the most commonly used chemicals in acid attacks, there are Alkali based caustic chemicals such as Sodium Hydroxide, Potassium Hydroxide, and Calcium Hydroxide. Alkoxides and metal amides can be highly dangerous if inhaled, or put into the eyes. Alkali substances with a pH level over 11 can be highly corrosive to the skin. Alkali can cause liquefactive necrosis by penetrating tissue quickly, although unlike acid, sometimes little pain is caused and it can take up to 12 hours for the extent of the damage to be realised.

The government is trying to understand and find ways to combat this phenomenon – which seems to be increasing as acid becomes a weapon of choice for many. Measures such as licencing the sale of corrosive chemicals may help by making the substances harder to obtain, and illegal to transport and carry without licenses, but will this really help? The issue here is that regular everyday people do not carry weapons, nor indulge in violent crime. The people carrying weapons and perpetrating these crimes will largely disregard the “law”, and if they have violence on their mind, screwdrivers, kitchen knives, baseball bats, and other are impossible to licence, and will be used anyway. Making it hard to obtain one weapon tends to lead to the use of another form of violence, or, send the problem deeper underground and lead to the manufacture of chemicals on a black market.

Why acid?

If you were to attack someone – as an individual with a blunt or sharp weapon, there is a chance that they will put up a fight, maybe even take the weapon from you and use it against you… There is also the question of DNA evidence being left behind. Acid removes and destroys DNA evidence, and also causes extreme pain, blindness and incapacity very quickly. The victim will NOT put up a fight and will usually move away rapidly. The crime is also terrifying and instils fear. This in turn builds the “violent brand” of the perpetrator.

Defending against an acid attack

Distance is critical when defending against acid, but this may not always be possible, and the element of surprise so often used may render this approach null and void. If distance is not possible, we need to understand that the simple blink reflex will not save us, nor will the hands up approach stop enough of the substance from getting into the face and eyes – which is the most dangerous place, and unfortunately most oft aimed for by the perpetrator. Creating and practicing a turn and head away approach and embedding this as a reflex is the only reliable defence against an acid attack. Taking the brunt of the attack on your back and in particular, and if lucky enough – layers of clothing may give you enough time to remove clothing and limit damage to skin. Take care when removing clothing however, and if necessary have the clothing cut to avoid pulling it over your head and towards the eyes and respiratory tracts. Further advice on dealing with an attack can be found below.

Dealing with an acid attack

In terms of dealing with an acid attack, time really is a crucial element.

  1. Make sure that the area is safe, and wear gloves when touching the victim, surrounding area or clothing
  2. Flood the affected area with litres and litres of water for at least 20 minutes to disperse the chemical and stop the burning. If the casualty is prone – ensure that the water does not collect under the casualty, as the water could contain a high enough concentration of chemical to damage the skin, and cause toxic fumes, or be absorbed / ingested by the casualty. In the event that the chemical attack is affecting the eyes, the process of dousing the area in water is still the same, but if only one eye is affected, take care not to allow the water to wash into the unaffected eye. You can achieve this by tilting the head so that the affected eye is positioned lower than the unaffected one. Do not allow the victim to touch the affected eye, and do not forcibly remove any contact lenses, as this could cause more damage to the eye.
  3. Remove any affected clothing, as there may be a deposit of the corrosive material, which is still making contact with the skin, or has not yet eaten through the clothing. Take care not to remove this towards the eyes if there is a chance of getting the substance near the eyes. Cutting the clothing may be the best option. Also remove any jewellery or watches, as they could be reacting with the chemical or storing pockets of chemical.
  4. Get professional medical assistance as soon as possible, and keep reassuring and talking to the victim. Monitor their breathing, pulse, level of responsiveness – and keep them calm.

Combat Academy runs training courses which include the defence and first aid relating specifically to chemical attacks. If you require further information then contact us on

Support organisations

If you have been affected by acid attacks and require any support or assistance, then contact Victim Support. They offer assistance to anyone who has been affected by a crime or violent assault, regardless of whether the police have been informed.

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Helpline – 0808 168 9111 (lines open Monday to Friday nights between 8pm to 8am, open 24 hours on weekends)