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Don't Mislabel Me (Just My Bottles) | BenchFly
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Don’t Mislabel Me (Just My Bottles)

Dear Dora: Don't mislabel me, just my bottlesDear Dora,

Is it wrong to intentionally mislabel buffer bottles to keep people from stealing them?

– WV, grad student


Dear WV,

I completely understand your frustration. Mysteriously disappearing buffer bottles (only to reappear empty an unwashed on your bench a few days later) has become an annoying epidemic in wet-labs. In spite this nuisance, however, I do not recommend mislabeling buffer bottles, because this strategy could backfire at the owner too.

If you are fastidious about record keeping, you could develop unique codes for your buffer bottles, and then keep track of them in your notebook. In other words, rather than writing “Ammonium Bicarbonate” instead of “Tris-HCl”, you could write “Solution 001”. Since “Solution 001” does not mean anything to anyone else, they are unlikely to steal your bottle. Many benches also have cabinets where you can keep “private” supplies, including high-in-demand buffers.

Hopefully this will resolve the problem. If the issue persists, and you know who the responsible person is, let them know how frustrating this is for you. Most people do not like to cause conflict, and one polite conversation will probably resolve the issue.


Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to DearDora@benchfly.com and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!


Stay tuned for the next Dear Dora in two weeks!  In the meantime, check a few of Dora’s recent posts:


Submit your questions to Dora at DearDora@benchfly.com, or use the comment box below!


8 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Heather Brewer

    wrote on September 7, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    My friend threatened to write everything in Russian on the labels, except that we work in a national lab, and the rules here state that they have to be legible with the complete ingredients clearly on the label. :-( It is best to have correct information of what is in the bottle for waste disposal purposes (speaking from experience of MANY lab cleanouts).

  2. Geeka

    wrote on September 7, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    Mislabeling the buffer bottles is in direct violation of most EH&S policies. Mostly of them state that you have to have what is one the bottle labeled in plain English (this includes no chemical formulas).

    I've found the way to alleviate this problem is to write something else on the bottle like "contaminated", that way someone won't use it.

  3. Naturalist

    wrote on September 9, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    would someone discard it?

  4. biochembelle

    wrote on September 8, 2010 at 11:03 am

    I'm with Geeka and have a general problem with intentionally mislabeling solutions or having some secret code. This is especially problematic if the person leaves without cleaning up properly (which unfortunately happens a great deal).

    I have heard of someone labeling their bottles as, for example, "PBS+ATB"–where ATB is "anti-theft buffer". I think that or "contaminated" is probably a safer/more responsible way to combat the problem… outside of addressing the issue directly.

  5. Katie Adastra

    wrote on September 15, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    ATB: I like that. Might have to use that one! Although I admit to swiping a few milliliters of other people buffers when in a bind. I always tell on myself later.

  6. How Many Postdoctoral Fellowships Should I Tackle? | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on September 17, 2010 at 5:50 am

    […] Don’t Mislabel Me (Just My Bottles) […]

  7. George Aranjuez

    wrote on September 25, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Chemical safety requires all bottles labeled with no formulas or symbols. If it were aliquots in microcentrifuge tubes, it's probably fine.

    I think this is not a solution, but just a stop-gap measure. If the person is taking your stuff, she's probably taking other people's suff, as well.

    I say address this issue head-on.

  8. orchidhunter

    wrote on October 2, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    I used to work in a lab with a colleague who would label her double-distilled water with a simple skull-and-crossbones.

    I agree with everyone here that mislabeling is not a clever thing to do. When the time comes to get rid of solutions left behind by recent graduates, how can we trust the accuracy of their labeling if they purposely mislabel (some of) their solutions? Think how expensive and tedious it would be for EH&S to determine that your "hazardous waste" is plain water!

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