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Think Your Paint is Non-Toxic? Think Again


Think Your Paint is Non-Toxic? Think Again

Reading through art forums on health and safety, I’ve come across some disturbing claims that are misinformation. While there is a lot of great advice out there, I’ve read some comments to the effect that: “the only toxic risk in painting are the solvents and mediums you use.” This is false.

This feeds the myth that oil painting, which relies on solvents, is terrible for your health whereas acrylic painting is non-toxic and poses no health risks. Again, this is not true. Both can be toxic and both can be used safely. It’s important to get informed to avoid getting sick.

Solvents are a major health hazard, but your paint itself contains potential hazardous materials and should be used with care. What makes paint toxic are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), solvents, and heavy metals.

The good news is that there are safe ways to handle paint. Following basic safety guidelines in the studio is essential to minimizing your exposure to these chemicals. Here’s some information that every painter should know.

Toxic Chemicals in Your Paint

Toxins in Paints: VOCs, toxic pigments, and solvents

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

These usually take the form of preservatives and chemicals that are added to prevent paint from freezing, spoiling or molding—to increase its shelf-life. VOCs are released into the air as paint dries. They cause kidney damage, respiratory problems, disrupt reproductive function, skin and eye irritation, headaches, and cancer.

Many paints—both acrylic and oil—labelled ‘non-toxic’ still contain VOCs (like formaldehyde). Minimize your exposure by installing proper ventilation in your studio. Do not sleep in the same room as drying paintings.

Consult Green Guide for Artists, a resource book by Karen Michel, for more information.

Heavy Metals & Toxic Pigments

Certain pigments are made of heavy metals and toxic chemicals. They can be absorbed into your blood stream through the skin. Exposure can cause damage to internal organs, lung and kidney disease, birth defects, and cancer. They are found in certain pigments. Cadmium, cobalt, copper, and lead are all heavy metals (think cadmium red, cobalt blue, lead white). Many hues replace highly toxic pigments with less toxic or relatively safe manufactured pigments.

oil painting palette

Highly toxic pigments: (thanks to Caroline Roberts for this list)

  • antimony white (antimony trioxide)
  • barium yellow (barium chromate)
  • burnt or raw umber (iron oxides, manganese silicates or dioxide)
  • cadmium red, orange or yellow (cadmium sulfide, cadmium selenide)
  • chrome green (Prussian blue, lead chromate)
  • chrome orange (lead carbonate)
  • chrome yellow (lead chromate)
  • cobalt violet (cobalt arsenate or cobalt phosphate)
  • cobalt yellow (potassium cobalt nitrate)
  • lead or flake white (lead carbonate)
  • lithol red (sodium, barium and calcium salts of azo pigments)
  • manganese violet (manganese ammonium pyrophosphate)
  • molybdate orange (lead chromate, lead molybdate, lead sulfate)
  • naples yellow (lead antimonate)
  • strontium yellow (strontium chromate)
  • vermilion (mercuric sulfide)
  • zinc sulfide
  • zinc yellow (zinc chromate)

Dry paint pigments

Be particularly careful if you’re working with powdered pigments or making your own paints. These easily become air-borne and absorbed through the lungs.

Use a respiratory mask when sanding paintings. Don’t leave paint dust in your studio—it will become air-borne.


Solvents, including turpentine and mineral spirits, are found in most oil paint and oil painting mediums. Oil paint is traditionally pigment suspended in a binder (oil), but many companies add solvents and other fillers to the paint. Some professional quality artists’ paints, like M. Graham, do not add solvents to their paint, but most of the lower quality brands do.

To minimize your exposure to solvents, keep lids on your solvent jars at all times, avoid skin contact, and use proper ventilation. Choose alkyd and solvent-free mediums when possible (Gamblin and M. Graham offer these).

Walnut oil painting mediums for non-toxic paintingSolvent-free oil painting mediums for non-toxic painting

Going Solvent Free

Want to detoxify your painting practice? A big part of non-toxic painting is going solvent-free.

Many artists are choosing to go solvent-free and there is a lot of information out there to help you clean up your practice.

This means using oil (linseed, walnut, safflower, or poppy) as a painting medium and choosing solvent-free mediums. Choose high quality artist paint to ensure there are no harmful additives. While painting, have a brush system in place to use one brush for each color or value range. Clean your brushes with oil (wipe them first with a rag), or use Murphy’s oil soap.

I strongly suggest going solvent-free if you are pregnant. Check out Leah Mebane’s excellent Guide to Non-Toxic Painting for more information.

Painting and Your Health

The bottom-line: art has health risks. Be smart and minimize them as much as possible. Get informed. Read the labels. Most reputable paint manufacturers supply health and safety data on their websites. Check out their MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets).

A great resource is Gamblin’s Studio Safety: Create Without Compromise Guide

How to stay safe and keep healthy? Here are some basic guidelines.

Guidelines for a Non-Toxic Studio

1. Work in a well-ventilated area. Make sure you have good air flow. If you’re working at home, open a window if possible. If you have your own studio make that it has ventilation or get it installed right now.

2. Minimize your use of solvents and keep them covered. Keep a lid on your solvent jar and your mediums. Do not leave your brushes soaking in an open jar of solvent. Just because you don’t smell it doesn’t mean it isn’t hurting you: odorless isn’t non-toxic.

3. Wear gloves. This will minimize absorption of chemicals through the skin.

4. DO NOT clean your hands with odorless solvent or turpentine. An easy way to get oil paint of your hands is with a bit of oil (any oil will do—I keep a jar of inexpensive vegetable oil on hand for this). Afterwards rinse them with soap and water.

5. Don’t eat, drink or smoke in your studio. Meals and snacks are an opportunity to take a break, get some fresh air. You may want to keep a water bottle with a lid in the studio. put your drink you’ll dip your paint brush in it! I did this so many times before I gave it up.

6. Don’t put paintbrushes in your mouth. Avoid ingesting paint and chemicals.

7. Wash your hands after painting. It’s just common sense. And stay moisturized. Painting can be hard on the hands and washing them often strips them of their natural oils. Apply moisturizer after each session to avoid cracking and irritation.

8. Use a dust-mask or respiratory mask when sanding. And do so only in a well-ventilated area or outside. Don’t leave dust in your studio.

Guidelines for a healthy, non-toxic studio


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