Are Oil Paints Toxic? Everything You Need to Know

Are you a beginner at oil painting? Have you heard people asking the question ‘are oil paints toxic?’ Many paints can contain toxic chemicals that can be harmful to humans as well as the environment. If you want to start oil painting, but are not sure of the hazards and how safe they are, I will provide some insight into this matter, as well as clear up any misconceptions around the topic of oil paints.

So, are Oil Paints Toxic?

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It is actually a myth that oil paints are toxic. Oil paint consists of pigments and oils such as flaxseed oil, poppy, or walnut oil, to name a few, and are natural, plant-based, and non-toxic for the most part. 

Do watch out for ones that contain cadmium, cobalt, or lead-white, and be sure not to breathe them in and wash your hands afterwards. 

Another concern that people have with oil paints that leads them to think that they are toxic is the fact that there is a strong smell from the paints. This smell actually comes from the solvent that painters use to help with the cleaning and drying time of the paint. 

Know What Your Paints Are Made Of

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Oil paint is a slow-drying paint that consists of pigments suspended in drying oil, such as linseed oil. As the oils dry slowly due to oxidation, they create a hard film of paint when they come in contact with air. 

It is important to know which pigments are being used in your paints as some of them are heavy metals and can be dangerous to your health. The ones to avoid include Lead, cadmium, and mercurial sulfides. You should limit your skin contact with these as well as keeping your inhalation to a minimum. 

You would be at the greatest risk if you were to ingest these chemicals. So when painting, make sure to not put paint brushes or tools into your mouth and don’t use the same containers for paints as you would use for eating or drinking.

Solvents are Toxic

The main toxic risk when oil painting is actually the solvents and mediums you use. Turpentine, one of the most popular solvents used in oil painting, is one of the most toxic as it releases fumes that are bad for your health if you inhale them. Other’s include mineral spirits and citrus-based cleaners.

When working with these solvents, use them sparingly and keep their lids closed at all times and only open them when needed. Also, make sure you’re working in an open area that has windows that are open. Solvents are mainly used for thinning oil paints and for cleaning brushes, so it’s possible to paint without using any solvents at all. Just buy some extra brushes so you will barely have to use solvents at all.

How To Make Your Studio Safe

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To ensure that you have a safe experience when oil painting, here are some tips on how you can protect yourself from toxic chemicals and substances in your studio:

  • Try working with oil paints that are more fluid to avoid using solvents to thin them out. 
  • Since solvents are used mainly for cleaning brushes, try to use them outside or in a well-ventilated place.
  • Opt for low odor solvents such as the Sunnyside one or Windsor & Newton
  • Use solvent-free alternatives for cleaning your brushes such as wiping them on kitchen towels or paper towels between uses.
  • Wear gloves when you paint to keep solvents and mediums from being absorbed into your skin. Gloves also help with keeping your hands paint-free. I recommend checking out the Dulfine Work Gloves.
  • Keep all food and drink out of the area in which you are painting to avoid accidentally inhaling or eating chemicals by mistake.


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