Are Oil Paints Toxic? 5 Facts Before Artists Begin Painting


Have you ever wanted to try oil painting but worry about toxins from the various ingredients? While oil-based paints have been around for centuries, many people have concerns about newer formulations and manufacturing processes. With my eczema, I wondered: Are oil paints toxic?

In general, oil paints are not toxic. Linseed oil, safflower oil, and other vegetable oils (the most common bases) do not react readily with human skin. Toxic pigments due to heavy metals may cause allergic reactions. Sensitive artists should wear protective gear to avoid direct contact.

Some of the myths that oil paintings are toxic have nothing to do with the paint and more to do with unsafe practices and related solvents. As I researched, I wanted to compile and share 5 facts about painting that all artists should know.

Woman covering her nose while covered in oil paint splatters.

Common Ingredients of Oil Paint and Their Toxicity

Oil paint is composed of natural oil and pigment, the majority of which are completely safe and non-toxic. A few are toxic, such as lead-white, cadmium, and cobalt blue, but only if you breathe in or eat the dry pigment before the oil is mixed.

As a result, creatives must enlighten themselves on the chemicals they are using on their palettes. The biggest culprits are lead, cadmium, and mercurial sulfides. However, their risk in art materials is minimal, particularly when inhalation or skin contact is reduced or kept to a minimum.

The most significant risk would be from ingesting these substances. Painters should not put paint, brushes, or other related tools in their mouths, and they should never use the same paint containers for foods or drinks. Facemasks should always be worn by people who make their own paints or use powdered pigments.

Skin & Lung Sensitivity For Artists

The dangers of oil-based painting, mainly solvents, range from poisoning and cancer to allergic reactions. Oil-based paint poisoning, for example, may occur when large amounts of paint get into your stomach or lungs, as MedlinePlus points out. Paint can also enter your system through your eyes or eyes. The Environmental Protection Agency also states that some VOCs(volatile organic compounds) can cause skin or lung cancer in animals and humans.

Now, because it is easy to thin oil paints or clean them from brushes using solvents, most people associate oil painting with toxic solvents. Turpentine is not only one of the most common solvents used in oil painting but also one of the most harmful. The toxic fumes and unpleasant smell many people talk about comes from the solvent or other white spirits that artists use to help with cleaning, drying time, and paint fluidity.

However, other less toxic alternatives, like linseed oil, are fairly scentless.

Brushes can also be cleaned with a simple ivory soap instead of turpentine to keep children, pets, and yourself safe from the strong smell and touch of turpentine.

Furthermore, if you use high-quality paint, you can skip using a medium and just use the paint straight away. The medium is only required to change the properties of the paint. It can speed up or slow down the drying process, increase transparency, or increase fluidity. Still, it can also be removed entirely from your painting process.

Any solvent should be disposed of properly by storing it in a leakproof container and transporting it to a hazardous materials collection center. Unused paints should be allowed to dry before being scraped from a palette and discarded.

With that in mind, below are tips on making your oil painting safer.

Male painter holds paintbrush near his face.

Safety Measures When Using Oil Paint

Paint With Water-Mixable Oils

The properties of traditional oil paint and water mixable oil paint are nearly identical. As a result, the luster of oils can be enjoyed without the use of any solvents to thin paint or clean brushes. As the name implies, water can be mixed with your color to dilute it, and brushes can be washed under a running tap with a bit of soap.

Experienced oil painters may notice a slight difference in paint handling, but the differences are usually minor. For a deeper analysis of how they perform, read Julie Caves’ water-mixable oil paints comparison post.

You can extend the life of your water-mixable oil paint by adding linseed oil. Color brands of water-mixable oil can be mixed together (and combined with regular oils, although they will lose their water miscibility). Water-mixable painting mediums are available from Daniel Smith, Cobra, and Holbein Duo-Aqua.

Zest-It Plus Low Odor Solvents

Zest-It is an excellent example of an environmentally friendly alternative to common solvents. Use it instead of turpentine or paint thinner to thin your oil paint and clean your brush. Though it has a strong citrus fragrance, I highly recommend it as it is safer than the heady fumes of regular turps. The safest low odor solvents, such as Gamsol, have 99.95% of the most harmful solvents removed and are ideal for thinning oil paints.

Cleaning Brushes With Oil

Using oil to clean up after an oil painting session is another way to avoid using solvents. You can actually use the regular vegetable oil from the supermarket to clean, which will help you save money. Here’s an excellent brush cleaning routine:

  1. Blot the excess paint from your brushes with a rag or an old piece of newspaper.
  2. Dip brushes in a small amount of oil and rub it into the bristles with your fingers. This will aid in removing any remaining paint from your brush.
  3. Blot and repeat until no more paint comes out.
  4. Complete the cleaning process by washing with soap and water. Regular soaps can be used, but artist’s soaps, like The Master’s Brush Cleaner and Preserver, contain natural oils, helping to maintain your tools in exceptional condition.
  5. Once your brushes have been cleaned, it is best to hang them up by their handles to allow any moisture to drain.

Your painting palette can be cleaned in the same way, and if it’s wooden, cleaning it with oil rather than solvent will make it last longer. Scrape the paint from your palette with a palette knife, then wipe the excess paint away with an old rag, and clean the rest out by sprinkling a little oil on the surface and scrubbing with another rag. The oil will help keep your wooden palette smooth and prevent it from drying out.

Avoiding Contact With Oil Paints

When painting, it’s good to wear barrier cream or nitrile gloves, especially if you have sensitive or dry skin. Oil paint can be difficult to remove altogether, and pigments can remain in contact with your skin long after your painting session has ended.

Good Ventilation

If you can’t avoid using solvents (and even if you can! ), painting in a well-ventilated area is always a good idea. Allow any fumes to disperse by opening a window or two. Low odor solvents can help reduce the risk of headaches. However, ventilation is still a good idea because it emits unhealthy fumes to breathe in, just like regular solvents.

Healthline provides other steps that you can take to reduce your risks while painting.

  • Be sure you select indoor paints. Read product labels in order to choose a product that will generate less harmful fumes or VOCs, such as water-based paints.
  • Read safety information on the product label carefully. Note any warnings, first-aid information, or if protective measures like gloves or goggles are required. You may want to use a respirator to lower your risk of inhaling VOCs.
  • Take frequent breaks to allow yourself to get some fresh air.
  • After painting, plan to keep windows as open as possible for two to three days to allow paint fumes to exit the room. You should plan to avoid entering a freshly painted room during this time.
  • Close any leftover paint containers tightly to prevent vapors from leaking into the surrounding area. If you choose to dispose of leftover paint, do so properly.

You are done painting. What can you do to reduce the associated risks?

Wet oil painting and brushes.

Once Oil Painted Artwork is Complete

Newly painted works are more toxic to sensitive groups of people, but they will naturally detoxify as the paint dries. As a result, pregnant women and newborns should avoid areas with newly painted surfaces, including artwork.

You can speed up the process and detoxify a freshly painted room by following these steps:

  • Open windows and doors
  • Use fans to circulate the air
  • Use air purifiers with HEPA filters at least once a week
  • If you have new carpet, cover the floor with Bicarb Soda and leave for a day or two before vacuuming
  • Try sliced onions in bowls to soak up the toxic smell
  • Indoor plants can soak up toxins, particularly formaldehyde. This guide about the¬†top 10 plants for removing toxins from the air¬†can help.

What if you have already been affected?

Symptoms and Treatment of Paint Allergy

Inhaling paint fumes can cause a sore throat, runny nose, cough, nasal congestion, and watery or irritated eyes.

On the other hand, direct contact reactions can cause localized skin irritation, rash or discolored skin, itchiness, and, in some cases, blistering. Burning and swelling are also common symptoms of direct contact paint allergies.

In the event of an allergic reaction, leave the area immediately for fresh air and rinse the irritated part with water.

Additional guidelines for treating exposure to paint or paint fumes include:

  • On skin.¬†Wash the affected area with warm water and soap.
  • Swallowing.¬†Immediately contact your poison control center or healthcare provider for personalized direction.
  • In eyes.¬†Rinse your eyes with running water. Close your eyes and ask for assistance in contacting your professional medical attention.
  • Feelings of dizziness or lightheadedness.¬†Immediately seek fresh air and medical help.

Most Importantly:

In all of the above situations or for any other health concerns, seek guidance from your professional healthcare provider.

Mandy Chu

Mandy and Mike are digital nomads and avid travelers. Art brings us joy whether in museums, galleries, or our home. Join us as we learn about the art world as down-to-earth admirers, collectors, and investors.