Do You Know These 5 Oil Painting Health Risks?

Paint solvents, thinners and mediums are all highly flammable

Do you know about the many health risks associated with oil painting? Do you know how to best protect yourself, your family and pets, in the studio?

We’ve all heard the saying, “A ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  This is especially true when working with the toxic materials associated with oil painting.

Here are the 5 main health issues and a summary of what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones.

1. Toxic Vapors and Fumes

There is a diversified selection of solvents available for use with oil paints.  All of them are caustic and emit vapors and fumes. And as a result can be harmful through contact and inhalation.

The difficulty is trying to find one that is inexpensive, dilutes oil paint well, and cleans brushes thoroughly while at the same time considered harmless. Some solvents like turpentine are very effective at cleaning brushes, but aren’t so great to mix with your paint. And turpentine emits highly toxic fumes.

Some manufacturers produce odorless solvents and mineral spirits which are better health choices.

2. Flammable Fire Hazard

Regardless of the type of solvent, there is no getting around the fact that they are all flammable. This poses one of the greatest risks in oil painting.

When solvents are used, anything they come in contact with will in turn become combustible. This includes the painting surface, the solvent itself and any spills, and most importantly saturated rags or paper towels.

Also, oil and solvent-soaked rags can ignite spontaneously.  These means that they can burst into flames from a chemical reaction only.  It does not need an outside source such as a spark or flame to ignite.

 3. Toxic Pigments

There is a small variety of raw pigments derived from earth minerals that cause a safety concern. The following pigments are considered carcinogenic:

Known or Probable Carcinogens / Highly Toxic Pigments
antimony white
barium yellow
burnt umber or raw umber
cadmium red or orange
cadmium yellow
cadmium barium colors
cadmium barium yellow
chrome green
chrome orange
chrome yellow
cobalt violet
cobalt yellow
lead or flake white
lithol red
manganese violet
molybdate orange
naples yellow
strontium yellow
zinc sulfide
zinc yellow

Moderately Toxic Pigments / Slightly Toxic Pigments
alizarin crimson
carbon black
cerulean blue
cobalt blue
cobalt green
chromium oxide green
manganese blue
Prussian blue
toluidine red
toluidine yellow
zinc white

Normally, these pigments cause the greatest harm when used in powder form. However, they can also be absorbed into the skin. Oil colors, unlike other forms of paint, are made from raw pigments bound in oil. The oil makes the paint more easily absorbed into the skin, and then into the bloodstream.

4. Toxic Mediums

Just like solvents, all painting mediums are made from petroleum distillates.  And all petroleum-based products have health risks. Follow the same precautions with mediums as you do with solvents.  Never allow prolonged contact with skin or eyes.  If accidentally ingested or splashed into the eyes, seek medical attention immediately.

5. Toxic Skin and Eye Irritants

Mediums and solvents are skin and eye irritants.  Prolonged contact with skin can cause irritation and over time may produce a carcinogenic effect.

How to Protect Yourself

There are several ways to protect yourself while painting with oils and solvents.

  • Purchase odorless solvents or mineral spirits.  There are several choices from a variety of manufacturers
  • Always keep your studio well vented, whether using odorless solvents, or not.
  • Never allow a flame near your work area. Do not smoke when handling solvents and mediums
  • Always take care to properly store and dispose of your rags and solvents. Store and dispose of oil and solvent-soaked rags in metal cans only.
  • Wear protective gloves, and even a face mask, goggles, or other protective eye ware.
  • Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after every painting session.
  • Never allow children or pets to come in contact with paints, solvents, or mediums
  • If paints, solvents, or mediums are accidentally ingested or splashed into your eyes, seek medical attention immediately

These few precautions will ensure you have years of safe fun in your studio.  If you know of any more hazards or precautions, please let us know about them in the comments below.


About Gary Bolyer Fine Art

I am a New York City-based landscape artist.
This entry was posted in How to Paint in Oils and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Do You Know These 5 Oil Painting Health Risks?

  1. Richard says:

    Oops, I thought turps was the recommended solvent for mixing with paint? Not that I do this regularly, but if necessary I might thin some paint with turps in order to make a sketch yet clean the brushes with white spirit. I do not care what is best for cleaning brushes. The question is what is the best solvent to mix with paint?

  2. Pingback: Gary Bolyer’s Top 7 How-to-Paint Blogs | Gary Bolyer Fine Art

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