It is a popular belief that acrylic paint is inherently non-toxic. It is water-based, accessible, affordable, and easy to work with. Most common acrylic paints sold are labeled ‘non-toxic’, validating the reputation. As a student, I learned about the toxicity of oil paints, and lead-based paint, but acrylic was thought to be harmless.
My teacher recommended acrylic paint for almost all projects, based on the idea that they were sold in every grocery store, versatile, and easy to clean off our desks. We would get it on our hands, up to our elbows, and sometimes on our faces.
Then I learned that acrylic paint can be harmful. The news shook and confused me. I had personally never noticed irritation on my skin or that distinct toxic-fume smell that is a signature of classic polyurethane, for example. It is water-based, making it significantly safer than oil paints and varnishes, but it is still not perfectly harmless. How and when is acrylic paint toxic?
Are Acrylic Paints Toxic?
In most common situations, painting with acrylic is safe. Many ingredients known and proven to be toxic have been banned and replaced over the years. There are some pigments, however, that contain heavy metals. You can expect them to be clearly labeled, and you may be able to find imitation colors that do not contain the metal.
All acrylic paints can be toxic to inhale or consume. They can also contaminate water. So, there are important points to be aware of if you choose to work with this medium.
Know what your acrylic paints are made of
You want to be aware of what ingredients are in your acrylic paint. Some pigments are made with toxic metals; cadmium, titanium dioxide, chromium, manganese, and cobalt. Though it is significantly less common since the United States banned it, you will want to be aware if your paints contain lead. Paints containing these ingredients should be labeled clearly, but it might be a good idea to check on the manufacturer’s website for more information.
Acrylic paints release gases as they dry
They contain acrylic polymer emulsions, and their binder is an acrylic polymer, which means that acrylic paints will release ammonia, water, and propylene glycol into the air as your project dries. These chemicals are safe for human exposure, but may be harmful to the environment. Acrylic paints made with a resin binder give off volatile organic compounds, which can have adverse effects on your respiratory system.
Particles of acrylic paint are not safe for your respiratory system
Acrylic is made from This is especially true for acrylic paints that contain a toxic metal ingredient. It is recommended to be extra careful when you are airbrushing or sanding with acrylic paint.
Is Acrylic Paint Safe For Skin?
Many artists tend to get their hands dirty while working on a project. It is also common to simply work with your fingers, when the paintbrush isn’t quite doing what you want it to. Some artists try to use acrylic paints for body and face art.
Acrylic paint is not safe for your skin, however. Even the tubes labeled “non-toxic” like tempera paint are not intended by the FDA to be used on the skin, and it is not advised.
Some pigments can be absorbed by your skin
You may already be aware that exposure to lead can cause serious health problems, lead poisoning, and cancer. Other heavy metals can cause damage to your central nervous system. This occurs very rarely, and getting a little paint on your hands should not cause panic.
Acrylic paint hardens
This can result in your skin becoming irritated because it is suffocating underneath the paint. You may also find that the paint can get locked in with the microscopic hairs in your skin and will be irritating – if not painful – to remove. Once hardened, it is much more difficult to wash it from your skin.
Are Acrylic Paints Safe For Children and/or Babies?
Some parents regularly choose acrylic paint for projects with their kids. Whether your little artist is expressing his own creativity, or you desire a footprint keepsake, it is important to understand how acrylic paint might affect children.
- Acrylic paint on baby skin – Because the precious skin on a baby’s hand or foot is ultra-sensitive, acrylic paint can irritate them. It is not advisable to use acrylic paints with babies.
- Toddlers tend to taste everything – Acrylic paint is not safe for anyone to eat, but toddlers are particularly reckless about what they put into their mouths. It is recommended that small children are always supervised if they are working with acrylic paint, and they would benefit from working with gloves.
Are Acrylic Paints Toxic To Animals?
Pets in the home may wander through your studio and end up with paint on tails, paws, or noses. Their natural instinct is to clean themselves, and this can ultimately result with them ingesting a little paint.
Being water-based, acrylic paints are not expected to poison your pet if they ingest a small amount. Although they will likely be okay with a little exposure, eating a lot of acrylic paint is not good for anyone.
Cats and dogs can be curious and if yours happens to eat a tablespoon or more of your paint while your back is turned, you may want to be cautious and call a vet. Consuming a larger amount of paint can cause your cat or dog to vomit, become lethargic, wobble when they walk, or have difficulty breathing.
NOTE: cat paws can be irritated by acrylic paint, but dog paws do not seem to be bothered by it.
What Would Happen To Me If I Accidentally Consumed Paint?
In the rush and excitement of inspiration, it is easy to let important things slip your mind and take a back seat to your creativity. Accidents happen, and you may find yourself eating lunch before you realize you forgot to wash the paint from your hands. So, what can you expect, and what should you do, if you accidentally consume acrylic paint?
Luckily, in small accidental amounts, acrylic paint will not likely have any effect on a fully grown human. Negative side effects are rare, but possible if you spend almost all of your time with acrylic paint, and/or you somehow consume a lot of it.
Best Practices For Working With Acrylic Paint
In general, acrylic paints are safe to work with. Their other benefits often outweigh the risks, and many artists choose to work with acrylic paint every day and are never bothered by it.
If this is the medium you work best with, there are some guidelines you may want to follow to help prevent all possible exposure to toxins and nasty side effects.
Acrylic paint may release volatile organic compounds, ammonia, and formaldehyde while it dries. These are known to cause irritation in your respiratory system, so it is important that you paint in a space that is well ventilated.
If your projects are small, you can likely paint safely with a window and door open. For bigger projects, or long-term exposure to the fumes of acrylic paint, you may want to consider painting in a garage or outdoor space, or installing a professional ventilation system for your studio.
Wear gloves if you tend to touch your paint. Nitrile may give you the near-to-skin precision you need if you paint with your hands, but if you are good enough utilizing brushes and tools, you can also find gloves that breathe better and keep your hands from getting hot and uncomfortable.
Wear a mask with a proper filter if you are airbrushing or sanding. Most manufacturers offer a style of mask specifically designed to filter paint particles and fumes. You can find them online or in your local hardware store.
Read The Label Carefully
The American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) will label dangerous acrylic paints that contain known toxins. They often provide safety instructions and warnings against spraying, inhaling, etc. You can also find relevant information on the brand or manufacturer’s website. Some manufacturers will post results of their latest tests.
Acrylic paints that are free of toxic ingredients will be stamped with an AP Certification seal. The list of ingredients will also help you understand what you are exposing yourself and your environment to. Get to know and understand what your paints are made of, and you can choose paints that you feel comfortable and safe to work with.
Keep Workspace Clean
Remove and properly dispose of painted waste items, such as drop cloths, newspaper, and rags. This can help reduce inhalation of the drying paint fumes. In some circumstances, acrylic paint must be treated as hazardous waste, and discarded according to local regulations.
Propylene glycol, a component of acrylic paint, is particularly damaging to waterways. Dump rinse water into a bucket, screen it off to protect it from kids and pets, and allow the water to evaporate and leave the paint behind. Once dry, it can be discarded. Avoid washing paint down the sink whenever possible.
Remove It From Your Skin
Acrylic paint can be easily washed off your hands if it is wet. If you lose yourself in your work, like I do, you will learn that paint spreads quickly, and before you know it, there is some on your elbow that you didn’t notice until hours later. Soap and water may not be enough to wash it off if it dries and hardens. What else can you do?
- Baby oil – Pour a small amount directly onto dry skin and massage the spot, loosening up the paint. Then you can gently scrape it off with your fingernail. Rinse it away. Luckily, baby oil can leave your skin feeling soft.
- Rubbing Alcohol – Loosen the paint by washing the spot with soap and water first. Dry the area and apply rubbing alcohol with a cloth or cotton ball. You may still have to scrub a little to get it all, and you will have to wash your hands again to get the alcohol off, since it can also mildly irritate your skin.
- Acetone – Being stronger than rubbing alcohol, it is recommended that you use acetone only on the most stubborn acrylic paint stains, and do not use it if you know you are allergic or sensitive to it. Douse the corner of a thick hand towel, allow excess to drip off, and then press the acetone part of the towel to your stain for 30-60 seconds. The spot may become mildly irritated with the acetone, but it is not likely to cause injury. You may have to scrub a little with the acetone to remove all the paint. Warm water and mild soap may help remove any leftover paint and you will want to wash the acetone thoroughly from your skin.
What Happens When Acrylic Paint Is Inhaled?
Airbrushing and sanding acrylic paint is arguably the most dangerous thing you could do. Particles of acrylic can lodge in your lungs and irritate your nose, throat, and eyes. Acrylic paint also releases fumes that can be toxic in large or long-term amounts. Some of these gases can have negative effects on your kidneys, liver, and central nervous system.
What Happens When Acrylic Paint Is Ingested?
Acrylic paint is not considered generally toxic, which means small amounts of ingestion will not likely cause harm to kids, adults, or pets. If you tend to lick or chew on your paint brushes, as Van Gogh was known to do, you may experience some upset stomach, and rarely, vomiting. If you are concerned, call poison control.
Is Acrylic Paint Toxic When Heated?
If you paint a porch chair, it will eventually stop off-gassing, and is not expected to release more fumes in the heat of summer than it did when it was first curing. Curing can take a few weeks for a project like that, and note that acrylic does fade with exposure to sunlight.
It is common to bake acrylic paint onto ceramic and glass projects to speed up the curing process. Keep the area well ventilated and you should be safe.
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