Oil Painting: Toxicity in Oils

Sophie Ploeg Art Blog toxicity in oils

Updated May 2018
A Hot Topic  amongst many (beginning) oil painters is the toxicity of working with oils. Many people refer to the unpleasant smell of oil paints and so choose to stay away. Others do not like the idea of working with toxic materials for a variety of reasons.

Perhaps they are health or environment conscious, or they are pregnant or have small children or pets around. Some of my blog readers mentioned it not so long ago and I thought I should pick up on their comments and write a little bit about oil painting and toxicity. ​

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I was pregnant when I started to think about toxicity

When I started out in oils in 2006 I was  pregnant with my second child.  I did not want to fill my house with toxic materials! I was painting with pastels already and kept an eye out for health and safety (do not blow at the pastel dust!) but the smell of turps and the hearsay about toxic materials put me off trying oils. I now notice that many others struggle with the same questions as I did. So what about that toxicity with oils then?!

Sophie Ploeg Blog Oil Painting Children

Oil paints do not smell

When people talk about the smell of oil paints they are talking about the turpentine that many use to dilute their paints or clean their brushes. Oil paint itself does not smell of anything. Many use turps as if they are using watercolour and leave their pot of turps open en swish their brush in it every few minutes. The room you’re in will be filled with toxic fumes in no time.

Oil paints are not toxic

(unless you eat them)
Most oil paints are not toxic, even if you do eat them (not recommended). Oil paint is basically pigment and oil, and most pigments are perfectly safe. There are toxic ones, of course, such as lead-white, cadmium, and cobalt. But these are only toxic if you eat them or breathe in particles. You would struggle trying to  breathe in oil paint.  As long as you wash your hands after use, you should be absolutely fine.

Sophie Ploeg Blog Oil painting

Heavy Metals

The toxic metals in some of the pigments are hardly dangerous as long as you use the paints sensibly, but if you want to remove these from your palette there are plenty of alternative pigments that are completely safe. I, for example, do not use lead-white or any cadmiums in my work. I avoid them if I can and so far I have not missed them. Instead of heavy metals I use synthetic alternatives, and there is plenty to choose from.

Solvents are Toxic

The only toxic risk within oil painting is in the solvents and mediums you use. Turpentine and mineral spirits are toxic as they exude fumes that are very bad for your health. It is perfectly fine to use them, but do so sparingly, keep lids closed and windows open. Plenty of full-time artists use them every day without any adverse effects. Just use common sense. If you feel bad when using it, listen to your body. I once tried a medium called Oleopasto, which contains a solvent, and felt so very ill I never opened that tube again. However there are lots of artists that I know who are happily using it every day!

Safe Solvent Alternatives

If you would rather paint without solvents, you can easily paint without a medium or use a solvent-free medium.  Gamblin  and M. Graham  produce some safe mediums for example, and some alkyd mediums are solvent free as well. Check the labels or manufacturer’s website! Of course you can also opt to work with just a tiny bit of oil: linseed, walnut or poppy oil for example. Some paints are more fluid and thin than others so if you want to work with more fluid paint perhaps try a different brand (Old Holland  for example is quite thick and stiff, while Rembrandt  or Blockx is fairly fluid).

Solvents are most often used for cleaning brushes so perhaps do this outside, and only at the end of a painting session.  Low odour solvents (such as Sansodor, Zest-it or Roberson’s Studio Safe Orange Solvent) are still toxic but have less of a smell. They are less aggressive but can mislead you into thinking they are ok as there is no smell!

Sophie Ploeg oil painting mediums

Cleaning Brushes without Solvents

There are, however, many solvent-free alternatives for cleaning brushes. I wipe my brushes on some kitchen towelling while I paint and so have no need for turps. You can get yourself in the habit of using a few brushes for different colours/tones to avoid cleaning too much, although I prefer to work with just a single brush at a time and just wipe now and then on some paper towels.

I clean my brushes (not often enough!) with The Masters Brush Cleaner which is completely safe to use. Besides The Masters there are brush soaps by Da Vinci and Escoda that seem popular. I have heard other artists using baby oil (wash it out thoroughly!), dishwashing liquid and more. Just make sure that brushes are not left with any residue of your cleaning agent and all should be well.

Varnish

Most varnish has solvents in them and also give off toxic fumes so if you want to varnish, make sure you do this in a well ventilated room. Of course there is always the option of not varnishing your work at all or using one that contains a low-odour solvent. Many artists don’t varnish as they don’t like the look and feel of it or for health and safety reasons. I do varnish my work but it is something you’d have to decide for yourself.

Winsor & Newton Artisan Oil Paints – safe and no need for solvents

Water-Based Oils

If you want to cut out the toxicity of oil painting, one alternative is to use water-based oils such as Winsor & Newton ArtisanHolbein Duo and quite a few other brands. I have used Artisan in the past and although they feel slightly different from traditional oils you can thin the paint and clean your brushes with just water. The manufacturers produce special mediums for these paints that are solvent free as well. You can mix them with traditional oils although you would then need different mediums (not water-based but more traditional ones) and cleaning materials if you do. Plenty of artists use these paints with pleasure so I am sure they are worth a go.

Reduce the Risk

In a nutshell, it is very easy to work without toxic materials and it should not be a reason to stay away from oils. If you use solvents (in a medium or a brush cleaner) do remember to keep the lid closed, use it sparingly and make sure your room is well ventilated. If you decide to cut out solvents there are plenty of options for you.

Online artists groups on and social media are full of advice and experienced artists who happily share their experiences so do some online research and find your own ideal way. Personally I have not banned all toxic materials from my studio, although I did in the past,  but use them as sparingly as I can. Use common sense and don’t eat your paint – all should be well!

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32 thoughts on “Oil Painting: Toxicity in Oils”

  1. I clean my brushes about every hour or so (when it gets a bit stiff) with a little bit of turps and put all used turps immediately in a closed container and dispose it outside my house. I clean my palette with alcohol which I think is less toxic than turps and works great even for partially dries paint. If possible I open the window too when I clean them.
    If I really need some on my painting eg when thinning paint or removing or cleaning part of the painting, I use zest-it instead of turps. Seems to work as well but with less stench. But I avoid this if possible. I also dispose items that have zest on them just like the turp stuff.
    I avoid cleaning brushes with non-drying oils (eg sunflower or safflour) as they will end up in your paint and then cause drying problems (there is a post on wetcanvas from someone having a partially non-drying painting due to this). Linseed oil on itself also dries very slow.
    And yes, oil paint DOES smell as well. I use old holland and it smells a bit. Not annoying but I’m not sure what it is. But it does NOT smell like linseed oil. More like lightly burned caster oil or so.
    Besides pigment that might be toxic and oil, there is probably a small amount of cobalt dryer in the paint which is carcinogenic. I don’t know if the pigment and dryer can come into the air.
    I use an air cleaner with carbon filter that auto-detects even small amounts of alcohol and turps and goes to full speed when I use these. It keeps running at low speed all day even when I’m not painting.

  2. This is something I struggled with for years too, so can empathise.

    I had a very wise Italian art teacher a few years ago who told me that before solvents were used painters used vegetable oil. He recommended sunflower oil to clean brushes, without the need to use expensive marketed alternatives.

    One thing to be sure of is that it’s 100% sunflower oil without antioxidants, which most are, and will show in the ingredients.

    After cleaning brushes in the sunflower oil do ensure that they are thoroughly wiped clean with paper towel and wash with soap and water too if preferred.

    I have to say I was so happy to be told about something and wanted to share it because it’s so simple and inexpensive, which changed my life and most likely my health!

    1. Hi J, thanks for the tip! As long as you wash out the oil really, really well this should work brilliantly. Thanks so much for sharing. 🙂

  3. Hi so to be clear for any one further reading this and to my findings of searching on this it would seem that to sit painting with oil paints is fine (ie paints with just linseed or walnut oil mixed in) there would be nothing wrong with breathing that in .It is that old devil turpentine ! he’s the one not to breathe in. Also avoid oil paints being mixed with any solvent type stuff as that would still be bad to breathe in even in its wet state? Personaly I am uber paranoid about this my dad worked in arts always stank of turps and other solvents he is totaly senile and has bad breathing so i steer clear.I make my own paint from pure pigment and JUST OIL no solvents at all hoping these are safe to breathe around in there wet state? unless i don’t know something?

    1. Hi Vic, sorry for the late reply! You got it totally right, it’s that old devil turpentine, indeed! And also paints mixed with solvent-based mediums. You can be perfectly safe with it as long as you take the right precautions. If you make your own paints you also need to be aware of the safety of pigments. My article was just talking about oil paints that are already made and in a tube. If you make your own paint there are a whole new set of safety precautions to take into account as different pigments can be toxic in powder form, but not in paint form ( you cannot breathe in oil paint, but you can breathe in pigment dust for example). Do some research to make sure you are safe.

    2. Hi

      I use pure pigment and cold press walnut oil.
      I have noticed a bit of a sour Oder as the oil is drying. I have researched and discovered that what I am smelling is rancid oil. Not good to be breathing rancid oil !

      1. ew no, that is no good at all! I don’t know anything about making your own oil paint, but perhaps you have used an oil type that wasn’t suitable… Maybe some others reading here can advice.

  4. Hi Sophie,
    The turps and volatiles contained in them are a potential cause for lymphoma and other respiratory cancers. These cancers are generally due to long term repeated exposures and not something that would happen after only a few uses. Bob Ross for example, died of lymphoma, and I personally know a number of other people who worked with volatiles of various kinds who also came down with this cancer after a number of years of intermittent exposure. As an oil painter I struggle with this shadow all the time – how to paint as safely as possible. Thank you and your commenters for the great ideas!

    1. You’re welcome Jeff! I personally hardly use any solvents so I am proof it is really very possible to do. Happy Painting!

  5. Hi Sophie. Another useful blog post, thank you. I use zest-it solvent. It’s just as good as turps with none of the problems. I paint a lot indoors so I don’t want any fumes. I tried turps and sansodor but found they gave me headaches and that meant I was not enjoying painting. I also use the zest-it solvent to clean my brushes and palette.

    1. Hi Chris, great to hear. I have never tried Zest-it but heard good things and am tempted to try it soon as I just realised Sansodor makes my eyes irritated. That can’t be good. So I’ll try working without it for a while, or else try zest-it.
      Thanks again for thinking along and sharing your experiences!

  6. I agree with the gist of this post – that oil paint is not hazardous, and that it is perfectly possible to paint without using solvents.
    But I have a problem with your statement that “Oil paint itself does not smell of anything”. I have painted with oils for many years – and they REEK. If you cannot smell them then you must not have a nose! They smell of, well, oil. Very strongly, and for days after use as the painting cures.

    1. Hi Kent, thanks for commenting! Ah yes, indeed… oil paint does smell of linseed oil… a little…But I have not come across many artists that find this a strong smell. I can smell it, but it is very faint indeed. I suppose it is a personal thing!! Thanks again 🙂

      1. Hi and sorry to barge in on a very old thread. I just ended up here by googling ‘strong smell of oil paints’ after using them for the first time. Even after only opening the tube the smell is so strong that I got slightly dizzy from it. I’ve only tested a drop of it on a piece of paper and the smell is everywhere. On the brush, on the paper, even in the room. It’s a very strong smell, making me dizzy. My bf smelled it too and he agrees. I’m using a cheap Italian brand, as I’m just starting out – Ferrario. But I’m just very confused to hear you say oil paints don’t smell. I can’t imagine I’ll be able to paint indoors and without wearing a face mask or something of sorts. Is it my paints?

        1. Hi Andrea, not old at all, this post remains read daily! I must admit I am very confused by your story. I do not know the brand (will look it up) but I have no idea what the smell could be. It could only be linseed oil and pigment. What does it smell it of?

  7. Kathryn Fletcher

    Hi. I couldn’t stand the turpentine and I worry about fumes with my cat. I’ve actually been cleaning my brushes with baby oil. It’s cheap and obviously not toxic. It does a good job of cleaning the oil paint. I use it to wash my hands too. You just need to use a little soap afterwards to rinse off the rest.

  8. Louis R Velásquez

    Hi. I enjoyed your website..and..your paintings. Congrats. I’m now AGE 73, reside in California, USA . I invite you to see my website..dedicated to SAFE FINE ART painting in various media.
    Best wishes…Louis

  9. Hi , I am new into painting. I just started with acrylic paint . I want to use oil now. I googled and found out that there are natural earth paints out there , why not use them ?

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment. I am afraid I don’t know the brand Natural Earth and so have never tried them! Enjoy and happy painting!

  10. Annemie Fourie

    Hi Sophie.I love painting in oils, but started getting Lung Problems often,every winter I get so sick. I dont use turps anymore , I use Masters and other oil products to clean brushes. Got better,but now starting with bronchitis again.Could it be something in the oil paint?I use Winsor and Newton.
    Thanks,Annemie

    1. Hi Annemie, so sorry to hear of your health problems! I am no doctor but I doubt it is something in the oil paint. You might want to double check the other products you use. I don’t think the paint can cause bronchitis. Good luck and get well soon! Sophie

  11. Years ago, about 45, I was able to paint, using oil and pastels. Life happened. Four children, working full time while pursuing a college degree, a husband that worked rotating shifts and then opening my own business pushed my love of art to the back of my life. Now at 80 years old, I am prepared to become another Grandma Moses.

    1. Dear Ruth, I am sorry for my late reply! Thank you for commenting on my blog and I wish you all the best with your new art adventure!! Wonderful to hear – you are never too old for art. 🙂

  12. On hols staying in someone else’s space I’ve cleaned brushes at the end of the day using standard cooking oil. No smell, cheap and sold everywhere.

    1. hah! Brilliant! You are proof that it works. No need for turps whatsoever. Do be careful you don’t end up painting with cooking oil-remains (as it won’t dry) so rinse out with soap perhaps. Thanks for sharing Ian!

      1. Brilliant tips! Actually, you can even avoid that problem with just cleaning your brushes with linseed oil 🙂 I let all my brushes stand in linseed oil when I’m not using them (held up by clothes pins so they don’t touch the bottom of the oil container). An added bonus with this is that the linseed oil gets thicker as it reacts with the air, and when it reaches the desired consistency you can use it to paint with and get awesomely lush paint ^_^

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