I recently heard of an art college that banned soft pastel because they thought it is toxic and should not be used. Although I find this an exaggerated, extreme and totally unnecessary measure (at an art college of all places!), the story does raise the issue of health and safety when painting with soft pastel or any other art materials. And health and safety is something we should never ignore.
Not enough information
As far as I can remember pastel painters have been asking whether it is safe to use pastels or not. For some reason the soft pastel world is much less regulated and informed, or so it seems to my perhaps ignorant eyes, than the oil painting world (although the use of solvents is still considered a standard equipment in the oil painting studio for some reason) where lightfastness, pigments and toxicity are debated regularly.
Google soft pastel and health and you will find a huge number of contradictory articles. I suppose this blog post will perhaps only add to that confusion. Some say you need masks, special air filters, gloves etc, while others say you need nothing at all and everything is hunky-dory.
Pastel manufacters seem reluctant to publish which pigments and other ingredients were used in their materials. Safety tests are vague and unclear to the innocent artist.
Boxes of pastel lack any and all information about health and safety. For all we know we can give them to toddlers. And yet we all know (I hope) that perhaps we should not give them to toddlers.
But after having painted with pastels for many decades I have learned some information from fellow and more knowledgeable pastel artists, from manufacturers and written articles, and indeed, none of these convinced me that banning pastel from an art college is necessary unless you are willing to ban nearly all art materials.
Use Common Sense
As with most art materials (or most things in life I suppose) there is always health and safety to consider. Irresponsible or plain stupid behaviour can cause problems. It is always important to be sensible and to take additional measurements if you have any personal health concerns. For example I realised my body reacts quite strongly to solvents. Other people seem fine with it. That does not mean they should be irresponsible with solvents as it remains a toxic substance. But perhaps I have to be extra careful. If you are pregnant or suffer from any health problems you must do you own research, listen to your own body and doctors, and find the best way for you.
Pigment and Dust
As we have seen in some of my other blog posts, pastels are made from pigment and a binder. The binder is usualy some clay, gum arabic, starch or sometimes a secret ingredient. The binder is is usually a very small part of the pastel stick as manufacterers are keen to keep a pastel as pure as possible.
Pigments are usually used in powder form and subsquently mixed into art materials. When turned into oil paint there is no risk of inhalation as the powder has been mixed into an oily paste. When mixed into a pastel stick, however, the powdery character of the pigment remains present.
There are two areas of health concerns for soft pastels: toxic pigments and dust.
I think we can assume that no soft pastel pigment is so toxic that it should not be held in hand. After all it would not pass any safety standards and could not be sold without severe warnings. In fact within the EU there are no safety warnings on any pastels and so they all pass these tests easily. There is no concern for holding a pastel in your hand: the toxicity levels of the pigments are either non-existant (as no toxic pigments were used) or so low that they pose no threat whatsoever.
Many soft pastel manufacterers, like Talens Rembrandt for example, state they do not use any toxic pigments at all. In their sticks there is no cadmium or cobalt or any other heavy metals. Of course that does not mean you should eat it, but it does mean they are as safe as can be.
Not all pastel manufacterers follow this path however. But although other brands might well use heavy metals in some of their colours, the toxicity levels are so low that no warnings are required on the packaging.
The international Art and Materials Institute (ACMI) has been making efforts to encourage safety in art materials since 1940. Their seal of approval can be found on many art materials in the form of labels.
The AP (approved product) label means the products "are safe and that are certified in a toxicological evaluation by a medical expert to contain no materials in sufficient quantities to be toxic or injurious to humans, including children, or to cause acute or chronic health problems.".
Their CL label (Cautionary Labeling) "identifies products that are certified to be properly labeled in a program of toxicological evaluation by a medical expert for any known health risks and with information on the safe and proper use of these materials. This Seal appears on only a small percentage of adult art materials in ACMI’s certification program."
Although a number of pastel brands are not signed up with the ACMI (there is a list you can check) it is a useful label to look out for. There is lots of information on their website.
Many pastel brands carry the AP label and so you will then know that there are no toxic materials in these pastels at levels that could cause harm. Talens Rembrandt, Sennelier, Cretacolor Carrés, Faber-Castell Soft Pastels, and Unison all carry this label.
But to err on the safe side there are some precautions you can take that are very simple. If you work with heavy metals in oil paints you would make sure that small kids and pets are kept well away from them and you would make sure that you don't accidentally eat you cadmium red yourself (even if you did, no harm would come to you unless you made it your daily diet I think).
For soft pastels the same applies. The colours that do have toxic pigments in them (Schmincke published a useful data sheet which includes the pigments for each colour they used) should not be eaten.
Keep pets and small children away. Wash your hands before you eat and drink. Check labels if present.
The dust soft pastels create is often considered a problem. Not only in practical use (it messes up your picture) but also in safety.
Of course it is never a good idea to breathe in lots of dust. Whether you are in an extremely dusty room or you are surrounded by pastel dust: inhaling dust is bad for your lungs. Simple.
The vast majority of pastel dust is non-toxic (as the vast majority of pastels are made with non-toxic pigments), but that does not take away the harm that inhaling dust can cause in the long term.
So if breathing dust (and pastel dust particles are extermely tiny) is a bad idea, then can you still paint with pastels?
Yes of course!
If you pick up pastel stick and make a mark on some paper, does it create a dust cloud in the air? No, it does not. Would you be breathing pastel dust by simply drawing something on some paper? No, you would not.
So we simply need to make sure that it stays that way.
If you make a mark on some paper you might have noticed that a little pastel dust might come off the pastel (it varies by brand and also depends on the paper you use and how hard you press down). How do we make sure this dust does not ever enter our lungs? By not letting it get into the air.
So do not blow on it!
So if breathing dust (and pastel dust particles are extermely tiny) is a bad idea, then can you still paint with pastels? Yes of course!
To get any pastel dust off your paper you should never blow. After all we don't dust our house by simply blowing either. You would only make the dust go into the air and settle everywhere (including your lungs). Of course we cannot use a duster on our pastel painting so the simplest solution is to put your drawing board vertically.
Use an easel, or lean your drawing board against a wall, a pile of books, or anything you can find. Now any pastel dust will simply fall down and not sit on your painting. The dust that has fallen down can be removed with a wet cloth, a vacuum cleaner (preferably with a hepa filter) or any other way to remove dust.
Making marks with a pastel stick on some paper does not create any considerable dust in the air you breathe. If you work vertically any dust simply falls down. As long as you don't go mad and work carefully and sensibly there will be very litte dust in your studio.
Clean up your easel ledge and studio space regularly and all should be well.
Keep yourself Clean and healthy
Of course your fingers will be covered in pastel as well: make sure (just like with any other paint) you don't rub your eyes and cover up any wounds. Consider using gloves if you are concerned.
If you have health problems you could consider getting air filters, gloves and masks, but (and take this for what it is, the opinion of a fellow artist and not the advice of a doctor or scientist!) if you don't have any particular health issues then common sense should get you where you need to be.
Soft Pastels are perfectly safe
Drawing with soft pastel does not create large amounts of dust in the air. Blowing on your pastel painting does. Painting with soft pastel does not make you ingest huge amount of pigment (mostly non-toxic) but getting pastel all over yourself does increase the chance of you ingesting it. Be sensible and do not get it all over yourself. If you are cutting a chili you would not rub your eye. If you are painting the garden fence you would not lick your fingers, so when you are painting with any art materials (a lot safer than those examples) work sensibly and keep your work area and yourself clean and tidy.
- Do not blow at your pastel painting
- Work vertically so any pastel dust will fall down and clean up with a wet cloth or vacuum cleaner
- Wash hands regularly
- Don’t push your pastels too hard
- Use all professional art materials sensibly and keep away from children and pets
Working with soft pastel is perfectly safe if you use them sensibly, just like you would with any other art material.
I wear a disposable respirator mask every time I do soft pastel. I find that the respirator allows me to breathe out thereby keeping that yucky build up of stale air out. I keep a wet rag nearby, and use a hepa filter vacuum to pick up loose dust. A clean wet paper towel for a final clean.
If I don't I will find myself coughing. To me the coughing is telling me that I am not supposed to get this stuff in my lungs.
And I still think its a way better idea to keep your pastel work outdoors or in a separate studio than you home.
We have warnings against talcum powder but not pastel dust pigment which for me seems much worse.
Your lungs are precious. And you are worth taking good care of.
Hello thank you for addressing this topic. What I have read was helpful however every time I use pastels for an extended time my fingers begin to have almost a burning feeling. Once I have washed them a few times the feeling remains it’s sort of numb and uncomfortable at the same time. It lasts for most of the day So perhaps my skin is particularly sensitive to the chemical structure of certain colors. Do you think this is possible how would I find out. I may have to adapt to wearing gloves but not willingly. Thank you for your very astute encouraging and helpful site! Mari B
Thank you so much, Sophie, for a very reasonably expressed discussion of pastel safety… I have recently moved into a small senior apartment with wall to wall carpet and no cross ventilation, After being recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma often caused by toxicity, my concern about the toxicity of my art supplies has skyrocketed… especially soft pastels… Since it always brings me so much joy to use pastel, and joy is healing, I was searching for some guidance so I could confidently enjoy them going forward… I will use gloves and a mask as an extra precaution since I do find myself pressing with gusto … Thanks again…
I look forward to enrolling in your membership and signing up for five day workshops, in pastels landscape/ portrait paintings.
I read your knowledge and tips about painting with pastel colors … my friend the painter warns me to start painting with another technique like acrylic, watercolor …. because pastel powder is very harmful to health … I became skeptical about everything painting because I’m an older man who started painting again after 30 years …. I’m glad I found your page where you cite painting myths, I’m basically a bigger fan of oil painting …. but lately I’ve been researching pastel painting that gives faster results and makes a kind of secret to all painting, this is my experience … thank you very much for all your written professional thoughts …..
This is simply a very good article discussing the pro's and con's of pastels and the dust they create. It is true and very sad that from what I can see there is very little warning regarding pastel use and I recently contacted a leading pastel company about this. Their response was vague and one of little interest and I definitly will not be buying thier products because I want to remain safe using pastels. On top of that I also purchased a set of soft pastels to learn and do a course on DVD promoted by a well known and fantastic pastel artist but none of her material warned me of any dangers talked about here. As an engineer I am used to risk assessments and the use of very dangerous chemicals and health and safety is taken extreemly seriously but as for pastels,-very little information or warnings yet those running the courses I have explored have a studio with air extraction units. I invested in a mobile unit for £250 and when I looked at the removable filter I got a big shock. The dust from using soft pastels was clearly in the air of my study and invisible. It became visible in the filters of my air extractor unit. There is no excuse for manufactures of soft pastels not to have a warning and set of standard precautions to consider before using this product. I use a fixer spray after working with pastels on the paper and this satisfies me that the dust will not fall off my work afterwards and the rubbish talked about the fixer spray damaging a pastel painting seems stupid. I would urge everyone to use common sense and realise that any dust generated by an art medium is potentially dangerous and especailly in enclosed spaces. The wearing of masks is no problem and if you are in a COVID area then you will probably wear one so why not do this when using pastels as standard practice? You do not mention barrier creams. These are applied to the hands when using engineering chemicals so are easy to use when doing pastel work. Disposable gloves are easy to purchase at Tesco's and again form instant protection against any dermititus. Art magazines publish lots of techniques on pastel painting by leading artists using this medium but I have never ever seen any reference to health and safety regarding using pastels mentioned in the script. I think you have written a great article here and if nothing else made us all aware of the dangers of using pastels and what we should be thinking about. These are simple steps that can make such use safe and clean. Well done with your article. The message is clear and precise.
I do not believe that Renoir was poisoned by his soft pastels , diagnosis was not as easy and precise as nowadays .
My guess is that his rheumatic was likely caused by other factors .
Are you aware that August Renoir was poisoned by his pastel usage and became a rheumatic cripple? Perhaps the recipes have changed from his time? We hope so.
Hi! No, I’ve never heard that story. If pastels are that dangerous more people would have suffered and governmental safety measures implemented, surely.
I don’t think Renoir used pastels enough to be poisoned by them, he used oil paint 99% of the time—I’ve seen very scant amount of Renoir pastels in my 22 years of study, if any—had u said he was poisoned by oil paint, lead white or something, I’d entertain the notion a bit more—no offense tho, u could have heard something I haven’t, I’ve just been studying art history for over 2 decades and that’s brand new to me
If your easel happens to be in a stream of light coming in the window, you will see that the pastel powder swirls about in the air as you drag the pastel across the substrate. There's plenty of opportunity to inhale it. It does not fall straight to the floor.
The claim that a splash of pastel powder is seen in the reflection of light is hard to argue because, in my opinion, pastel powder is heavier and falls to the ground. There are many other substances in the air itself that are lighter than pastel powder. We can also test this at the very time when we are not painting with pastel colors. In any case, when painting, it is not good to blow pastel powder from the surface of the painting … that is logical. I will use a hard pastel that immediately falls down and doesn’t fly through the air in all directions.
Indeed, I agree. I prefer to be outdoors, with a mask. Health is important to me.
The United States is a country of prosecution , even for the most trivial offense . An art college does need to protect itself in consideration of health and safety , the use of soft pastels could adversely affect people with respiratory problems , which in the US could result in a very costly prosecution . I'm British 84 yrs , I have painted portraits in oil in the US , but my pastel painting has been confined to Britain . I have never before heard anyone question the safety of soft pastels and I have never considered it . As a young artist I was advised by a well known artist to paint big , so I always use an easel . The dust from soft pastel just falls on the floor , I am fortunate not to have any dust allergies so no problems . I have never considered the safety of handling soft pastels and they have never caused me an ill effects .
Nice, good to know, I’m an American who’s been oil painting for 22 years and am really interested in pastels, mostly because of my Degas obsession—good to hear from ur experience, I’ve always wanted to use them, but was a bit nervous about it—I love my country, but that’s a damn fine point u make about the U.S., they just might be blowing it out of proportion here, ur comment sounds about right. Many thanks.
Thank you Sophie I love my unisons but have been struggling with my asthma over last 2 days stupidly I haven’t used a n95 mask and caused irritation reading this informative piece has calmed me down
You are very welcome.
I suppose it is possible that some soft pastel colours maybe mildly toxic , but that has never worried me .
I have mostly painted in oils , but in my 40s started painting in oil pastel , but I found it rather sketchy .
I read all about Degas and tried my hand with soft pastels , which became a favourite medium .
I have never tried his under painting , but prefer a tinted ground .
One cannot always choose the make , but Windsor and Newton is my my absolute preference if available .
I like to use very course heavy water colour paper that holds a lot of pigment .
I am trying to find a safe way of disposing pastel drawings I no longer wish to keep . I have been a student for 7 years and practice often . I no longer have room for some of my projects but I do not want to hurt the environment. I use Unison. among others of the same quality>
Hi Maria, as far as I know you can just discard them in the general waste. I don’t think the paper recycling will like painted-on paper, so general waste it is.
One summer is I was working on a pastel out on the deck, a shaft of light came through a hole in the awning I was working under. And that I could see millions of little pieces of lovely Blue Dust swirling around as I dragged my pastel across the substrate.
It reminded me of one in the house a stream of light comes in and you can see dust swirling around in it but when you look everywhere but in that light you don't see the Dust. I don't think it's safe to use pastels indoors.
It’s dusty, that’s for sure. But it is not toxic….(for most pastel brands)
I remember many of my pastels having warning labels.
Even if they weren't toxic, just breathing and all that fine dust is not at all healthy.
That’s true. Working in a dusty environment is never healthy. I make sure I work vertically and clean up regularly.
I enjoyed your post. To better understand pigment safety, artists may consider visiting, via the web, artist supply stores that sell pigment. Usually, the Safety Data Sheets are easily available. This is a better way to learn about a pigment’s safety, toxicity, disposal, etc. than from a paint or pastel manufacturer, who might have incentive to minimize risk if any are present.
Keep in mind, pigment manufacturers vary and so does quality, safety, etc.
An ASTM stamp on a pastel box doesn’t tell much to artists, an SDS will. ASTM is as much a safety tool as an industry marketing tool. ASTM recognition and certification costs money, so might ASTM have an incentive, besides safety, to ensure it is the consumer trusted art supply standard? Do artist pastel and paint manufacturers have incentive, besides safety, to obtain the stamp?
Raw umber and burnt umber (Pbr7) are both known carcinogens when inhaled. Do our materials, especially soft pastels, with umbers have the ASTM stamp while known to cause cancer?
There’s an argument to be made about how much is dangerous, but who decides this and how much is too much and what artist among us keeps tally?
I admit, it’s convenient, eschews personal responsibility, and comforting to trust an “authority” but knowledge powers informed decisions and actions.
Thanks for your thoughts.
Thank you for your comment, Raph.
Thank you good article. I just started using soft pastels after years of colored pencil. I did notice dust right away although I blew the dust off first go round. The tips mentioned here are great. I’m planning on using a kerchief over my nose vs mask (comfort) and with Corona Virus can’t find a mask anyway. And if I did…nurses need it more. Thanks again for great article.
You are very welcome! I don’t use a mask myself, I don’t blow on the dust either, and I make sure I work on an easel so any dust particles will just fall down onto the easel ledge. I then vacuum the dust up now and then. I bet a kerchief will be more comfortable than a mask, but if you are sensitive to dust, do keep in mind the size of dust particles can be so small it could go through some fabrics.
I use a lot of pigment that could result in a lot of dust , I don't blow , I use a spray fixative from time to time .
Yes , there's a lot of dust on the floor .
Hi – thanks for this article! I love doing pastel drawings, and love the ability to blend colors, as well as the saturated colors!
I have not done any pastels in some years for various reasons, and would like to start again. My pastels are many years old, in nice wooden boxes 🙂 But for example the Rembrandt Talen does not show the mark you mentioned for safety. Any worries with pastels that may be several decades old?
Hi Valerie, thanks for your comment. As far as I know the only thing you might want to watch out for is the pigments used in old boxes of pastel (as in decades old). The manufacturer might have updated their pigments to safer ones recently, as more is known about it. That doesn’t mean older pastels are toxic, it just means you don’t know (unless you find out from the manufacturer). Hope that helps. Also, if your pastels are in wooden boxes, the AP mark might have been printed on the cardboard wrapper or box that was around it initially. They might have joined the ASTM at some stage and would not have used the mark before that – but their pastels might well have been perfectly safe before they joined. So it’s hard to tell!
Hi Sophie, You’ve got a great artblog. I have these same boxes and the old leaflets (1985) stating all pigments and binder ingredients. The old Rembrandt soft pastels contain cadmium and copper and cobalt. As you said it doesn’t mean that they are toxic, if properly used. I do think Talens should give more information on the old pastels as they are still frequently sold.
Yes, I see many artists getting old pastels from Ebay or as gifts, and we don’t really know what is in those. The pastel world needs a lot more transparency and information really as many pastel brands don’t provide any information at all. Such a shame.
Hi Sophie… I paint with pastels. Considering using a mask for pastel dust. Do you have a specific mask recommendation? Thank you!
Hi Mary, thanks for your question! I am afraid I don’t use a mask as I don’t produce much dust when I am painting. But if you do get one make sure it is good enough for very fine dust particles. Sorry I can’t be of more help.
Hi fellow pastel artists. I have been using pastels for the last 16 yrs..from the awful Derwent back in the day to Contè then the slightly better Rembrandt to Sennelier to a bit of Schmincke to the great Unison(my abs favorites) for the last 7 yrs. This article is very useful as I think seldom about the safety issues. Been using an easel for my pastel painting( as i really cannot paint on a table anymore) for some 13yrs and as you said the dust falls down by itself. I never blow away the dust, never have .Still i use a mask most of the times and always clean my heands with the wet tissues as i cannot stand having any kind of dirt on my hands whatever it may be. These kinds of matters are really interesting and sharing opinions really helps. If anybody wants to chat or whatever i mainly use Instagram : robertpavlic.art of FB( FB sucks as we know it as it is not art frindly all the times) . Tnx and c ya ppl..
Thank you for sharing your pastel handling tips. I am a pastel artist and teacher and I would like to share my knowledge of pastel handling. Pastels only needs a light touch to create bold marks so it is generally not a dust ball. Going slow is good and gives your more control –if you work this way and only do small pieces, no gloves or mask needed. However, if your canvas is huge and your style is fast –then you should wear a mask and gloves and have at it. I often use the side of the pastel for broader strokes which tend to generate some dust–I use this effect sparingly. Try to minimize the amount of layers of pastel while working to achieve your vision. This will help you reduce waste, keep colors vibrant, and prevent the saturation of the paper grain which functions to hold the pastel in place. Happy painting everyone!!!
I’m just starting my adventure with pastels. I have Pan Pastels, which I use for backgrounds for my colored pencil paintings, and Pastel Pencils. I just purchased small collections of Rembrandt and Sennelier soft pastels. I’ve been searching the internet for safety information on soft pastels and your blog is by far the most informative I’ve found. Thank you for taking up this subject.
You are very welcome! Thank you for leaving such a nice comment and I hope you will enjoy your pastel adventure. Pastel will never bore!
The dust does irritates sometimes. To be safe i wear a mask. Simple.
Yep, that’s always an option. Thanks!
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.
When I was 17 starting art school in Chicago at the academy of fine art, we were always taught to put brown paper as a shelf under the pastel paper with several layers behind for softness. When you accumulated dust, you would tap tap tap your paper you never blew the dust. You could be suspended for doing so. We had to read the artist guide to safe use of materials. The pigments, oil, pastel, water color often contain cadmiums and other toxic metals. I refuse to wear gloves, pastel for me is a must touch to achieve realistic skin on portraits. Thank you for all your lovely information and beautiful paintings
You are very welcome! Thank you for your comment.
Thanks Sophie for the clarity on the use of soft pastel and it’s relationship to any toxicity. It will be nice to share with my soft pastel and oil pastel students. While I have limited my use of soft pastel to mostly plien air painting these days, I do have students who wish to continue and learn the art of pastel painting and we do get together regularily in a classroom nearby. One pastel artist in a room seems harmless, but several soft pastel painters in the class room often leads to some coughing, sneezing and watery eyes. I open windows and turn overhead fans on, but thinking now that may actually make the air quality worse, stirring up the air. We stand at easils, use cardboard troughs under the drawing boards to catch the dust, use wet rags and paper towels and vinyl gloves to keep the dust off of our hands. No blowing allowed. Some students bring masks and most precautions you mentioned are used. We all use a variety of artist quality soft pastels and some have decided to use the same pastel painting process with oil pastel instead…..no dust at all.
Hi Carol, thanks for your comment, it is really appreciated! I hope you can find a way to keep the air healthy and clean in your class. I suppose a lot of pastel painters together would create enough movement to make the dust move. If people are using their pastels vigorously then they’ll be creating dust as well. Pastels are simply dusty things! During my workshops it seemed to be going quite well. No coughing, little dust. Good luck and thanks!