Is Oil Paint Toxic? Painting Safety Tips for Oils

is oil paint toxic

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Is there any reality behind the claims of oil paint being toxic? Well, technically, yes. But it’s not all that simple…

In this article, you’ll find out exactly why and how oil paint can be toxic, from the raw pigments to types of solvents used to thin oil paints. You will also learn safer ways to continue enjoying the oil painting process.

By the time you’re done reading, you’ll have a clear, in-depth answer to the question, ‘is oil paint toxic’ and what you can do to reduce any risk.

What Makes Some Oil Paints Toxic?

Oil paint can have a lot of toxic ingredients in them that you might not even be unaware of. First, some powder pigments used to make oil paint come from toxic compounds. Not to mention that most mainstream varnishes and solvents used in oil painting are mostly toxic too.

Heavy Metals

The biggest reason most oil paints are considered toxic is the heavy metals in their raw art materials. Some toxic metals that can be commonly found in pigments are:

  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Cobalt
  • Cadmium
  • Barium
  • Antimony
  • Chromium
  • Copper
  • manganese strontium
  • Zinc.

Not only do these metals make oil paint toxic if it comes in contact with your skin, but they also make oil paint poisonous if swallowed. So, it’s important to check the ingredients in your paint to see if they are safe or not.

oil paint toxicity symptoms

Some of The Most Toxic Pigments in Oil Paints

Oil-based paint throughout history has had dangerous raw materials as pigments. Some of history’s most popular and widely used paints are the most harmful ones.

Below, you’ll find out what some of the most toxic oil paints are and what you should look out for when choosing your oil paint:

Lead White

Many manufacturers use white lead to make their white paint. White lead is very toxic, which is why you should always check the ingredients list on your paint tube to see if it has lead.

Many companies make white paint without white lead, which is a much safer alternative.

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In traditional oil-based paints, yellow has historically had a bunch of toxic metals, including uranium, chromium, and cadmium.

Most companies have stopped using these materials, but some manufacturers still use them – primarily cadmium to make cadmium yellow.

Some companies like Winsor & Newton have created cadmium alternatives to make cadmium-free paints that still have the intensity and brightness of traditional cadmium colors without the risk.

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Cobalt Blue

All oil paints containing the metal cobalt are toxic in high amounts. The most common oil paint from the metal is cobalt blue. The metal in these paints can cause harm to the skin and lungs and even cause various types of cancer if ingested.

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Some small companies still use arsenic, a very toxic compound, in some of their green oil paint to get a vibrant color. Arsenic was used in paints during the industrial revolution but was discontinued in most cases due to its toxic nature.

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Some Other Colors

A lot of pigments used in oil paint, other than the ones we mentioned above, are also toxic. Hydrocarbons, for example, are particularly harmful when inhaled.
It is also possible for colors like cadmium red, vermilion, and some oranges to be toxic. This is again due to the presence of harmful metals in their composition.

This is why you should always check the labels on your paints to see if they have any toxic materials just to be safe.


Any oil painting is incomplete without a good varnish to lock everything in. However, many mainstream varnishes produce highly toxic fumes.

Most varnishes are toxic due to the benzene used in their making. Benzene is very toxic and carcinogenic. The fumes can take anywhere from 48 hours to even longer to dissipate. It’s essential to varnish your paintings in a well-ventilated space, so the fumes dissipate quicker.

poisonous paint

Solvent Toxicity

Solvents are one of the biggest culprits behind oil paint toxicity.

Turpentine is the most commonly used solvent to thin oil paints and clean brushes. Some oil painters use mineral spirits in the same way.

Both of these solvents produce fumes that are harmful to anyone who breathes them in.

The fumes from turpentine can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and even a raised pulse. Direct skin contact with turpentine can also cause allergic reactions and can cause severe health problems.

is oil based paint toxic

Mineral spirit is just as bad when it comes to fumes. Inhaling its fumes can cause nose, lungs, and throat irritation, dizziness, upset stomach, headaches, and lack of coordination.

All this can be avoided if you wear gloves and paint in a well-ventilated area if you plan to use these toxic materials.

Also, both of these toxic solvents are highly flammable, so be sure to dispose of them safely.

Avoiding Toxic Fumes

Now, as we said earlier, most art materials used in oil painting are not that toxic, it is mostly the solvents or the varnishes.

Using natural oil such as linseed oil, safflower oil, walnut oil, and other oils in place of a solvent is safer, as they all are non-toxic and do not have any fumes. Different oils have different viscosities and drying times so you can pick and choose whichever one suits you.

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As far as safer varnishes are concerned, there are non-toxic varnishes available that are safe to use. Although if you do use a more popular, commonly used varnish, make sure to ventilate your working space and wear a mask if you can.

A Safer Way to Practice Oil Painting

There are things you could do to make oil painting safer for yourself and for the environment. Some steps to make painting with oils safer are:

  1. Wear gloves. Avoid contact with skin as much as you can.
  2. Always use the best oil paint whenever you can. Most good companies make their paints safer for use.
  3. Always clean your brushes and keep paper towels around during your painting session to wipe off any excess paint from your skin and your brushes.
  4. Always ensure the art materials you use are the safest you can get.

Non-Toxic Solvent Alternatives

There are a lot of readily available solvents that are much easier to use and much safer too.

Linseed Oil, Walnut Oil, and Other Natural Oils

The good thing about using oils as solvents is that they are not toxic and don’t have a smell, either. Not to mention they are easy to find anywhere.

In my experience with oil painting, one of my all-time favorite non-toxic solvent alternatives is linseed oil.

Some solvents that have worked well for me in the past are linseed oil, safflower oil, walnut oil and even poppy oil in oil painting. Linseed oil and walnut oil both have a slight yellow tint to them, so keep that in mind if you use them for your oil painting.

oil base paint fumes

Safer Solvents

If you still prefer to use solvents and not alternatives like oils, you can opt for some relatively safer ones that don’t give off fumes.

For example, Gamblin’s Gamsol is less volatile and isn’t absorbed through the skin either. Another good option would be citrus solvent. It’s all-natural and non-toxic. Spike lavender oil is another non-toxic solvent and has a nice lavender smell to it too.

All of these are still harmful if consumed.

oil based paint fumes

Non Toxic Paints

Some pigments are safer to use than others. For example, any white paint that doesn’t have white lead is good. Similarly, most colors that don’t have very bright hues are mostly safer to use too. Although you should always read the label on your paint tubes to make sure.

Some companies in recent years are putting in the effort to make oil painting safer for us artists. Companies such as Gamblin make their paints without the use of any toxic metals.

Water Based Oil Paints

Water mixable oils look and feel exactly like traditional oils, but the best part is that they can be dissolved in water.

No solvents mean they are already much less toxic.

Not to mention this makes using water-mixable oils so much easier. You can use them just like acrylic paint but with the feel of oil paint. With water-soluble oil paints, you can enjoy your favorite oil painting techniques while taking advantage of their long working time and blending qualities.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is oil paint toxic after it has completely dried?

No, oil paint is not toxic to touch after it has completely dried.

However, if you are sanding back your painting to get rid of any unwanted texture, wear a mask and be careful as the dust can be highly toxic. Also, the painting may still release a toxic fume from the solvents days after it has dried, but the amount is negligible.

Is oil paint safe for the skin?

Many traditional oil paints contain raw art materials that are highly toxic and not safe for the skin. Contact with skin is not safe at all, especially if the paint contains heavy metals or is diluted with a solvent like turpentine.

In order to avoid allergic reactions, rashes and oil-based paint poisoning, use gloves while painting or use non-toxic alternatives.

bad oil paintings

How can I know if an oil paint is toxic?

The best way to ensure whether the paint you are using is safe is to read the ingredients list on the paint tube. You need to look for toxic metals such as mercury, lead, cobalt, arsenic, cadmium, etc. If you are still unsure, try asking the manufacturing company about the toxicity of the paint.

Final Verdict

Now that you know why and how oil paint can be toxic – from pigments to toxic solvents – and how you can be safe when using them, have fun with your paintings!

If you take the right precautions like wearing gloves and working in a well-ventilated space or using non-toxic alternatives for solvents, varnishes and even paints, you will be fine.

And as a final answer, yes, oil paint can be toxic to you, but you have nothing to worry about as long as you take the right cautionary steps and use the medium wisely.

If you want to learn more about what oil painting supplies to choose, how to use them safely, and the must-know fundaments to start oil painting today, check out this free webinar.

is oil paint toxic

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