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Are Oil Paints Toxic? Best Options and Alternatives



While selecting gifts, we always pay attention to their safety and purity. In this article, we answer the question are oil paints toxic? And what you should know about the toxicity of all artistic paints on the market.

Human beings have always been fascinated with art. The number one activity that children do at school is coloring. This can progress into painting, one of the most recommended activities for adults who need a relaxing yet productive way to spend their free time.

Oil paint is one of the most popular types of paint artists use. They usually prefer using it because it’s intensely pigmented. Nevertheless, it can be toxic and harmful to our health.

Luckily, there is an alternative on par with oil paint, and that’s acrylic paint. It delivers an astounding performance without toxicity.


Are Oil Paints Toxic?


oil paint


Oil paint, in and of itself, isn’t toxic. Nevertheless, many solvents and mediums go into the oil painting process, which can change our answer.

When you paint, you don’t always use a brush, paint, and a canvas only. Instead, you’ll need other materials, such as solvents and varnish, to prepare the canvas, adjust the paint’s pigment and viscosity, and add the final touch to protect your painting from reacting to its surrounding environment.

These additions are what make oil paint toxic and harmful to us and the environment.


What Is Oil Paint Made of?


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Oil paint is made of pigment particles suspended in oil—usually linseed or walnut oil. The oils used in paint are generally natural and non-toxic.

Most pigments used in oil paint aren’t toxic, but if you grind your paint or sand your paintings, the dust particles from these processes can be dangerous if inhaled.

Moreover, some pigments may contain toxic heavy metals.


Heavy Metals


Heavy metals are, without a doubt, toxic. They can travel inside the body through cuts and grazes in the skin, or they can be inhaled if they’re in the form of dust particles.

Nevertheless, they won’t have an immediate effect the moment you come in contact with them. Pigments based on lead-white, cobalt, manganese, and cadmium can be harmful if they’re ingested in large quantities, come into contact with the skin for a prolonged period, or inhaled in the form of particles consistently.




In chemistry, a solvent is used to dissolve solutes to create a solution. In painting, it’s used for improving paint’s consistency and cleaning brushes.

Depending on the type of solvent you use, you can thin out or thicken the oil paint.

Solvents are also used to clean out brushes. Because this type of paint is oil-based, it may be difficult to wash it out of material. That’s why painters turn to solvents for the cleaning process.

Unlike water, solvents don’t evaporate, but they exude fumes into the air that are toxic. Constant exposure to these fumes in a confined space can result in adverse effects, such as dizziness.




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Varnish is added at the end of the painting process on oil paintings as a protective layer. It prevents any dust and dirt particles from sticking to a painting.

Most varnish contains resins and solvents, which are toxic if inhaled or ingested. In addition, as varnish dries, it exudes pungent fumes that can cause headaches, lightheadedness, and even skin irritation.


Are Acrylic Paints Toxic?


Acrylic Paint


Acrylic paint isn’t toxic for the most part. It contains pigment, acrylic polymer emulsions, and acrylic polymer as a binder. Therefore, when it dries, it exudes ammonia, propylene glycol, and water into the air. These are safe and may not affect anyone negatively.


Heavy Metals


Like oil paints, the pigment in acrylic paint can be toxic if it’s based on heavy metals. Nevertheless, acrylic paint manufacturers, like Utrecht, have created almost identical versions of these pigments.




Although you can use solvents with acrylic paint, there’s no need to subject yourself to that risk. With acrylic paint, there are far easier methods to thin out or thicken the paint’s viscosity.

Because acrylic paints are water-based, you can thin them out by mixing them with water. If you want to thicken the consistency, you can combine the acrylic gel with the paint.

This also makes the cleaning process relatively easy. You can simply wash your brushes and painting material with soap and water. Nevertheless, make sure that the acrylic paint doesn’t completely dry because then it becomes harder to remove.




Traditionally, varnish has been used as a way of protecting paintings from sunlight and dust particles. It even performs as a temporary layer that you can remove after collecting all the smoke, dust, and dirt in deep cleaning.

Still, varnish has its disadvantages. First of all, it contains toxic solvents. Moreover, a varnish made from natural resin and synthetic varnish tends to turn yellow and discolor as time goes by.

According to research, the remaining varnish on old paintings may contribute to its discoloration. That’s why even renowned institutions, like the Smithsonian, don’t recommend varnishing acrylic paintings. In addition, if you’re looking to remove the varnish layer, you may need a solvent, which can damage the acrylic paint in the process.

Many acrylic painters don’t varnish their paintings. This is because high-quality acrylic paint doesn’t need protection from the elements, and the colors won’t change or fade for a long time. The paintings just need to be kept out of direct sunlight.


Disadvantages of Acrylic Paint and How to Avoid Them


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There are still some people who look down on acrylic paint for the mere reason that it’s classic oil paint. However, both types of color have their pros and cons, so the choice might be relative.

It’s essential, though, to consider the added health risk that oil paints can pose. Although you can establish some measures and precautions to protect yourself and anyone else from the threat of oil paint, it’d be much easier to use an alternative that performs almost the same.

Some may argue that acrylic paints are riddled with disadvantages, but I beg to differ. Therefore, here are some of these disadvantages and how to overcome them:


Darker Finish


Acrylic paints tend to dry darker, making the process of matching colors all the more difficult. This happens because of the acrylic emulsion, which has a milky color when wet and transparent when dry.

This can be easily corrected by adding a slight touch of Titanium White or Zinc White, and the paint should darken to the desired shade as it dries.


Drying Too Fast


Sometimes, the problem with acrylic paint is that it dries almost too fast, which may even hinder the blending process. However, if you remember, acrylic paint dries by evaporation. So, if you maintain an appropriate humidity level, the color can dry slower, giving you time to paint.

Acrylic paint won’t dry on a wet surface. Therefore, you can mist the back of the canvas, which will act as a damp surface. You can also use a stay-wet palette, so the paint doesn’t dry fast while you’re using it.


In Conclusion


Despite the numerous advantages of oil paint, it still poses a great risk every step of the way. This seems unnecessary when there’s another safe, cheap, quick alternative.

What’s even more remarkable about acrylic paint is that you can use it to create 3D sculptures. It sounds slightly unlikely; however, acrylic is malleable enough that it can be peeled off of a non-stick surface and shaped into a soft sculpture.

Evidently, acrylic paints are incredibly versatile, which is why a lot of people are choosing them over oil paints.

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