How Safe Are Oil Paints
Traditional oil paints are basically a mixture of drying oil and pigment. Manufactures add stabilizers because modern paints need to be stored for a considerable length of time before use. These stabilizers keep the oil from separating from the pigment.
Drying oils used in artists’ paints are mainly linseed, safflower, poppy or walnut. The most commonly used is linseed oil which is safe to work with because we can buy specially processed food-grade quality linseed oils in health food stores as a great source of omega-3 fatty acids aka flaxseed oil. Some of us even eat flaxseeds on a daily basis to maintain healthy! We use both safflower oil and walnut oil in cooking. Poppy oil is used in paints; and also in skin and hair care products (known as Khus Khus and recognised in Ayurveda).
The stabilizers are metallic fatty acids. Because they’re mixed into the paint, they are not a hazard to a person using an art material.
Water-soluble oils contain an ingredient that would be considered close to soap, which makes water combine with the oil for assistance in clean up.
Many of the paints used by artists from the Middle Ages to the late 20th century had varying degrees of toxicity. Even today, while the most highly toxic pigments have disappeared, to err on caution, no pigment should be considered nontoxic.
What makes oil paints so safe to use is that the pigment is bound in a liquid vehicle (the drying oil). Therefore the problem of dry powder finding its way into artists’ lungs or flying about and landing on their families’ food is eliminated. Even the nastiest of pigments, which no longer are readily available, wouldn’t give off toxic vapors or be otherwise harmful unless taken directly into the digestive system by mouth or, in the case of some pigments, they came in direct contact with unprotected skin.
Nonetheless, I would advise artists to wear a mask and disposable gloves when handling dry pigments. Ensure the room is well ventilated but without strong gusts of winds that can blow the pigments all over the place.
Safe-Use Practices for Oils
Keep paint and solvents off your skin.
The skin is the largest organ of the human body and is a sponge for absorbing substances. Just see how fast your moisturiser gets absorbed into your skin after slathering it on! It’s best not to allow oil paints to splatter on your arms and hands. This is even more so when a solvent such as turpentine is used after to remove the paint from skin. It would just be absorbed by the skin, thus entering the body.
Again, disposable gloves can help keep the fingers clean, especially if you are a messy painter, like me. I can even
go through 2-3 pairs of gloves during long painting sessions! Wear a long apron (Vibrant Art carries full length aprons to protect your body and legs, unless you are super tall, then wearing pants
with the apron will work). Applying a barrier cream will also help protect against paint components entering through the skin. I would recommend a non-perfumed cream.
Paint in a well-ventilated area.
Ensure your painting space has a continuous airflow and exchange. Many artists don’t have studios, and some paint in their kitchen but this is one place where food and painting materials have a high chance to come into contact with each other. In addition, the potential for fire rises when solvents come into close contact with cooking appliances.
Best is to set up a painting area in another part of the home where you can ensure ventilation that constantly changes the air in the space.
Most artists use oil paints for many years without ill effects on health. Follow the few safety precautions listed here, and you’ll be safe.