Maybe you’re not crazy about the color of the kitchen in your new house. Or perhaps you’re preparing a nursery for a new arrival. Regardless of the occasion, painting is something that many of us do as a home improvement project.

But how safe is indoor paint? And what can happen if you inhale paint fumes? Continue reading as we answer these questions and more below.

On the most basic level, paint is pigment that’s dissolved in a liquid called the solvent. It can then be applied to walls or other surfaces. In addition to these two ingredients, other ingredients or additives are often present.

There are two different types of indoor paint:

  • Latex, or water-based, paints contain water as the primary liquid, although some other solvents may also be included.
  • Alkyd, or oil-based paints, use solvents other than water, such as organic solvents.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

Most paints have some level of VOCs. VOCs are released into the air as gases from solids or liquids that contain organic chemicals, such as paints and varnishes.

Some examples of VOCs include:

  • toluene
  • xylene
  • acetone
  • formaldehyde
  • benzene

Exposure to VOCs can sometimes lead to short or long-term health effects.

Ideally, you should aim to limit your use of products that generate VOCs and take safety measures when using them.

Low-VOC and no-VOC paint products are available for purchase. When shopping for paint, check the labels to get an idea of a product’s VOC levels.

What about lead-based paint?

You may have heard about lead-based paint. Lead is a metal that can be very toxic and cause a variety of health problems.

Homes built before 1978 may contain lead-based paint. People living in a building with lead-based paint need to take extra precautions when performing home improvement projects that may expose them to peeling or chipped paint.

Are paint fumes harmful? Can they make you sick?

Paints can cause irritation if they get onto your skin. They can also be potentially harmful when swallowed, particularly oil-based paints.

Additionally, the fumes from these types of paints can irritate your eyes, nose, or throat. Irritation should go away when you go out into fresh air.

Short-term side effects from inhaling VOCs can include:

  • irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat
  • headache
  • feeling dizzy or light-headed
  • nausea
  • trouble breathing

Exposure to high concentrations of VOCs for extended periods can cause long-term damage to certain systems of the body, including:

Generally speaking, water-based paints give off lower levels of chemical vapors and VOCs.

Paint and allergies

Can exposure to paints or their fumes lead to an allergic reaction?

Exposure to environmental irritants such as strong paint fumes can certainly trigger conditions such as asthma. Interestingly, latex paints don’t contain any natural rubber latex and don’t affect people with latex allergies.

A study published in 2010 investigated VOC levels in children’s bedrooms. They found that higher levels of a specific type of VOC called propylene glycol and glycol ethers led to a greater likelihood of conditions, such as asthma, eczema, and rhinitis.

What if you’re pregnant? Can exposure to paint fumes affect your unborn baby?

Generally speaking, the risk associated with household paints is low, although the risk of harm may be greater when working with paints that contain solvents other than water.

Here are a few facts about paint fumes and pregnancy:

  • A study of non-occupational exposure to paint fumes during the first trimester may increase the risk of some congenital abnormalities, although the researchers note that their findings need further confirmation.
  • Another study of non-occupational exposure to paint fumes found that there wasn’t a significant relationship between exposure to paint fumes and birth weight or risk of pre-term birth.
  • A recent study on non-occupational exposure to fumes from oil-based paints prior to conception found that exposure may actually increase birth weight and lead to an increased incidence of macrosomia.

So, if you’re pregnant, should you paint? If you have serious concerns about the effects of paint fumes on your unborn baby, you should avoid painting while pregnant.

However, if you do choose to paint, you should do the following:

  • use water-based paints
  • avoid painting during the first trimester
  • make sure the area that you’re painting is well ventilated

If you’re going to be painting in your house, here are some best practices that you can follow in order to reduce your risk:

  • Be sure you select indoor paints. Read product labels in order to select a product that will generate less harmful fumes or VOCs, such as water-based paints.
  • Read safety information on the product label carefully. Note any warnings, first-aid information, or if protective measures like gloves or goggles are required. You may want to use a respirator to lower your risk of inhaling VOCs.
  • Always paint in an area that’s well ventilated. You may want to wait for the weather to be dry so you can open some windows. Consider using a box fan in the window to help direct air flow to the outside.
  • Take frequent breaks to allow yourself to get some fresh air.
  • After painting, plan to keep windows as open as possible for two to three days in order to allow paint fumes to exit the room. You should plan to avoid entering a freshly painted room during this time.
  • Close any leftover paint containers tightly to prevent vapors from leaking into the surrounding area. If you choose to dispose of leftover paint, be sure to do so properly.

Be sure you reference the safety information on the label of the product that you’re using for any specific first-aid information.

Some general guidelines for treating exposure to paint or paint fumes include:

  • On skin. Wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and warm water.
  • In eyes. Rinse your eyes with running water for 15 to 20 minutes. Afterward, rest your eyes by keeping them closed for about 15 minutes. If you experience pain or problems with your vision, seek medical attention.
  • Swallowing. Drink a small amount of milk or water while watching for symptoms of stomach upset like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. If needed, call Poison Control at 800-222-1222.
  • Feelings of dizziness or lightheadedness. Immediately seek fresh air and call Poison Control at 800-222-1222.

You may have heard something about organic solvents in paint fumes being linked to multiple sclerosis (MS).

The paper was published in 2018 in the journal Neurology. The investigators evaluated over 2,000 people that had MS diagnoses, comparing them with almost 3,000 controls.

They assessed the interplay between exposure to organic solvents, cigarette smoke, and genetic factors and how these things may contribute to MS rise. They then made the following observations:

  • Exposure to organic solvents increased the risk of MS. Risk also increased with longer exposure times.
  • Individuals with specific genetic risk factors for MS and exposure to organic solvents were about seven times more likely to develop MS than people without the genetic risk factors and no exposure to organic solvents.
  • People with specific genetic risk factors who were exposed to both smoking and organic solvents had a 30-fold increase in risk compared to non-exposed people without genetic risk factors.

It should be emphasized that the authors of the study note that you won’t necessarily get MS from exposure to organic solvents like those found in paints and other household products.

However, you may wish to avoid them — as well as smoking — in order to reduce MS risk, particularly if you have a family history of the condition.

Most paints are very safe. However, exposure to paint and its fumes has the potential to cause irritation of the skin, eyes, and throat. This can often go away through cleaning the affected area or going out into fresh air.

Many paint products contain VOCs that can potentially cause both short-term and long-term health effects. Because of this, you should aim to minimize your exposure to these chemicals whenever possible.

When painting indoors, you should always do so safely. This can include selecting a paint that has lower VOC levels, making sure the area is properly ventilated, and taking breaks to get some fresh air.