Are Paint Fumes Bad to Inhale in Your Home?

There are many reasons why you may want to start an interior painting project—creating a nursery, updating a bedroom, adding a bit more life to your living room, just to name a few. A fresh coat of paint can completely transform a room and it is an excellent alternative to other costly and time-consuming renovation tasks, such as installing new flooring or finally converting your garage into an office. However, painting is not without its downsides. Without proper care and attention, paint fumes can pose a serious health concern to the people in your family.

What is in paint fumes?

As paint dries, the ingredients that keep it in its liquid form—including any harmful chemicals that they may contain—start to evaporate, leading to that familiar “new paint” smell. This is why the smell of wet paint is so much stronger than the smell of dry paint, though paint can still emit vapors long after it has dried.

As a paint’s liquid ingredients start to evaporate, they release fumes containing harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. VOCs are carbon-based chemicals that evaporate at room temperature and have been found to cause a wide range of adverse health effects. The solvents present in paint can emit a variety of VOCs, including:

  • Toluene
  • Xylene
  • Ethanol
  • Benzene
  • Dichloromethane
  • Formaldehyde
  • Trichloroethylene
  • Propylene glycol
  • Glycol ethers
  • Styrene
  • Acetone

The exact chemical makeup of paint fumes depends on the type of paint used. According to the EPA, water-based paints, usually referred to as latex or acrylic paints, emit fewer chemicals than oil-based paints. Choosing “no-VOC” or “low-VOC” paints can help decrease indoor air pollution and reduce health risks to members of the household, though they may still emit odors or other unwanted substances such as pesticides.

Note: Though our focus is on interior paints, art and craft paints can also emit varying levels of VOCs. Because they are continually working with paints, solvents, resins and other potentially harmful materials, artists should take special care to protect the air quality of their studio or workspace.

Health risks and effects of breathing paint fumes

The chemicals present in paint fumes can cause both short- and long-term health effects. While painting, and as the paint is drying, some people may experience symptoms such as headaches, eye watering, dizziness and breathing problems. Other immediate symptoms include throat and lung irritation and vision problems. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends leaving the room immediately and getting fresh air for anyone who starts to notice the above symptoms. Chronic exposure to VOCs, such as those present in interior paint, can lead to damage to the nervous system, liver and kidneys, as well as some types of cancer.

Risks for special populations

Some people are more vulnerable to the chemicals in paint vapors than others. If you or a loved one is in one of the following groups, extra precautions may be necessary to avoid adverse health effects while painting the house.

Pregnant women: Painting the nursery can be one of the most exciting steps in preparing for your new child. However, expecting mothers may want to reconsider taking part in the painting process. Exposure to paint fumes during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester, may increase the risk of some types of congenital anomalies. An unborn child’s nervous system, ears, face, neck and renal system are all vulnerable to the side effects of exposure to VOCs in paint fumes (Hjortebjerg et. al, 2012). Additionally, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found a positive association between maternal exposure to fresh paint before and during pregnancy and childhood leukemia in her offspring.

Babies and children: Though children may be excited to watch or take part in the painting process, it is probably best for them to stay out of any freshly painted rooms for at least a few days. Childhood exposure to the VOCs found in paints has been linked to increased rates of allergic symptoms, asthma, rhinitis and eczema (Choi et. al, 2010). Paint fumes can be especially dangerous for newborn babies, as it appeared to increase the risk of childhood leukemia (Bailey et. al, 2015).

Pets: Pets, particularly those that are indoors all day, should be kept away from any interior paint projects. Because they have a smaller lung capacity than their owners, animals may be more at risk for health effects from the toxic chemicals present in paint emissions. Birds are especially vulnerable to airborne pollutants and should not be allowed in a room that has been recently painted, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

How long are paint fumes harmful?

You will probably be eager to enjoy your newly painted room, but it may be best to wait a couple of extra days to set up your furniture and decor. It is difficult to determine precisely how long a specific paint will off-gas harmful fumes, but most sources agree that a fresh coat of paint will continue to emit VOCs into the air even after it appears completely dry. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in Montgomery County, Maryland recommends ventilating a room for 72 hours after you finish painting, even if the smell of paint fumes has already dissipated, as some of the most toxic VOCs can be odorless.

Though the majority of VOC off-gassing typically happens during the first week after painting, your walls can continue to emit harmful chemicals for years to come. In the air, these chemicals can cause chemical reactions that fine particulates and ozone, both of which have been found to have negative health impacts. To minimize off-gassing, many consumer and environmental organizations recommend sticking to no-VOC and low-VOC paints.

How to get rid of paint smells and other safety tips

There are two steps to reducing the indoor air pollution caused by painting: choosing a paint that has the least VOC emissions and taking action to remove off-gassed VOCs from your home as quickly as possible. To maintain the quality of your indoor air during and after painting the interior of your home:

  • Buy only as much paint as you need. Store any leftover paint away from the house, as paint cans can continue to leak VOCs after they have been opened.
  • Choose a water-based paint and read the label to ensure that the VOC content is within a safe range (the Utah Department of Environmental Quality recommends paints with 50 grams per liter or less.)
  • While you are painting, and for up to three days after, increase ventilation to your home, specifically to the room or rooms that were painted. You can help reduce VOC concentrations in your home by opening windows and running fans.
  • Take frequent breaks while painting to leave the room and breathe fresh air.
  • Avoid placing furniture, decor and clothing back into a room until the majority of off-gassing has occurred. If you are leaving fabric-covered furnishings in an area while you paint, you can cover them with plastic sheeting or drop cloths to help keep them from absorbing VOCs from the paint fumes.
  • Wait at least 72 hours to return to a room that has been freshly painted, even if you can no longer smell the paint fumes.
  • Use an air purifier to help reduce the levels of VOCs in the air. The Molekule air purifier destroys VOCs at the molecular level to help clean the air in your room.

Whether you are preparing a nursery for your new baby or trying to freshen up an unused spare room, protecting your home and your family from indoor air pollution is one of the most important parts of any painting job. By following the above tips, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor without worrying about the health effects of paint fumes.