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Are Paint Fumes Bad to Inhale in Your Home?

Last updated May 6, 2022

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Author
Author avatar Danny Ashton

Danny as been writing about air purifiers for 10+ years. He is a major fan of home technology, which makes him the perfect person to test and evaluate products for HouseFresh

Our verdict:

Short answer: yes. Longer answer: not only are they bad, but they can be downright deadly. 

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a dangerous by-product given off by the solvents found in paint and, when inhaled, can be extremely hazardous to your health.

The good news is that there are steps you can take to avoid dangerous concentrations of VOCs in your home. If you keep them in mind when painting, and if you take proper safety precautions, you shouldn’t have to worry about the dangerous effects of VOCs for too long.

Just as we can’t see the wind, we can’t always see the chemicals in our homes and surrounding us in the environment. But just because you can’t see them, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Solvents and other volatile organic compounds are released by many products, including paints, and can cause health problems when inhaled over time. In fact, paint fumes are known to contain numerous VOCs that have been associated with serious health risks like cancer, neurological disorders, and even damage to unborn children.

What Makes Paint Fumes Dangerous to Inhale?

Many paint companies have taken steps toward lowering VOCs in their products; however, there is currently no federal regulation on how many VOCs can be included in paints sold in the United States. Because of this lack of regulation, it’s important that you take proper precautions before painting your home—and this doesn’t mean just opening windows and doors!

To determine whether a product contains VOCs, look for a symbol on its label. If you see the letters “VOC” with a number next to it, you know that it emits at least some VOCs when used. The lower the number, the lower the risk of off-gassing from that product. Some of the most hazardous solvents found in paint include Toluene, Xylene, Acetone, Formaldehyde, and Benzene. 

  • Toluene affects the central nervous system and causes nausea and headaches. It can also cause liver and kidney damage. 
  • Xylene affects the central nervous system and can cause liver and kidney damage. 
  • Acetone is dangerous to inhale because it is extremely flammable. 
  • Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that has been linked to lung cancer. 
  • Benzene is highly flammable, affects the central nervous system, damages the blood cells, causes leukemia and bone marrow damage, and can be fatal in large amounts.

The amount of VOCs released depends on the type of paint used. The less-toxic options include latex paints, which generally contain fewer chemicals than oil-based alternatives and contain a lower VOC content. In comparison to traditional paints, zero-VOC options emit fewer pollutants into the air and are thus better for the environment.

7 Tips to Paint Your Home Safely

So, now that we’ve gone over the many risks associated with breathing in paint fumes let’s get to the good news. There are a number of steps you can take to paint your home safely while greatly reducing the risk of inhaling harmful fumes and VOCs. Here are the steps you should take before, during, and after painting your home so that you can minimize the risks.

1. Use indoor paint 

The first step in making your home safe is choosing an indoor paint. Indoor paints contain virtually no VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and are typically free of harmful chemicals. Although a bit more expensive, indoor paints are well worth it for their health benefits and can often be found at discounted rates.

2. Use a respirator mask

Everyone should use a respirator mask when painting; even if you’re using low-VOC or zero-VOC paint, you should still take precautions to protect yourself from inhaling the fumes. Some products used on interior surfaces can cause irritation and damage your lungs over time, even if they don’t contain VOCs. There are several kinds of respirators available, but for painting inside your home, a basic face mask that covers your nose and mouth should do the trick. 

3. Keep your home ventilated 

The next step is to keep your home ventilated. Painting safely requires good airflow, so you need to open the windows and use fans in order to make sure that the air circulates well. By keeping your home well-ventilated, you can significantly reduce the level of VOCs in the air. Plus, because there will be more air circulating, having good ventilation can also help the paint dry quicker. 

4. Take frequent breaks 

Remember to take frequent breaks, as well. Paints are a mixture of solvents, pigments, and additives, and it is important to keep your body in mind as you paint. In order to remain safe and healthy, it is good practice to work in short bursts and allow yourself time away from the fumes. Use this time to get some fresh air or grab a quick glass of water before resuming your task.

5. Stay ventilated 

Once you’ve finished painting, don’t assume it’s safe to breathe in the air again. Just because you no longer smell paint fumes doesn’t mean they’re not there. In fact, even once you’ve moved your furniture back into place and the paint has dried, the VOCs will continue to off-gas for several weeks. So be sure to keep the windows open and fans running until at least a full month has passed since you completed the painting job.

6. Use an air purifier 

The last thing you want to do is put your health at risk when painting your home, so don’t forget to use an air purifier. In addition to removing VOCs, a good air purifier can also remove other particles and contaminants from the air. This will create a healthier environment for you to breathe in while you and your family are painting and after you’ve finished painting. 

Interested in buying an air purifier but not sure where to start? Check out our top six favorite air purifiers for VOCs. Not keen on doing research? You can’t go wrong with the IQAir HealthPro Plus or the Coway Airmega 400.

7. Put paint away when finished 

After you’re done painting, and the paint is dry, make sure to put it away where it won’t be exposed to sunlight. Just like how plastic can degrade over time when it’s left in the sun, so too will paints that are left uncovered. Also, don’t forget to clean your equipment properly after you’ve finished painting. If you leave brushes or rollers dirty with paint, they’ll be very difficult to clean later on. It’s best to wash them immediately after you’re finished.

Frequently Asked Questions About Paint Fumes at Home

🤔 Can paint fumes make you “high”? 

Well, that depends on what you mean by high. Some people use the word to describe a feeling of euphoria or elation. Others may be referring to a state of drunkenness. Still, others may be using the term to refer to a condition of dizziness or disorientation. 

So, let’s try to clear up some of the confusion! The short answer is yes; painting can sometimes make you feel “high.” But it has nothing to do with the paint itself and everything to do with how our bodies react when we inhale volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

🤔 Can paint fumes get into your food? 

There’s a good reason to be concerned about paint fumes getting into food. If you’re painting a room where food is present, your children or pets may be exposed to toxic chemicals. 

When oil-based paints are being used, the vapors can condense on surfaces and react with the oxygen in the air. This creates acids that can taint food or leach into it. 

Fortunately, these conditions are rare. For example, you would have to leave wet paint open for many days before it could react with oxygen and create enough acid to affect food or beverages.

🤔 Can paint fumes travel through walls?

Yes, it is absolutely possible for paint fumes to travel through walls. In fact, it’s not even a question of whether they can; the truth is that they will. The fumes can’t go through the solid part of the walls, but they can go through very small openings or cracks in the wall, the tiny spaces between the wall and its trim or molding, as well as any gaps around your vents, air ducts, and pipes. Check out our best tips to help you stop paint fumes and smells traveling through walls.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of potential hazards to think about when painting your home, and it’s easy to overlook VOCs. For this reason, staying safe while painting is crucial. Always pay attention to your breathing during the process, and don’t feel like you have to finish the job quickly. 

Make sure you use indoor paint, use a respirator, keep your windows open whenever possible, take lots of breaks, and always use an air purifier. Finally—don’t be afraid to ask for professional help if you aren’t sure how to handle a particularly risky situation (for example, if you are pregnant, very young, or elderly).