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Paints for Indoor Use When Should I Be Worried?

The Bottom Line

Most paints for indoor use are very safe to use. Solvent-based or oil-based paints may cause more irritation to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract than water-based paints. There's no evidence that paint fumes harm pregnant women or the fetus, but pregnant women are advised to limit their exposure to fresh paint fumes.

The Full Story

Painting is one of the most common home improvement projects. Most paints used inside the home are water-based and are very safe to use. Like other things around the home, children get into paint. If parents aren't watching, young children often put their hands into the paint or lick the paint brushes. Parents get alarmed when a child paints himself!

There are a few types of paints for use indoors. They all contain pigments (for color) and a liquid so that paint can be mixed and applied.

  • Latex or acrylic latex paints use water as the primary liquid, though solvents may be present too.
  • Oil-based paints contain mineral oil as the primary liquid.
  • Solvent-based paints may use any number of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) as the liquid. Common VOCs include toluene, xylene, ethanol, and acetone, among many others.

Other ingredients vary with the type of paint; for example, some paints may contain an ingredient to prevent mold.

Latex paint is used most often because it dries quickly and can be cleaned up with soap and water. Liquid latex paint can be mildly irritating to the skin and mouth. If swallowed, it can cause an upset stomach or even vomiting. Swallowing latex paint does not poison the body, though. Dry pieces of latex paint are not poisonous to swallow - but they can be a risk for choking.

Oil-based paints also can irritate the skin. They can cause stomach upset if swallowed. There is a bigger problem, though: if someone swallows oil-based paint, and chokes on it, paint can get into the lungs. Mineral oil in the lungs can cause trouble breathing and pneumonia. This isn't a common problem with paint, though; paint is thick and children rarely swallow much.

Even though fumes from latex and oil paints can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, they do not poison the body when used as directed. Any irritation should go away once you get into fresh air. If fresh air doesn't help, take a warm shower and wash your hair.

Solvent-based paints can be more irritating than latex or oil-based paints on the skin or if swallowed. But the biggest concern is with inhaling the fumes into the lungs. Breathing solvent paint fumes for too long can cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea. This can happen in a poorly ventilated space or when large areas are being painted or stained. These paints can even be deadly if they are inhaled on purpose, or "huffed", to get high.

Pregnant women sometimes have concerns about breathing in paint fumes. There is no evidence that exposure to paint causes problems. Even so, doctors recommend caution. If possible, pregnant women shouldn't inhale paint fumes. If pregnant women paint, they should be sure the area has lots of ventilation: open doors and windows, and take frequent breaks.

Safely disposing of left-over paint depends on where you live. Many counties recommend letting water-based paint dry out, then discarding the cans with household trash. Oil-based and solvent-based paints usually must be disposed of as hazardous materials. Check your county's regulations.

A note about lead paint: At one time, interior paints contained lead. That is no longer true; lead paint has been banned for decades. However, homes built before about 1979 may have lead paint on their walls. Specially-trained professionals can test painted surfaces for the presence of lead-based paint. Special precautions are needed when renovating homes with lead-based paint; see "For More Information" (below) to learn about lead paint and lead poisoning.

First aid for paint exposures is simple.

  • If any kind of paint gets on the skin, wash it off with soap and water. Paint removers can irritate the skin.
  • If paint gets into the eyes, rinse with running water for 15 - 20 minutes. Rest with the eye closed for 15 minutes. Call Poison Control if there is any pain or trouble with vision.
  • If someone swallows paint, give a small amount of water or milk to drink. Watch for stomach upset, vomiting, and diarrhea. Swallowed paint may come out in the stool in a day or two; be aware - and tell babysitters! - so that no one is alarmed.
  • If someone inhales paint fumes and feels dizzy or light-headed, immediately get to fresh air and call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 or use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for help.

Take Home Message

  • Most paints for indoor use are water-based paints. They are very safe to use.
  • Solvent-based or oil-based paints may cause more irritation to the eyes and skin. They may also cause more irritation if the fumes are breathed in.
  • There's no evidence that paint fumes harm pregnant women or the fetus. But, because this is an area that can't be studied easily, pregnant women are advised to limit their exposure to fresh paint fumes.
  • Safe disposal of old paint is determined by local regulations.

Pela Soto, BS, BSHS, PharmD
Certified Specialist in Poison Information

For More Information

Lead Poisoning in Children: Unusual Sources and Why They Matter (The Poison Post®)

A Mini-Guide to Poison-Safe Remodeling (The Poison Post®)

News about Lead for Pregnant Women (The Poison Post®)


Ernstgård L, Löf A, Wieslander G, Norbäck D, Johanson G. Acute effects of some volatile organic compounds emitted from water-based paints. J Occ Env Med. 2007;49:880-889.

Khattak S, K-Moghtader G, McMartin K, Barrera M, Kennedy D, Koren G. Pregnancy outcome following gestational exposure to organic solvents: a prospective controlled study. JAMA. 1999;281;1106-1109.

McMartin KI. Chu M, Kopecky E, Einarson TR, Koren G. Pregnancy outcome following material organic solvent exposure: a meta-analysis of epidemiologic studies. Am J Industrial Med. 1998;34:288-292.

MotherToBaby: Medications & More during Pregnancy & Breastfeeding. [Internet]. Brentwood TN: Organization of Teratology Information Specialists; C 2012. Paint and Pregnancy. 2011 Jan [cited 2013 Oct 30]; [about 2 screens].

Sørensen M, Andersen A-M N, Raaschou-Nielsen O. Non-occupational exposure to paint fumes during pregnancy and fetal growth in a general population. Environmental Research. 2010;110:383-387.


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Prevention Tips

  • Use ONLY interior paints inside your home. Paints for commercial use, exterior use, or special uses such as boats may contain ingredients that are not safe for indoor use. Examples are paints containing fungicides.
  • When painting, make sure you have good air circulation. Leave the area if you feel dizzy or light-headed.
  • Do NOT transfer paint into cups, glasses, or food containers. Children might mistake the paint for something good to drink.  
  • Get help if you suspect someone is inhaling paints to get high, as this can be deadly.
  • These tips are for homeowners. Professional painters may have different risks and need different protection.

This Really Happened

A 13-month-old child swallowed some latex paint that an older sibling was using. The child's grandmother wiped the paint off the child's face and gave him some water to drink. Shortly after, the child vomited once. After that, he acted like his usual self; his appetite was good. Poison Control told the child's mother not to worry if he passed some paint in his stool the next day. Poison Control called the child's mom the next day; she said that her son remained perfectly fine.