Are Paint Fumes Harmful?

Man in protective gear painting a wall with an airless gun

Nothing transforms a room like a fresh coat of paint, but the smell of paint? Anything but fresh. In some cases, paint fumes are more than an unpleasant annoyance. They can actually be harmful. In this article, we’ll talk about paint fumes, their side effects, and how you can protect yourself.

Health Risks and Effects

As paint dries, the solvents that keep it in liquid form evaporate and release volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, into the air. Exposure to them can lead to short or long-term health effects. Short-term exposure to VOCs can lead to:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Respiratory problems
  • Skin reactions (itching, rashes, hives)

Long-term exposure to high concentrations of VOCs can cause: 

  • Damage to the nervous system, liver, and kidneys
  • Different types of cancer, including leukemia
  • Vision and memory problems
  • Loss of lung function

The following chart explains what each VOC is and the health risks associated with them. 

VOCRole in paintHealth risks
AcetonePaint thinner, cleans dried latex paintHeadaches, confusion, nausea, racing pulse, unconsciousness, coma
BenzeneHelps paint dry more quicklyCancer, leukemia
FormaldehydeDeters bacteria and fungus from paintCancer of nose and throat, leukemia
EthanolReduce paint drying timeLiver cirrhosis
TCE (tricholoethylene)Removes grease from metal partsKidney cancer
TolueneHelps dry and dissolve paintEye and nose irritation, tiredness, confusion, euphoria, dizziness, headache, liver and kidney damage
XyleneThins oil-based paints and varnishesIrritates eyes, nose, skin, and throat
DichloromethanePaint thinnerIrritates eyes, skin, and respiratory tract
Propylene glycolExtends paint dry time, keeps paint from freezing in cold weatherIrritates eyes and skin, causes nausea and vomiting

Is Latex Paint Safe?

Nowadays, latex paint is safer than oil-based paint because it emits fewer VOCs. It’s mostly impossible for any type of paint to avoid giving off VOCs as it dries, but unless you’re specifically using a paint that gives off high levels of VOCs, they won’t be harmful in small amounts.

If you get any paint on your skin, wash it off with soap and water. If you or a loved one accidentally ingests a small amount of dried latex paint, it won’t poison the body, but it can cause an upset stomach, diarrhea, or vomiting. Give them a small amount of water or milk to drink, and it should come out in the stool in a day or two.

High-Risk Individuals

Some people are more vulnerable to paint fumes than others, even if they aren’t directly exposed. If you fall into one of these categories, take extra precautions when being around paint.

Pregnant Women

Pregnant woman painting
Photo Credit: Kemal Yildirim / Canva Pro / License

Though expectant parents often paint the nursery, mothers might want to sit out. If a pregnant mother is exposed to paint fumes, the VOCs might damage the unborn baby to the point of causing congenital disabilities.

Babies and Children

Child painting wall with mother
Photo Credit: Alena Ozerova / Canva Pro / License

It’s best to keep babies and children away from freshly painted rooms for a few days. They are still developing, and childhood exposure to VOCs can cause allergies, asthma, rhinitis, eczema, and childhood leukemia.


Dogs watching house paint
Photo Credit: Taizi Goncalves / Canva Pro / License

Keep your pets away from paint jobs, especially indoor pets. They have a smaller lung capacity than humans, putting them at greater risk of health issues. Birds, in particular, shouldn’t be allowed in a recently painted room, as they’re especially vulnerable to airborne pollutants.

How Long Are Paint Fumes Harmful?

Avoid entering a newly painted room for 2 to 3 days – the time needed for the paint fumes to dissipate and the paint smell to disappear. Additionally, ventilate the room for 72 hours after painting it, as some of the most toxic VOCs can be odorless.

Safety Tips for Painting

When buying paint products, check the label for “VOC” and the number beside it. That means the product emits VOCs. The lower the number, the lower the risk of releasing VOCs (sometimes called off-gassing). 

Buy no-VOC or low-VOC paints to limit how many products that emit VOCs you buy and take safety precautions when using them. Additionally, apply the following safety tips when painting:

  • Ventilate the room: Open windows and doors and turn on a fan. The wind will carry the fumes away, and the room will dry faster. An air purifier is also recommended, as it will reduce the levels of VOCs in the air.
  • Wear a mask and respirator while painting: Doing so will protect you from strong paint fumes.
  • Take frequent breaks: Leave the room and get fresh air every so often.
  • Buy only as much paint as you need: Paint cans can release fumes and gasses even when closed, so don’t buy more paint than you need. Even a closet or basement full of unused paint cans can be harmful.
  • Wear safety goggles and gloves: Even a tiny amount of paint in the eyes and skin can cause health problems, so wear safety goggles and gloves to protect yourself.
  • Cover leftover paint containers: When finished, put the lid back on the paint cans. Doing so prevents fumes from leaking into the surrounding areas. Also, clean your equipment thoroughly and immediately after you finish painting. 
  • Read safety information on the paint label: Most provide tips and protective measures when using their product.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do people start an interior paint project?

Some people start an interior paint project to update a bedroom or add more life to a living room.

Can paint fumes go through walls?

Paint fumes can seep through the smallest spaces and cracks in the walls and gaps in your vents, air ducts, and pipes.

Can paint fumes get into food?

When oil-based paints are used, the vapors can condense on surfaces and react to the oxygen in the air, which can taint food. However, this is rare, and you’ll have to leave wet paint open for many days before it can react to the oxygen and spoil your food.

Stay Safe and Hire a Pro

No matter the painting project, protecting yourself from paint fumes is vitally important. Keeping your room ventilated and your family safe will let you reap the benefits of your paint job. If you’re worried about exposing yourself to paint fumes, Paint Gnome can connect you with local pros and have them paint for you.

Main Photo Credit: AlpakaVideo / Canva Pro / License

Stuart Kushner

Stuart Kushner is a writer and aspiring product designer based in New York City. When he isn’t writing about home improvement projects, Stuart enjoys heavy metal music, exercise, and trying new food and drinks.