How to Get Rid of Paint Fumes

Man smelling paint

Paint fumes can be unpleasant, at best, and dangerous, at worst. Some paints have a pretty obnoxious odor that you’d prefer to live without. But how? Many of the best approaches are just common sense, but there are some good hacks for getting rid of paint fumes that utilize everyday substances you probably never thought of.

Are Paint Fumes Hazardous?

This is the million-dollar question, and the answer is yes, but some more than others. Oil-based paints, in particular, are known to be hazardous because they contain volatile organic compounds like benzene which are known carcinogens. These VOCs are released as gasses or vapors that, when inhaled, can produce both short-term and long-term health problems. These can range from minor irritations like temporary dizziness, runny nose, and nausea to serious conditions like nervous system and organ damage, according to the U.S. Environmental Agency.

While there is much that still isn’t known about the health effects of VOC exposure, there is some chilling evidence that the consequences of intense or long-term exposure are grave. A 2019 study in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, suggested that women exposed to paint fumes at work are more likely to have children with autism spectrum disorder, even after adjusting for other unhealthy habits like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.

And according to the EPA, concentrations of many VOCs are generally two to 5 times higher – and as much as 10 times higher – indoors than outdoors because they can’t dissipate into the atmosphere as easily.

But what about modern latex paints that are water-based and have much lower concentrations of VOCs? Yes, they are safer, but experts say if you can smell the paint, you are still getting some VOCs. And even some low-VOC paints can contain additives that improve certain properties of the paint but give it more odor.

Methods for Eliminating Fumes

Even if you’re using a low-VOC or zero-VOC latex paint, which we highly recommend, you still may not want to live with the smell of a freshly painted room for long. You don’t have to. Here are things you can do.

Ventilation

Electric fan near window in room
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No matter what other methods you try to mitigate fumes, they should always be done in tandem with ventilation.

Ventilation simply means opening windows and doors to increase airflow and allow fumes to dissipate. You can improve the ventilation process by using fans to blow air out through a room’s openings.

Baking Soda

Baking soda
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There are a number of off-the-shelf or household items you can use to absorb fumes, and baking soda is among the best. It’s been used for well over a century as an odor eliminator, and here’s why: Many fumes are caused by acidic compounds. Baking soda (technically sodium bicarbonate) is an alkaline substance that acts to neutralize the acidic compound.

A word of caution, however. Baking soda helps, but it is not an absolute safeguard against noxious fumes. It takes time to work, so don’t think a plate of baking soda is going to immediately counteract all the fumes in an enclosed room while you’re painting. And it’s certainly not a substitute for ventilating the room properly.

Instead, put baking soda on plates around the room after you’re finished and let it work its magic over time.

Charcoal

Charcoal and charcoal powder on wooden spoon
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Charcoal works a lot like baking soda, except it’s arguably more effective at soaking up and eliminating odors. How? Charcoal is manufactured using a heat-treating process that leaves it porous. This porosity allows it to collect and soak up air molecules like a sponge soaks up water, although not quite as quickly or efficiently.

Diatomaceous Earth

Diatomaceous Earth powder and Diatomaceous Earth wooden inscription next to it
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Another porous, absorbent substance. Available in any garden center, diatomaceous earth features excellent absorbent properties that soak up and eliminate odor molecules. Just put small amounts of it on saucers or cups around the room after you’re finished painting.

As with baking soda and charcoal, don’t expect it to counteract fumes quickly. It takes hours or days for it to do its job.

Water or Vinegar

Water in a bucket
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Yes, water. No need to overthink this one. Just set some buckets of water in the room overnight and let it absorb the odors.

Vinegar will do the trick as well, but you need much less of it, perhaps just a couple of cups. Use household white vinegar for the best results.

Eliminating Vs. Masking

Many odors you experience everyday are simply unpleasant but not harmful. Dog poop? Nasty, yes, but not harmful. The same can’t be said for paint fumes. Even modern paints formulated to produce little VOCs have some risk, although much, much, much less than oil-based paints.

The difference is that unpleasant odors can be masked with deodorizers, scented candles or any other scented substance that overpowers the odor. But with paint, the underlying risk remains. You’re simply masking it.

That’s why it’s important to eliminate or at least minimize the odor by ventilating it outdoors, absorbing it with one of the substances above, or both.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take for paint fumes to go away?

It depends on the paint you use and how well you ventilate the room you’re painting. But in general, paint fumes dissipate within one to three days.

Is it OK to sleep in a freshly painted room?

We recommend against this unless you’ve used a paint that contains low or zero volatile organic compounds. We caution against it even more strongly for children, pregnant women, elderly people, and those with breathing conditions.

Does a burning candle eliminate paint fumes?

No, candles certainly provide a pleasant scent, but it masks the smell of paint rather than eliminating it.

Conclusion

Nothing beats good old-fashioned fresh air for eliminating paint fumes, so be sure to ventilate each room properly during and after painting. Even if you hire a professional to do the job, insist that they use a quality, low-VOC paint and that they ventilate the work space well.

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Whitney Lehnecker

A native of Ohio, Whitney Lehnecker is a career journalist and newspaper designer. She now lives in Central Florida with her husband and two pups, Goose and Bindi.