Is Acrylic Paint Really Toxic?

Is Acrylic Paint Really Toxic?

When I first created my business, Natural Earth Paint, 12 years ago, I had always been an oil painter and was very excited to spread the news that you could paint in a 100% toxin-free and natural way with natural oil paint. What then surprised me were the emails that started pouring in from artists saying that they preferred to paint with fast-drying acrylics but couldn't anymore because of their chemical sensitivities to the fumes! I didn't even know that acrylic paint gave off fumes! I knew that is was essentially liquid plastic but didn't know much more than that. They wanted to know if we made a safe and natural acrylic paint.

These emails continued week after week, year after year, asking if we had a natural or non-toxic acrylic paint because they no longer wanted to poison their water supply, the air and their body with their acrylic paints. After 7 years of this, I finally gave in and realized this seemed to be the number one issue with artists today as it's the most predominantly used paint on the planet.

I started researching what actually was in acrylic paint and was surprised that the petroleum-based resin (acrylic polymer emulsion), which is the bulk of the paint, is actually the least of it's problems (although it's pretty bad). Even the synthetic or heavy-metal based pigments were not the worst of it's problems (although many heavy metals - including antimony, barium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, manganese, strontium are linked to various cancers, as well as diseases of the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs and skin).

The most troublesome part of acrylic paint is the additives that are included to give it various properties: for example, a very long shelf-life, to make it dry faster or slower, to get rid of foaming, to make the paint not separate over time, to make the pigments disperse into the base resin better, to make it flow or hold it's form in specific ways, to make it brush across a surface in a specific way, to change the thickness, to give it gloss or matte appearance, to prevent mold or bacterial growth, etc. etc.

There has unfortunately been a lot of confusion and misinformation about acrylic paints over the past 50 years as most of the general public has unfortunately equated the words "water-based" with "non-toxic". But as the years pass and artists are having more and more health problems due to using acrylic paints, it's finally coming out into public knowledge. 

The most alarming additives that are found in acrylic paints include powerful toxins such as...

  • Phthalates - plastic softeners - carcinogenic, causes liver toxicity and is a hormone disruptor
  • Formaldehyde - causes liver damage and is a carcinogen
  • Concentrated volatile monomers
  • Benzene - highly carcinogenic
  • Ammonia - contains microplastics
  • Vinyl Chloride - highly carcinogenic - causes liver damage
  • Butyl acrylate - kidney toxicity
  • Ethyl acrylate - EPA classified it as "probable human carcinogen"
  • Propylene Glycol 
  • Glycol ether
  • Triethylimene - causes eye damage

These additives release into the air when drying and can enter the bloodstream within 60 seconds of being on skin - which is why all of those artists were having reactions.

None of these ingredients are disclosed on packaging or labels but many paints that include these ingredients instead ironically claim "non-toxic" on the label.

We were on another mission! To create a safe and natural acrylic paint alternative.

The 5 year process to formulate these paints will be in another article because it's a story in itself - 8 different chemists, trial and error and frustration galore until finally the formulation was beautiful and complete in 2023...

To learn the very surprising origin and development of acrylic paints over the past 150 years, watch this video by Art Historian, Aloria Weaver.