Traditional oil paints are basically a drying oil and pigment. Manufactures also add stabilizers because modern paints need to be stored for a considerable length of time before use. Stabilizers keep the oil from separating from the pigment. Let’s consider the safety of each of these components:
1. Drying Oils
Drying oils used in artists’ paints are mainly linseed, safflower, poppy or walnut. We know that linseed oil is safe to work with because we can buy specially processed food-grade quality linseed oils in health food stores as a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. The health food industry uses the term flaxseed oil in reference to the plant from which we derive linseed. We use both safflower oil and walnut oil in cooking. Poppy oil doesn’t appear to be popular in the health food realm, and references point only to its use in paints; however, manufacturers do use it in skin care products.
The stabilizers, if used, are metallic fatty acids. Because they’re mixed into the paint, they do not pose an independent threat to a person using an art material.
3. Soaplike Substance
Water-soluble oils contain an ingredient that would be considered close to soap, which makes water combine with the oil for assistance in cleanup.
Regardless of the origin of the oil and any additives, you should not consider paints safe to ingest. Keep them on the palette and the painting, and they’ll pose no unusual health risk.
Pigments can be as benign as common dirt or as harmful as many other chemicals are to the human body. Many of the paints used by artists from the Middle Ages to the late 20th century had varying degrees of toxicity. Even today, while the most highly toxic pigments have disappeared, no pigment should be considered nontoxic. The one property that makes oil paints so safe to use is that the pigment is bound in a liquid vehicle (the drying oil). Therefore the problem of dry powder finding its way into artists’ lungs or flying about and landing on their families’ food is eliminated. Even the nastiest of pigments, which no longer are readily available, wouldn’t give off toxic vapors or be otherwise harmful unless taken directly into the digestive system by mouth or, in the case of some pigments, they came in direct contact with unprotected skin.
Safe-Use Practices for Oils
I would remind artists that repeatedly allowing oil paints to splatter on their hands and arms is a bad practice. That’s especially true when an artist removes paint from the skin with a solvent. Skin, the largest organ of the human body,
is a sponge for taking in substances. Unbroken skin may be good at repelling germs, but an artist negates that protection when he or she tries to remove paint from skin using a solvent-soaked paper towel. Skin absorbs solvents, and when you mix paints with a solvent, the paint can enter the body as well. When using oil paints, slathering paint on oneself and cleaning it off with solvent poses the greatest risk.