Before I try to answer this question, let me tell you that I am not an expert in the skin or derma – I am a painter.
Now, onto the question asked last week by one of my visitors via email: can paint be absorbed through the skin?
I researched a bit about it and decided not to answer her personally but over here on my blog, where it can help others too.
Well, the answer to this is not very simple, as it can be a yes or no based on various factors. These include:
- The ingredients or chemicals in the paint
- The concentration of these chemicals in the paint
- The duration of contact of paint on the skin or body part
- The physical condition and age of your skin to be able to fight chemicals
Besides these common factors, the solubility and molecular weight of the substance also play an essential role.
What does this mean? It means that some substances can be more quickly and easily absorbed through the skin, while others may not be able to penetrate through as easily.
So, depending on the chemicals and solvents in the paint, your body part is exposed to, it can be absorbed through the skin but not too deep.
What Chemicals Can Be Absorbed Through the Skin?
According to Occupational & Environmental Medicine (OEM), many materials can be absorbed through the skin, including mercury, isocyanates, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and acrylates.
Monona Rossol also mentioned in her book (The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide) that “Lead metals, lead oxide, and lead nitrate are known to absorb through the skin. Other compounds probably can absorb as well.”
But what about many other chemicals that might be present in your oil paints, stains, varnishes, and other oil-based finishes?
Certain low-quality and cheaper oil paints can have heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cobalt, and barium added as pigments that can be highly toxic when used carelessly.
But to get absorbed through the skin and before reaching the blood or lymph system and circulating to other body parts, chemicals must traverse through the epidermis’ seven layers.
The epidermis’ outermost layer is the limiting barrier to absorption. As a result, the overall absorption of a substance is determined by how rapidly it goes through this thick outer layer.
Because substances not soluble in lipids and water do not diffuse as quickly through the skin due to good health, they will tend not to pass through this outer layer.
What about lead absorption in the skin?
The absorption of chemical compounds, such as lead, largely hinges on their solubility.
The good news is that most pigments that artists and painters use are not soluble in water and therefore pose little to no risk of skin absorption.
In other words, our skin will most likely not contact or absorb lead if the pigment is in oil paint, as it has a lower concentration.
Additional pigments noted are also not likely to cause health concerns through skin absorption simply because these are also insoluble in lipids, like the first group of pigments.
But all that said, it’s best to adopt the safest practices when dealing with oil-based paints and other hazardous materials. This means:
- Use proper gloves for oil painting, staining, wood finishing, car spray painting, decorating, or even crafting projects such as woodturning.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after using any type of paint, oil-based or water-based.
- And finally, never let kids handle or use any type of paint or solvents like paint thinners without adult supervision.
If you are into manufacturing work or working in commercial spaces, it is always better to follow the safety data sheets (SDS) for the products you are using.
Are There Any Paints that are Safe to Put on Your Body?
Water-based paints produce less volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Also, they are well-regulated and follow strict standards, making them the safest choice for face and body painting.
However, they can crack/break and rub off easily; they might be unsuitable for body painting. You can however safely use them on your walls and other surfaces, for which they are actually designed.
What about acrylic – is it safe for the skin?
While water-based paints like acrylics that are non-toxic won’t do too much damage if they get on your skin, they are still not safe to use for skin painting or face decorations.
In other words, as these craft paints could lead to skin irritations or allergic reactions, putting them on your body parts, like hands, legs, face, etc., is not recommended.
The only safest paints you can use on the skin include:
- Latex body paints
- Metallic body paints
- Alcohol-based paints
- Body painting markers
Other than that, Henna or Mehandi is a traditional and safe way of body painting that has been used for centuries in Asia and the Middle East.
It is made from a plant; thus, it’s an entirely safe and non-toxic way to paint skin. In its natural form, Henna can be used to create beautiful designs on your hands, feet, or any other body part that can last a few weeks before it starts fading away.
What’s the Best Way to Remove Oil-Based Paints & Stains from Skin?
Paint spills can happen, and you often have dirty hands after a painting project.
While you can’t control them a hundred percent on your job, it’s best to use soap and water to clean up any spills, smears, or stains as soon as possible.
To remove oil-based paints from the skin and other surfaces, wash the area with warm, soapy water. Then use natural kitchen and household products like mayonnaise, olive oil, or baby oil. These home remedies work very well for getting most paints and primers off your skin.
If that doesn’t work, try using Goof Off, specifically designed to remove paints and other chemicals.
You can also try using rubbing alcohol or nail polish remover, but be sure to test them all on a small area first, as they can be harsh on the skin. And finally, always wash your hands thoroughly after using any type of paint, oil-based or water-based.
The bottom line
While there are some paints that are safe to use on your skin, it’s always best to exercise caution and follow safety guidelines when using any paint, regardless of the type.
Paints can contain harmful chemicals and pigments that can be dangerous if kept in contact for a long or absorbed through the skin. If you choose to use paint on your skin, wash your hands afterward and avoid letting children use or handle any paint without adult supervision.
Jack Luis is a semi-retired painter who loved painting his clients’ ideas on their walls.
He had worked as a painter for over a decade serving customers in areas such as Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Beaufort, and Georgetown, SC (South Carolina). Today in his free time, he likes to read and write about the newer techniques implemented in his profession. You may read more about him here or get in touch with him here.