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Health Effects on Babies Breathing Oil-Based Paints

By Nichole Mayers ; Updated April 18, 2017
Oil-based paints come with some health risks when used around babies.

Oil-based paint, also referred to as “alkyd paint,” requires solvents to keep its solids suspended; these solvents are called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC). When exposed to air, VOCs evaporate and when inhaled, can cause health problems that range from headaches and dizziness to cancer. The dangers vary, largely based on the health of the individual exposed to the fumes; however, babies, children and expectant women are particular susceptible to these toxins and should be kept away from rooms in which oil-based paints are required.

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Facts About Oil-Based Paint

Oil-based paints are generally used outdoors and in rooms like bathrooms and kitchens that require a moisture-resistant finish. In addition to solvents, oil-based paint that is designated as an outdoor paint will often include mercury, which is toxic to humans.

Lead was included in oil-based paint until 1978, when the government restricted the amount allowed to .06 percent or less. Although many manufacturers have voluntarily discontinued using lead in their residential oil-based paints, it is still used in industrial paint.

Health Hazards

Studies have shown that pregnant women who are exposed to VOCs, including glycol ether, have an increased chance for miscarriage. Other VOCs increase the risk of miscarriage and birth defects.

VOCs are particularly dangerous for babies because they hinder their development. Short-term exposure may cause headaches, dizziness, fatigue, respiratory problems and nausea. Long-term exposure may cause nervous system damage, which affects muscle coordination, growth and mental development.


When using oil-based paint indoors, paint during times of low humidity and cross-ventilate to ensure that the paints dry quickly. It is also a good idea to wear a respirator, especially if pregnant, and close paint cans tightly when they're not in use. Babies and children should not be allowed in the vicinity where alkyd or oil-based paints are used until the paint has thoroughly dried. This typically takes two to three days.

Key Words Used on Labels with Oil-Based Paint

Paints that include VOCs will sometimes be labeled as an "alkyd" or as "solvent based." A label of "outdoor use only" is also an indication of an oil-based paint.

Ingredients that include epoxy, urethane or varnish, and instructions for cleaning that specify paint thinner are also indications that the paint is oil-based and should not be applied in the presence of a baby.

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About the Author

Nichole Mayers began writing in 2000 as an online columnist. She also wrote promotional material for JIN restaurant and Subterranean sandwich shop in Washington, D.C. and for the recruitment firm MosAL Consulting. Mayers has written press for comedian Victor Torres and prepared a monthly newsletter for Soule Restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y. She holds a B.A. in English from Montclair State University.

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