Toxicity of Oil Colours (Always Read the Label!)

Ways you can approach the subject.

  1. You can assume all paints are toxic, and never paint.
  2. You can attempt to take a well balanced view, rather as any competent motorist does when driving a vehicle which could prove potentially lethal.
  3. You can stop caring; after all we all have to die sometime. Take religion more seriously instead.

It may seem to some that the contents of this page are obvious but I have to start from the assumption that some people are either misguided, incompetent or stupid.. So let us also assume option 2 is the most reasonable.

I have no medical or toxicological qualifications, so all advice I give is with the best intentions but with no guarantees. Just take it as axiomatic: ALWAYS CHECK, NEVER TAKE A CHANCE. Just as a sensible motorist does every day, and lives.

Linseed and Poppy Oil are not considered toxic. The wildly eccentric have considered them edible, but I do not recommend them for culinary purposes. Vegetable oils, however, can self-combust (slowly ignite into fire) when on or in rags particularly. Always dispose of with care by soaking in water first.

Flake White / Foundation White / Cremnitz White contain Lead , which can kill or harm an unborn child, even immediately after conception—so if you considering pregnancy, avoid contact. Lead is also known to be toxic for children and adults. Keep these products away from children, even if they are the constituents of a dry, finished painting. Do not eat or smoke while working with these paints. (Do not smoke anyway, it smells and it stains paint surfaces.). Do not sand surfaces containing these or any paints where you can inhale the dust. The alternatives are Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide.

Lemon Yellow must be treated in the same way. It contains Chrome and Barium; both real nasties that cause a lot of other problems. These are several Lake Yellows which can substitute for these when mixed with Titanium White.

Cadmium Colours are not officially subject to the same regulations covering lead-based products, but in my opinion this does not mean that we should dub them “non- toxic”. I am told that if they are burnt. cadmium is released in a form which is highly toxic.

As a general precaution, do not allow paint into contact with your skin in such a volume that might cause skin sensitivity. There are also possibilities that some toxic pigments might be able to enter through the skin when used in conjunction with solvents.

Always wash well after use and before eating. Make sure your studio is well ventilated. Please call if you need more help.

11 Responses to “Toxicity of Oil Colours (Always Read the Label!)”

August 16, 2017 at 12:05 am, Danna said:

Is bright yellow lake toxic, what pigments make the color?


December 07, 2017 at 1:10 pm, Joelle Harding said:


Bright yellow lake is not toxic. PY3 makes the colour 🙂


March 20, 2020 at 5:21 pm, Vicki said:

Would you address Genuine Naples Yellow Light? The warning label is quite frightening and states that inhalation of fumes and dust can cause cancer. There are cumulative effects. I have never seen a warning about fumes on a paint tube.


June 11, 2020 at 12:14 pm, Michael said:

Hi Vicki,

Thanks for your message.

The fumes are in relation to extreme situations such as a fire; if the oil painting was to catch fire in an enclosed space with you inside of said space then the fumes would be dangerous for you to inhale.
Or for a cigarette smoker who may not realise that they are putting themselves at risk by smoking with small amounts of paint still on their hands.

I hope this helps ease your mind. They are simply there to make people aware of the potential dangers, but as long as you are practising a good level health and safety as you paint then you should not have anything to worry about


June 04, 2020 at 7:49 am, Isabelle said:

Chinese vermillion contains mercury – how do you work with it (gloves, wash brushes, disposal etc), and are the dried paintings toxic too (should they not be touched)?


June 09, 2020 at 4:36 pm, Michael said:

Vermillion is made from Mercury and Sulphur combined together and from a human point of view, the mercury is almost unremovable and therefore is considered not to post any hazard as a painting hanging on a wall. The only way the paintings containing Chinese Vermillion could be considered toxic would be if they were eaten.

Personally, I do not paint with gloves and wash my brushes as usual. However, this is entirely your choice.


September 30, 2020 at 9:05 pm, Mark Kettlewell said:

As with any paint, use common sense and be aware of the the labelling. I have a chemistry background and there are some compounds more dangerous than others due to their solubility. Vermillion is mercuric sulphide locked in oil, providing you are not eating it or painting your skin with it you are perfectly safe.


November 07, 2020 at 7:11 pm, Maple Canner said:

I have Nickel Yellow and Naples Yellow, they both have a California warning on them of toxicity. What do you know about this?


February 16, 2021 at 1:58 pm, Michael said:

Hi Maple,

That’s telling you that California considers that they have metals inside them that if eaten, smoked or injected could do harm to you.


January 25, 2021 at 5:43 pm, Igor Krstic said:

Can Vermilion even if is locked in oil can be absorbed through the skin? Also mercury creates fumes on room temperature, is the same with this inorganic mercury too?


February 16, 2021 at 1:57 pm, Michael said:

You would have to clothe yourself in linen painted with vermilion and roll around for many years to get mercury poisoning this way, generally vermilion is not seen as a soluble compound unlike lead colours, I feel there are greater dangers to the artist such as so called odorless spirits….


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