Is Oil Paint Bad for the Environment?

Is Oil Paint Bad for the Environment

Oil paint has long been used by artists throughout the centuries. However, with growing awareness of environmental issues, you may wonder whether using oil paint is a responsible choice.

Oil paints can be bad for the environment because they may contain heavy metals, harmful chemicals, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These compounds can become air pollutants and act as greenhouse gases. If not disposed of properly, VOCs can contaminate water resources.

Modern oil paints are relatively safer to use and contain fewer harmful substances. This article will tackle the impact of oil paint on the environment and include valuable tips on how to minimize its harmful effects. So, Is Oil Paint Bad for the Environment? Let’s take a look.

Impact of Oil Paint on the Environment

Oil paints, in general, are non-toxic. They are safe to use as long as you will not ingest them. However, some oil paints contain harmful chemicals and heavy metals that can be dangerous once inhaled in large quantities. Similarly, some oil paints contain volatile organic compoundsOpens in a new tab. that are dangerous to the environment. 

Not only can oil paints be potentially dangerous to our health, but they can also affect our environment in the following ways:

  • Decrease the quality of the air we breathe. When VOCs react with sunlight and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, they create tropospheric ozoneOpens in a new tab.. This gas becomes a pollutant in the air that can last from a few hours to weeks. 
  • Act as strong greenhouse gases. Aside from polluting the air, VOCs can also act as strong greenhouse gases which affect the climate by increasing atmospheric temperature. This can affect evaporation rates and cloud formation, which influences atmospheric circulation.
  • Damage aquatic life and ecosystems. VOCs can harm aquatic life and Opens in a new tab.ecosystemsOpens in a new tab. when oil paints are not disposed of properly. Their particles could be easily flushed and contaminate our water resources. 

Regardless of their environmental impact, oil paints are still highly preferredOpens in a new tab. by artists who want flexibility and depth of color. They are easier to mix than acrylics and watercolor paints. As such, artists can easily derive various colors using oil paint depending on the tone and how rich they want the colors to be.

The versatility of oil paint is due to its primary components. Oil paints, in general, are usually composed of three ingredientsOpens in a new tab.:

  • Pigment. Pigments give color to the paint and usually come in powdered form.  
  • Binder. The binder keeps the pigment particles compactOpens in a new tab.. It also makes the paint easier to adhere to the art material of your choice, such as canvas, stone wall, or wood panel.
  • Solvent. This chemical dissolvesOpens in a new tab. the ingredients in oil paint. Common solvents used in oil paintOpens in a new tab. are turpentine, paint thinner, or linseed oil.

Toxic Ingredients in Oil Paint

Fortunately, not all oil paints contain heavy metals or VOCs. It’s important to be aware of the toxic ingredients found in some brands, so you can make sure to buy environmentally-friendly products. The following is a list of toxic ingredients that you must avoid when buying oil paints. 


Most oil paints in the past used turpentine as a solvent. Turpentine helps the paint become thinner and easy to glide on the surface.

However, many people dispose of paints with turpentine improperly. This incorrect waste disposal can lead to water contamination and endangerment of our aquatic resources.

An alternative solvent for turpentine is vegetable oilOpens in a new tab.. It’s biodegradable, renewable, and environmentally friendly. 

Inorganic and Synthetic Organic Pigments

Most paints today, not only oil paint, use inorganic or synthetic organic pigments to produce vibrant and long-lasting colors. Both of them can be harmful to the environment. 

Inorganic pigments may be derived from natural sources. What makes them toxic is the chemical reaction (oxidation) used to create specific colors. 

Similarly, synthetic organic pigments are also harmful. They are typically produced from aromatic hydrocarbons, a subtype of VOCs, and derived from crude oils, which are non-renewable petrochemicals. They take millions of years to reproduce, making them unsustainable to use.

Heavy Metals

Some paints use heavy metals to produce a variety of colors. Some paint manufacturers mix the following metals with pigments are:

  • Cadmium
  • Lead white
  • Cobalt
  • Chromium 
  • Zinc
  • Nickel 

How To Reduce the Environmental Impacts of Oil Paints

Due to the toxic ingredients found in some oil paints, they require proper disposal and special handling. Improper use of oil paints can cause air pollution, water contamination, and hazardous waste issues. Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to reduce the environmental impacts of oil paints. 

If you choose to continue using oil paint as your medium of choice, consider the following tips:

Dispose of Oil Paints Properly

Oil paints are excellent art materials, but they require proper disposal methods. You cannot dispose of them like a typical household waste.

When disposing of oil paint, place it in a separate container. Oil paints are considered hazardous waste, so turn them to a nearby disposal facility. Alternatively, you can go to a landfill and let them dispose of your waste.

Opt for More Sustainable Products

Not every oil paint contains toxic ingredients. Always check the product label if you want to opt for non-toxic and more sustainable products. 

However, be careful when choosing sustainable paints over more traditional ones. The absence of certain chemicals can affect the quality of oil paint.

If you cannot choose a more environmentally-friendly alternative product, you can at least opt for those with an indicated “Low VOC” on the label.

Consider Making Your Own Oil Paint

You may find this challenging at first, but you can always opt to make your own paint. By doing so, you can choose the best and most sustainable ingredients. You also have more liberty to choose what colors or materials work best for you!

Kelsey RodriguezOpens in a new tab.

Final Words

Oil paints may contain harmful substances that can damage the environment. To minimize the environmental impact of oil paint, you must familiarize yourself with these toxic ingredients and make sure to handle and dispose of oil paints properly. I recommend choosing low-VOC oil paints, opting for non-toxic oil paint alternatives, and learning how to make your own oil paint.

As an artist, you can support the environment by being responsible with your choice of paint and how you use it to create art.

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Caraca's self-taught artist based in the UK, Ines explores unconventional materials and sustainability.

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