Airbrushing is a fantastic pastime that is used for model painting, spray painting, and any creative project you can dream of throwing color on. The major concern with airbrushing is proper ventilation to avoid health risks.
You may think you’re safe from tiny micro-particles, but what you can’t see could truly harm your brain, throat, eyes, lungs, and entire body.
Is airbrushing indoors safe? Yes, but only with proper ventilation. Most airbrushing paints are acrylic and, therefore, water-based. Although this is preferable over a solvent-based paint, ventilation is still necessary. If painting indoors, utilize a face mask, spray booths, and multiple fans.
Even if the paint is labeled ‘non-toxic,’ you can’t rely on this alone. You want to be free to paint and create, but this must be done wisely. Use this quick read to become an airbrushing expert while remaining safe.
This article will cover what you should be looking for in your paints, the best products I recommend for ventilation, why you should avoid VOCs that are commonly placed in paints, and much more!
What to Look for in Your Airbrushing Paints for Safety
It is critical to take precautions while you are painting to mitigate the associated risks.
It’s important to research in depth the materials and supplies with which you’ll be working, especially in this day and age when cheap materials like fillers and additives are commonly put in many paint products.
Paints commonly used for airbrushing include:
- Acrylic paints – These are ideal for airbrushing and are the most commonly found on the airbrushing market. Acrylics have an amazing color range, are affordable, and truly pop. They are the most fluid and most highly recommended paints for beginners.
- Latex paints – Like acrylic, latex is a water-based paint, but tends to be thicker.
- Oil-based paints – These are most often made with linseed oil and usually require thinning before using with an airbrush.
Water-based paints will always be best but are not perfect. They are usually preferred because no potentially harmful solvents are required, which means a lower chance of toxicity. Even if the paint is water-based, it should never be inhaled.
Avoid enamel paints when airbrushing because they are more dangerous to inhale than acrylics. Steer clear of solvent-based paints as well, as they are rich in VOCs.
Generally, acrylic will be the safest option for minimal fumes and odor and is the best choice for indoor use.
So as not give you false confidence in your water-based paints, the American Cancer Society states that, “A common preservative for water-based paint is formaldehyde, which is a proven carcinogenic.” Carcinogens are defined as substances that cause cancer.
Always read your label and be sure the product is as safe as possible. Do not purchase products that blatantly say they are toxic or harmful. There are better options on the market, and you don’t need to sacrifice your health.
Avoiding VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) in Paints
If you are a living breathing human, you have probably come into contact with VOCs before.
“Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in household products. Paints, varnishes, and wax all contain organic solvents, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing, and hobby products,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
You know you’ve been in contact with VOCs when you get that dizzy, fuzzy-brain feeling and when you smell things that have the same fragrance as a fresh coat of paint. That is the VOCs you’re smelling.
The side effects of VOCs include:
- Increased risk of lung cancer.
- Throat irritation.
- Skin rashes.
- Central nervous system damage.
- Kidney and liver damage.
- Bloody nose.
- Increase in urban smog.
- Disruptions in the atmosphere and ozone.
- Harmful greenhouse gas emissions that are depleting the stratosphere.
- Long term catastrophic consequences for the planet and ecosystems.
Basically – Avoid VOCs!!
As knowledge and public awareness has increased over the years, manufacturers have started to develop low- and zero-VOC paints. Read your labels. Choose these. Period.
Risk Involved with Improper Ventilation
Ventilation is the way in which we move the air around the room (preferably out of the room) to be sure those small paint particles don’t end up in your lungs.
These particles are smaller than the size of dust, so you will barely see them trickling off of your airbrush as you work.
Even though you may view them as being too small to be significant, they can easily be accidentally inhaled and wind up causing internal damage.
Not to frighten you, but before we dive into the best techniques and tips to ventilate, you should understand the reasons why it is so important.
The risks and consequences of improper ventilation during the painting of any project are:
- Difficulty breathing.
- Poor air quality remains in the room for a long time.
- VOCs being released the most powerfully for the first 1-2 years.
- An increase hypersensitivity to allergies.
- Noticeable changes in your sinuses.
- Shortness of breath and coughing.
- Dizziness and/or nausea.
- Long-term health complications.
- Loss of memory in the long term, brain problems later in life.
Some paints can be deadly if inhaled for an extended period. This is more likely with solvent paints, and the highest risk is in poorly ventilated areas.
A New Zealand study on cancer risk, Cancer Risk in Painters, found that:
“Trade painters or those manufacturing paints and coatings have increased rates of non-malignant diseases and cancers; including lung cancer, acute leukemia, bladder cancer, and cancers of the esophagus, larynx, biliary system, liver, skin, and larger bowels.”
Remember: Ventilate your room properly or paint outside!
If you feel light-headed while painting, remove yourself from the room immediately. Always try to complete your project outside where ventilation will be the most optimal and no residual paint molecules will be trapped indoors.
What You’ll Need for Safe Airbrushing
Now, for the fun stuff!
Here’s what you’ll need:
- A spot outdoors or a place like a garage with an entire wall open for ventilation.
- An air mask or breathing mask (products recommended in the next section).
- Your tools and paint, of course!
Some extras you may want to consider:
- Spray booths (another way to contain the spray mess, many of which have built-in ventilation).
- Fans to scatter around the room and send the fumes outwards, towards a window, out of the garage, etc.
- Downdraft tables.
- Dust collectors.
- A vacuum set in reverse to blow air outwards like a fan – get creative!
At the very least, always use an air mask to prevent small particles from flying up your nose and into your lungs, throat, and brain. It’s not a perfect system but certainly better than nothing.
Some great products to keep you safe that come highly recommended are:
- Best Choice Airbrush Spray Booth Kit – This bad boy is slightly over $150 but absolutely worth it if you’re a serious airbrush painter. This full kit includes a fully powered a/c fan overhead, a filter, a workspace with lights, and borders to keep the paint contained.
- Shop Fox Downdraft Table – Similar to a table-hockey game where the air is blown upwards, this will suck the air inwards. Although a downdraft table is designed to capture the dust created by sanding, it can also aid in keeping paint fumes away from your face.
- 24 Inch Variable Speed Shutter Exhaust Fan – This exhaust fan is commonly used for fume-filled projects such as painting. Have a few fans like this around the room to send the toxic air outward and away!
Recommended Spray Booths:
- Airbrush Spray Booth with LED ($$$)
- Super Power Airbrush Spray Booth Kit LED ($$)
- Spray Shelter Paint Booth ($)
Recommended Dust and Paint Masks:
- Dust Mask, Mouth Respirator
- 3M Dual Cartridge Respirator Large
- GVS SPR541 Dust Half Mask Respirator with Replaceable Air Filters Included
- Anti-Dust Paint Respirator Face Mask and Goggles Set
Summary: How to Ventilate Properly
Here are the takeaways of the best ways to ventilate properly:
- Always wear a dust mask.
- Always avoid VOCs in paint products.
- Utilize a spray booth.
- Paint outside if possible.
- Paint in a garage or similar space as a second-best option.
- Utilize fans especially when working indoors.
- Increase the amount of filtration around the room and keep the filter in your downdraft table clean.
- Do anything to increase airflow and move those particles out of your room.
I hope this guide has been useful in your painting journey.
Here is one final tip:
Keep the number for Poison Control stored in or near your phone, and be sure to keep the phone nearby while you’re working.
Poison Control: 1-800-222-1222
Happy painting, and if painting indoors, always open those windows!