Paint Fumes & Pregnancy: 1st, 2nd, 3rd Trimester, Is It Safe, Brands, Low-VOC

When it comes to preparing the nursery, most women prefer to be hands-on, sometimes even wanting to do all the work themselves. While it is quite safe for them to do some careful lifting, painting the room while pregnant, whether in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd trimester, may not be safe with the fumes and chemicals involved.

We all know that most products have strong smells, that even just opening a can will already give anyone a whiff of its signature scent. While many manufacturers are now producing solutions that they claim emit little to no smell, are they still truly safe for any expectant mother to use?

And what about the other related activities, such as stripping old paint off the walls and other surfaces? Can those who are in various stages of their pregnancies also do it?

There is a bit of a gray area with this topic, and this is what we will dive into in this article.

Is It Okay to Paint While Pregnant?

There are no clear results yet on the effects of paint on expectant mothers, so it may be okay to do while pregnant. However, there are still some aspects to it that pregnant women should be careful about, that is why they must always take safety measures seriously.

One of the biggest concerns is exposure to paint fumes during the 1s, 2nd or 3rd trimester of your pregnancy. While there have been studies that try to understand the effects during a pregnancy, although they focus more on recreational and occupational painting activities than one-off house painting and the like, the data is still insufficient that scientists and doctors cannot make a definite conclusion yet.

But when it comes to fumes, these studies have shown that there is a slim chance of an unborn baby being affected by it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those who are directly exposed to such fumes, pregnant or not, and for lengthy periods.

When painting, the mother gets directly affected by the fumes, not the baby. But with constant exposure, it may possibly affect the baby as well. This exposure can result in various health effects for both the mother and the child, such as:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Issues with the central nervous system and renal system
  • Kidney or liver damage
  • Miscarriage
  • Slow development of the baby while in the womb
  • Premature birth
  • Birth defects and abnormalities, particularly in the face, neck, and ears
  • Development delays and learning issues
  • Acquisition of childhood ALL or acute lymphoblastic leukemia

Not all paints have the same effects, as there are certain types that are much safer for them to use. We will discuss these in a later section.

Aside from fumes, exposure to lead is also a real concern, especially if the home is old and was built in 1978 or earlier. The use of lead was very prevalent back then, and there is a big chance that this type was used for any old house constructed within that time frame.

It is normal to strip down, scrape, or sand old walls before painting the room with another color, but if there is a chance of lead being present, testing must be done first before doing so. These activities will create plenty of dust, which can be toxic if lead is presents.

Lead test kits can immediately indicate whether lead is present on the surface or not. Even if painting only the nursery, it is good practice to check the entire home for its presence to immediately address any problem. For that, bulk lead test kits must be used, since basic kits are only good for a limited number of use and are only enough to test one room.

While it will hardly pose any health issues if it is still in good condition, it becomes dangerous when there are signs of damage on the wall itself. This damaged part can result in the creation of toxic lead dust or chips that cannot be seen nor smelled and is dangerous when inhaled. And with prolonged exposure, this can lead to lead poisoning that may result in death.

Testing for lead in such homes should never be skipped, as the health hazards associated with lead poisoning are serious and can be fatal, with pregnant women especially vulnerable to it. This is because lead will enter the bloodstream, and, unlike fumes, the lead can easily get through the placenta and affect the unborn baby.

Lead-related health effects that both mother and child can experience include:

  • Spontaneous abortion
  • Seizures
  • Gestational hypertension
  • Low birth weight
  • Behavioral issues
  • Growth and development delays
  • Anemia
  • High blood pressure
  • Respiratory problems
  • Abdominal pain, which can lead to premature birth
  • Peripheral neuropathy and other neurological issues of the baby
  • Death

Because of these risks, pregnant women should never do any work that may involve lead-based paint, or any exposure. But if working with safe products, women may do the actual work, as long as they use certain types that are pregnancy safe.

Safety Precautions to Follow When Painting While Pregnant

Paint exposure happens in three ways: inhalation, ingestion, and skin absorption. And, this is why it is easy for anyone to be put at risk.

While the best way to avoid any associated risks is to get someone else to do it, women can still do it while pregnant if they follow the different safety precautions, not just before but also during and after the work is done. These include:

  • Consulting with the doctor if it is safe to do so, as it may not be safe for high-risk pregnancies
  • Using only products that are safe to use. If possible, checking with manufacturers if theirs can be used by expecting mothers.
  • Making sure that the room is well-ventilated by opening all doors, windows, and other openings so that the fumes will not be trapped in the room
  • Covering up the entire body by wearing overalls or long-sleeved shirts and pants, goggles, and gloves to prevent chemicals from coming into contact with the skin
  • Wearing a face mask or respirator, particular those that have been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, to avoid the inhalation of fumes.
  • Never working on any surface that has tested positive for lead. Someone else must do all the work that involves such exposure.
  • Staying away from the vicinity of the house or any structure while lead removal and the subsequent cleanup are ongoing, as the risk of exposure to the lead dust or chips even if they are not doing the actual removal is highest during those times.
  • Only doing small projects, such as a nursery. They should never do projects that will take a long time to finish, such as trying to do the entire house, as this exposes them to fumes for longer periods.
  • Immediately leaving the room when they start feeling unwell, especially at the first signs of lightheadedness or nausea. Expectant mothers should never push themselves to finish the job if they are already feeling ill or uncomfortable.
  • Going on breaks every now and then, ideally as often as every 15 to 20 minutes. During those breaks, they must see to it that they get fresh air.
  • Not climbing up ladders and keeping both feet firmly on the ground when painting. There is a shift in the center of gravity while in a pregnant state, so climbing up on ladders will be dangerous.
  • Never eating or drinking inside the area where work is ongoing, as this can lead to contamination of food.
  • Washing up afterwards, even if there are no splatters present on the skin.
  • In case it gets on the skin, it must only be removed using soap and water, and never chemical removers, including acetone.
  • Allowing the newly done room to be kept well-ventilated for a few days, and avoiding entering the room during that period.
  • Discarding cans and any leftovers properly after the work is done.

For most people, painting can be done at any time. But for those who are expecting, they must never do it during the first trimester, as this is the period when the organs of the fetus are being developed and painting at this time may cause irreversible effects to the baby, such as congenital birth defects. Not only that, the risk of miscarriage is also higher during this time.

The third trimester is also not ideal, as expectant mothers often have mobility issues during this period. They may have difficulty moving around, especially due to the size of their bellies and the added weight they are carrying, and this will make many tasks a challenge for them. Going up on ladders is especially risky for them, as they can easily get off-balanced.

The second trimester, ideally starting at 14 weeks, is the recommended time for a pregnant woman to paint because the safety risks are lower. The organs of the fetus have mostly developed, the chance of miscarriage is lessened, and they are more stable in terms of mobility. However, this does not mean they can ignore safety measures when doing so.

Always following the different safety measures is a must for an expecting mother, as this will protect not just the mother but also the child.

Types of Paint That Are Safe to Use When Pregnant

Whether painting the walls of the nursery or doing some arts and crafts, there are certain products that pregnant mothers should never use throughout their pregnancy, and there are also those that they can use but in moderation.

Of course, lead-based paints are on top of the list of products that must be avoided at all costs, not just by those who are expecting. While this type has been banned for residential use since 1978 in the US, they are still produced for industrial purposes. While not likely to be used by a pregnant lady, it helps to know where these are still being used so that they are aware of what to avoid to prevent lead exposure.

Ones that contain high levels of volatile organic compounds biocides, commonly referred to as VOCs, are not recommended for those who are pregnant. These VOCs include ethylene glycol ethers, toluene, alkanes, xylene, acetone, ethanol, and mercury, and so much more. So before purchasing a can, it is important to check the label for any VOCs present. Labels normally indicate if VOCs are present.

In general, the more VOCs, the stronger the fumes. That is why expectant mothers should not use any strong-smelling product to avoid the risks associated with these chemicals.

Solvent-based, also referred to as oil paints, typically used outdoors are known for their strong vapors due to the high levels of VOCs present, making them unsuitable for pregnant mothers. And if you recall from the previous section, these fumes can have various health effects with prolonged exposure.

Additionally, mothers who are exposed to solvent-based products that contain toluene for lengthy periods and at high levels may give birth to babies who have tiny heads and are smaller than average, like those with fetal alcohol syndrome.

Some of these, as well as related chemicals, known to contain high levels of solvent include paints that are manufactured as quick-drying, stains, varnish and varnish removers, alcohols, lacquer, and some acrylic and latex ones, too.

The water-based latex and acrylic paints are much safer to use than solvent-based ones, although caution is still needed when using them. Some latex options still contain VOCs, although less than oil ones, so any risks associated with them are still present but at a lesser degree. That is why checking the label of cans to see any VOCs used is necessary.

Also, latex in liquid form may cause irritation to the mouth and skin with direct contact, while the fumes can trigger eye irritation. So, while latex-based ones are safer to use than solvent-based ones, it does not necessarily mean that these are pregnancy safes.

Expectant mothers should only use products that are labelled as having low to zero VOCs present and are of the non-toxic variety.

Low VOC & Pregnancy

From the previous section, we know that low VOC solutions are best suited for those who are in a pregnant state. But what exactly makes this kind ideal for them?

Volatile organic compounds are known to contain carbon and will immediately vaporize, which is known as off-gassing. Once they come into contact with other elements present in the air, ozone that is dangerous to both humans and the environment will be produced. This compound is responsible for the signature smell that we know, that is why this smell is the best indicator of the presence of VOCs.

Long periods of exposure to VOCs is already hazardous to anyone, this risk is even greater for a pregnant lady, as even her child may also be affected by it. This is why ones known to contain high VOC levels should be avoided.

Low VOC paints, on the other hand, are known to contain minimal solvent levels, formaldehyde, and heavy metals, making them safer to use by anyone. While they typically have VOCs below 50 grams per liter, the problem is that there is no regulation that sets limits for it; one labelled as a low VOC may contain VOCs even higher than that amount.

This uncertainty when it comes to the actual amount of VOCs present in products labeled as a low VOC one is what makes using this type is still risky for pregnant women to use. That is why wearing safety gear is a must even when using these.

But compared to solvent-based options, these low VOC products do offer some benefits, such as:

  • Has less contaminants that can pollute the land, water, and atmosphere.
  • Chances of triggering the allergies of those sensitive to paint and chemicals are lessened.
  • Has good coverage and can easily hide flaws of the surfaces, as well as the previous coats.
  • Minimal to no fumes present when being applied to any surface, and has no odor after the curing period.
  • Not classified as a hazardous waste, making disposal easier.

Natural paints, meanwhile, use raw ingredients and minerals that are completely natural, including plant resins, oils, and dyes, water, clay, talcum, essential oils, natural latex, chalk, milk casein, earth, mineral dyes, and beeswax. They can also be either water-based and have no smell, or oil-based but emit a fragrant scent, depending on the essential oil used.

Unfortunately, the ingredients used in their manufacture may have VOCs present. This means they are not VOC-free even if they use only organic ingredients. Some minerals that are used as color pigments, such as zinc, cadmium, cobalt, and manganese, are considered toxic and may be present in these, so it is still vital to check the ingredients used even in such products.

Zero VOC classifications, on the other hand, should not be taken literally. They still contain miniscule amounts of VOCs but not exceeding the set limit of the EPA Reference Test Method 24, which is 5 grams per liter. As a result, any product that has VOCs less than that amount can be classified as a zero VOC option.

Although they contain minimal VOCs, additives such as fungicides, colorants, and biocides may raise the level of VOCs present in this type and still be considered one with zero VOC present.

As a result, pregnant women should only use natural or low to zero VOC solution, and make sure that they are completely protected as the work is being done. Those with a Green Seal are also recommended, since they are required to have VOCs less than 50 grams per liter for flat paints and 100 grams per liter for non-flat ones.

Pregnancy Safe Paint Brands

With so many to choose from, it can be a daunting task to know which paint brands are pregnancy safe. Fortunately, we have come up with a list of those brands that either have low or zero VOCs or are completely natural.

Low VOC options

  • Ace Royal Interiors – affordable option that is self-priming, as well as eco-friendly
  • Behr – also environment-friendly and does not require a primer. Its price tag ranges from cheap to expensive, depending on the type
  • Benjamin Moore – capable of covering a surface with just a single coat, it is considered premium and pricey. Also has zero VOCs available
  • Clark + Kensington – also an eco-friendly and self-priming solution whose price falls in the middle range
  • Cloverdale Horizon – has various finishes available
  • Color Place Ultra – cheap but eco-friendly
  • HGTV Home by Sherwin Williams – comes in affordable and high-priced variants, does not require a coat of primer, and is also environment-friendly
  • Kilz – also affordable, eco-friendly, and self-priming
  • Miller Paint – has very low VOCs
  • PPG – retails at a low price and is considered green. Also has zero VOC.
  • Prestige Paints – premium solution that is good for the environment and skips the need for a primer
  • Sherwin Williams – high-end options that is capable of self-priming and is also eco-friendly. Also offers zero VOC.
  • Valspar – offers options for all types of budgets

Zero VOC

  • AFM Safecoat – latex-based with various finishes
  • Allied PhotoChemical – offers products, coatings, and inks that are also UV-curable, but mostly to manufacturers
  • American Pride – offers latex and acrylic enamel-based products
  • Devoe Wonder Pure – latex-based that does not emit fumes
  • Earthpaint – primarily for finishing wood, floors, and decks
  • Earth Safe Finishes – solutions for different purposes, not just for residential use
  • ECOS Paint – offers varnishes, and stains that are also free of ethylene glycol
  • Enso – ethylene glycol free and with various finishes available
  • Frazee Paint EnviroKote – features various finishes, as well as primers
  • Glidden – environment-friendly and easy on the budget
  • Homestead Paints – comes in flat or low-sheen finishes
  • ICI – has various finishes and for both interior and exterior use
  • Kelly-Moore – their ENVIRO-COTE line does not have VOCs
  • Olympic Paint and Stain – considered a premium brand
  • Vista Paint – has minimal odor
  • Yolo Colorhouse – products with less fumes

Natural Paint

  • Anna Sova – made from titanium dioxide, food-grade ingredients, and milk casein
  • Auro – manufactures water-based solutioons, adhesives, primers, finishes, and stains
  • EcoDesign’s Bioshield – has various products and finishes available
  • Green Planet Paints – clay, plants, and minerals-based. Also offers zero VOC.
  • Livos – used for wood whose oil-based coatings are made using linseed or citrus
  • Master’s Blend – its tung nut oil-based finishes gives wood a natural look, but it can also be used on concrete and brick
  • The Real Milk Paint Company – offers ones made using milk protein, clay and earth pigments, and lime
  • Silacote – especially for masonry, wallboard, and concrete
  • Weather-Bos – finishes, paints, and stains that offer a natural look and monolithic bond for wood

No matter which is used, what is important is for a pregnant women to keep her and her baby safe throughout the activity. Before starting any project, we urge you to consult with a licensed medical practitioner.

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