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

And what about the other paint-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 paint 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 of painting 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 paint 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 paint 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 paints in a later section.

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

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

Lead paint test kits can immediately indicate whether lead is present on the painted 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 paint 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 lead-based paint will hardly pose any health issues if it is still in good condition, it becomes dangerous when there are signs of damage on the paint itself. This damaged paint 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. But if working with non-lead-based paint, they may do the actual painting, 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 when painting.

While the best way to avoid any associated risks is to get someone else to do it, women can still paint while pregnant if they follow the different safety precautions, not just before but also during and after painting. 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 paints that are safe to use. If possible, checking with manufacturers if their paints 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 paint 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 paint 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 paint fumes.
  • Never working on any surface that has tested positive for lead-based paint. Someone else must do all the work that involves such paints.
  • Staying away from the vicinity of the house or any structure while lead-based paint 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 painting projects, such as a nursery. They should never do projects that will take a long time to finish, such as painting the entire house, as this exposes them to paint 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 painting is ongoing, as this can lead to contamination of food.
  • Washing up after painting, even if there are no paint splatters present on the skin.
  • In case paint gets on the skin, it must only be removed using soap and water, and never chemical paint removers, including acetone.
  • Allowing the newly painted room to be kept well-ventilated for a few days after painting, and avoiding entering the room during that period.
  • Discarding paint cans and any leftover paint 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 painting 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 when painting is a must for an expecting mother when painting, 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 paints 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 paints that must be avoided at all costs, not just by those who are expecting. While this type of paint 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.

Paints 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 of paint, it is important to check the label for any VOCs present. Paint labels normally indicate if VOCs are present.

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

Solvent-based paints, 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 paints 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 paints, as well as paint-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 paints.

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 paints still contain VOCs, although less than oil paints, so any risks associated with them are still present but at a lesser degree. That is why checking the label of paint cans to see any VOCs used for the paint 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 paints are safer to use than solvent-based ones, it does not necessarily mean that these are pregnancy safes.

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

Low VOC Paint & Pregnancy

From the previous section, we know that low VOC paints are best suited for those who are in a pregnant state. But what exactly makes this kind of paint 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 paint 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 paints 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 these paints typically have VOCs below 50 grams per liter, the problem is that there is no regulation that sets limits for it; a paint labelled as a low VOC paint may contain VOCs even higher than that amount.

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

But compared to solvent-based paints, these low VOC paints 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 surface painted on, 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 paints, so it is still vital to check the ingredients used even in such paints.

Zero VOC paints, on the other hand, should not be taken literally. These paints 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 paint that has VOCs less than that amount can be classified as a zero VOC paint.

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

As a result, pregnant women should only use natural paints or low to zero VOC paints, and make sure that they are completely protected when painting. 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 paints

  • Ace Royal Interiors – affordable paint 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 as a premium paint and pricey. Also has zero VOC paints available
  • Clark + Kensington – also an eco-friendly and self-priming paint 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 paints
  • Prestige Paints – premium paint that is good for the environment and skips the need for a primer
  • Sherwin Williams – high-end paint that is capable of self-priming and is also eco-friendly. Also has zero VOC paints available
  • Valspar – offers paints for all types of budgets

Zero VOC paints

  • AFM Safecoat – latex paint with various finishes
  • Allied PhotoChemical – offers paints, coatings, and inks that are also UV-curable, but mostly to manufacturers
  • American Pride – offers latex and acrylic enamel paints
  • Devoe Wonder Pure – latex paint that does not emit fumes
  • Earthpaint – primarily for finishing wood, floors, and decks
  • Earth Safe Finishes – has paints for different purposes, not just for residential use
  • ECOS Paint – offers varnishes, paints, 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 paint that is 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 paint
  • Vista Paint – has minimal odor
  • Yolo Colorhouse – offers paints with less fumes

Natural Paint

  • Anna Sova – produces paints made from titanium dioxide, food-grade ingredients, and milk casein
  • Auro – manufactures water-based paints, adhesives, primers, finishes, and stains
  • EcoDesign’s Bioshield – has various paints and finishes available
  • Green Planet Paints – features paints that are clay, plants, and minerals-based. Also offers zero VOC paints
  • Livos – paints 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 paints made using milk protein, clay and earth pigments, and lime
  • Silacote – paints 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 paint is used, what is important is for a pregnant women to keep herself safe throughout painting. Before starting any paint project, we urge you to consult with a licensed medical practitioner.

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