When I moved into my new, non-toxic home I was very careful about which furnishings to bring with me. It didn’t make senses to invest so much time, effort and money into building a clean home only to fill it with items that could off-gas or leach harmful chemicals. Most of our old furniture was safe because I had made a house rule years before that any new furnishing must to be fully vetted for safety. One category I had not given much thought to was wall art; the pictures, paintings and other wall décor that help to make a house feel like a home! As we settled into our new house, our walls remained white and bare. I knew I had to do a deep dive on the topic.
Paintings: Acrylic vs. Oil
My husband and I love art and we hated the idea of not being able to display our favorite pieces. We have some oil paintings and I recalled reading that oil paint was more toxic than acrylic paint because acrylic paint is water-based. My research indicated it’s not that simple.
Oil paintings use a pigment for color and a vehicle that holds the pigment in suspension. Some pigments, such as cobalt and cadmium are toxic but only if you ingest them or breathe particles. A painter who works directly with pigment needs to take precautions, but pigments do not offgas and should not pose an issue hanging on your wall. The vehicle used in oil painting is a highly refined vegetable oil such as flax, safflower, poppy or walnut. If used alone these would not release chemicals into the air. What makes oil paintings potentially toxic is the use of solvents, such as turpentine or mineral spirits, to thin the paint or clean up brushes. Fortunately, artists are being educated about the health implications of the materials they use. Read more about artist materials here.
I contacted the artist of one of our paintings and was pleased to learn that he was very careful to use materials with very low toxicity. If you own oil paintings and are unable to determine the materials used, be assured that most off-gassing should occur within the first 2 to 3 months.
Acrylic paint uses the same pigment as oil paint but its vehicle and binder, which holds the pigment together, is plastic. When the painting dries components of the vehicle can offgas. Because acrylic paints are water based, they may also contain formaldehyde as a preservative. Even if you don’t know what materials were used in the painting, it is safe to assume that, like oil painting, most off-gassing should occur within the first 2 to 3 months. Formaldehyde, however, can offgass continuously. It is likely in small amounts but if you are sensitive to formaldehyde you might want to avoid acrylic paintings.
Pictures and Picture frames
Inks used to make posters and prints have toxins. Even water-based, eco-friendly inks have some toxins. Have you ever gotten a catalog in the mail, particularly a high quality one, that smells like it just rolled off the printer? That smell is off-gassing VOCs.
My kids like to decorate with posters, but it is very difficult to get enough information on a commercially produced poster to determine which chemicals are used in their materials and processes. While I’d prefer my kids don’t have posters in their bedrooms, I figured out a compromise to at least limit the VOCs. I buy an uncoated aluminum metal frame and have a local framing store cut a piece of glass to fit. Instead of foam board which is used in 90% of framing jobs, I use plain corrugated cardboard. I found a store that sells target practice supplies (go figure!) that carries many sizes of precut, unprinted cardboard. If you are concerned about adhesives used in cardboard production, you could cover it with a piece of plain kraft paper. Then, to further seal the enclosure I tape the edges with an aluminum foil tape to block fumes from the adhesive and any lingering VOCs from the poster.
Finding frames for your pictures and prints can also be a challenge. Metal frames or solid wood frames are best but if you have frames that you are not sure about you could seal them with a product like AFM Safecoat Hard Seal, which seals any off-gassing. If you are looking for solid wood frames, read more here. Etsy might be a good place to try and you could request that the artisan use low or zero VOC adhesives and stains.
Thinking Out-of-the Box
Fiber art is becoming more popular and widely available. Wall hangings made with natural fibers are prevalent on Etsy and might be found at local craft fairs. Search for macrame wall hangings, woven wall hangings or tapestries. Look for ones made with organic cotton, hemp or wool and hung on untreated wood.
If you are artistic, you can make your own art using natural art supplies. Learn more about them here.
https://www.debralynndadd.com/toxicfreetalkradio/natural-art-supplies/#transcript1 My daughter paints with these and finds them easy to use.