Is painting and decorating safe in pregnancy?

Decorating with gloss, emulsion or bathroom paint - how do you know which is safe to use during pregnancy?

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In a nutshell

Solvent-based paints should be avoided completely, while others should given a miss in the first trimester

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The expert view

Pregnancy is often the time when you’ll be redecorating or moving house, and picking out those gorgeous colours for the nursery is one of the most fun parts. 

According to the NHS, it is “highly unlikely” that paint fumes can harm your unborn baby, as the risk from modern household paints is very low, .

But it’s still worth avoiding painting in the first 13 weeks, as this is when crucial baby development happens – so it may be best to minimise any risk, however low.

And, solvent-based paints and old paintwork – which may contain traces of lead – pose a greater risk so they need to be given a very wide berth when pregnant.

Lead paint

Stripping old paintwork that dates back to before the 1970s is a definite no-no during pregnancy.

This is because you could inhale the lead from dust, and lead can be poisonous if it enters the body.

Leave paint stripping to the professionals – and make sure you stay away from any spots where you could inhale dust that contains lead paint.

What are the risks of lead poisoning?

  • Risk of miscarriage
  • Premature birth or small baby
  • Damage to baby’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system
  • Learning or behaviour problems in your child

Solvent-based paints

Long term use of solvent-based paints – also known as oil-based paints – could affect your baby, as they contain varying levels of potentially harmful substances.  

In fact, Danish research in 2012 suggested an association between exposure to paint fumes containing organic solvents in the first trimester of pregnancy and a risk of birth defects in the nervous system, the ear, face and neck and the renal system, although it does point out these results need to be confirmed.

Solvent-based products typically contain high levels of chemicals called Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) and give a glossy finish but take a long time to dry and have a strong smell.

Washing solvent-based paint from brushes also requires the use of white spirit or solvent-based brush cleaners, which in themselves release VOCs when used.

Although there is European law in place in the UK which limits the levels of solvents in paints, it is better to be on the safe side.

How do I know if it’s a solvent paint?

The best way to know if any paint is solvent-based is to check the brush cleaning instructions on the tin. If you need to use white spirit or special brush cleaners then they contain solvents.

If you can clean brushes in soap and water, then they are water-based and safe to use in pregnancy.

Try these tips to help prevent paint or chemical fumes affecting your baby:

  • Use paints and decorating materials that are labelled as being suitable for nurseries or children’s rooms, as these materials should contain fewer chemicals
  • Use water-based paints (latex or acrylic paints) instead of solvent-based (oil-based) ones
  • Avoid using spray paints and other decorating materials that contain solvents
  • Contact the manufacturer if you’re unsure about which chemicals or substances are in the paint or decorating material you are using – they should be able to advise you
  • Make sure any room you paint in is well ventilated by opening any windows or doors
  • Use gloves, long trousers and long-sleeved tops to help protect your skin
  • You should also avoid drinking or eating in a room you’re decorating in and wash your hands when you’ve finished painting
  • If you’re pregnant, leave any physically demanding or potentially dangerous tasks to someone else

Mums on our forum say

“As long as its water based and not lead based you’re ok but try and keep the place well ventilated while it’s drying if you can – we painted the living room and the bedroom and are in the process of doing the kitchen and finally the nursery and I’ve been fine.” LH86

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“My OH (other half) did some painting in the bedroom yesterday afternoon, emulsioning the walls. He did 2 and a bit walls. By the time I went to bed I could smell the paint but it wasn’t an overbearing smell. I’m hoping that by sleeping in there I haven’t done the baby any harm. Today he’s glossing so I will probably stay in the living room tonight as the gloss smells stronger.” Julesb31

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