I prefer to work with art materials that don’t have any odors. Even non toxic odors can deter me from working in my studio because I find them irritating to my nose and throat.
Do acrylic paints have an odor? Most acrylic paints have very little or no detectable odors. If a tube of acrylic paint has a strong odor, then it’s probably gone bad and you should replace it. Acrylics do contain small amounts of preservatives which can create a subtle odor, but I can work with acrylics for hours without noticing it.
Please note that this post is about about being able to perceive an odor while working with acrylic paints, which is subjective. If you’re trying to determine if acrylic paint is toxic, you’ll have to contact the manufacturer for more information. I can’t make blanket statements about the overall safety of acrylic paints. Each manufacturer uses different materials and everybody has varying degrees of sensitivity.
The Causes of Odors in Artist Acrylics
In the many years that I have been painting with acrylics, there has only been one occasion that I can remember where I noticed the paint was giving off a strong odor.
I narrowed it down to a specific color that I was using. It was an old tube of paint so I discarded it. I allowed the first layer of paint to dry overnight and returned the next day with a fresh tube of paint. The odor never returned.
Below are the causes that I have found to create odors in acrylics.
Mold Can Cause Acrylics to Smell Bad
Acrylic paint can go bad so if you open a tube of acrylics and notice that it has a strong and unpleasant smell, the chances are the acrylic paint has gone bad.
I have found that tubes of acrylic paint can last for years if you store them properly. However, sometimes the paint can spoil. Mold can grow in acrylic paint when you introduce contaminants into it and then store it for an extended period.
Regular tap water can contain microbes. So if you like to dilute acrylic paint with water, you can try using distilled water instead of regular tap water. Another option is to dilute smaller amounts of paint and store it in a separate container. If the diluted paint goes bad, at least you didn’t waste the entire container of paint.
When mold starts to develop in acrylic paint, it can take on a very unpleasant odor. If you open a tube of acrylic paint and notice a very strong odor, check to see how old the paint is. One tip that I have is that you can write the date on the tubes with a permanent marker when you buy them. Then you can tell how old they are and use them up before they go bad.
Another strategy is to use a limited palette. If you buy a limited amount of colors, you will use them up at a faster rate. If you paint with 6 colors or so, you will replace them long before they have a chance to go bad. Acrylic paint can last years if you store it properly.
If you don’t paint very often, you may want to buy smaller tubes of paint. Manufacturers often have smaller sample kits that contain the most common colors. The size of the tubes can be as little as .75oz instead of the regular 2oz.
When you find that a tube of paint has gone bad, don’t use it. It’s not worth trying to salvage it. Mold can cause allergic reactions in people and the smell alone is irritating. It’s more than likely that if you buy a new tube that it won’t smell.
The Preservatives in Acrylic Paint Can Have an Odor
As I discuss in the section above, it’s possible for mold to grow in the paint. Most acrylic paint manufacturers add small amounts of preservatives to extend the shelf life of the paint. I have tubes of paint that are still good even after years of storage.
If you’re interested in finding out what the manufacturer adds to their line of acrylic paints, visit their website and search for the Manufacturers Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). They’re usually available as a PDF. These documents should disclose the components that their paints are made from.
Generally speaking, manufacturers add small amounts of ammonia to the paint as a preservative. It’s not nearly the amount of ammonia that you will find in cleaning products. A few of the acrylic mediums can also contain formaldehyde as described in the next section.
If you’re allergic to any of these preservatives, you may want to contact their customer support. Sometimes those MSDS are difficult to decipher. If you have allergies it would be better to ask someone from the company if their materials contain the substance that you’re allergic to, rather than risk having an allergic reaction.
Which Brands of Acrylics Have the Least Amount of Odor?
This is a difficult question to answer because it’s somewhat subjective. I use Liquitex and Golden acrylics and find that neither of them have a strong odor. Some people are more sensitive to odors than others. I even find the smell of linseed oil irritating after working with oil paints for a few hours.
In my opinion, some of the acrylic mediums have more odor than the paint. This may be due to the fact that I usually apply them to a larger surface area than when I paint with the acrylic colors. For example, I may apply a coat of gloss medium as a varnish to the final painting. However, I did notice that in the MSDS from Golden, that some of their mediums contain formaldehyde:
“GAC 900 Acrylic contain formaldehyde, which may irritate the respiratory system, or cause allergic reaction in sensitized individuals.”
If you’re allergic to formaldehyde, you don’t have to use acrylic mediums when you paint with acrylics. You can also search for acrylic mediums that don’t contain formaldehyde. It’s okay to mix different brands of acrylic paint, so you can mix one brand of paint with an acrylic medium from a different manufacturer.
If I detect any odor when I’m working with acrylic colors, it’s very subtle. Normally, you only squeeze out small amounts of paint onto your palette. This small amount of paint shouldn’t produce any detectable odors. When you cover a large area with paint, it creates a larger surface that allows the components to evaporate faster. For example, I notice a slight odor when I apply gesso to a large canvas.
Working with acrylics is nothing like working with oil paints where the odor can disturb people throughout your entire home.