Safely Working with Pigment Powders

Making your own paint is a relatively easy process. All you need is powdered pigment and a binder. Depending on the type of paint you are making, you have a variety of choices for a binder, including linseed oil, acrylic emulsion, egg yolk and animal hide glue. The one ingredient that is common in all paints is the pigment powder. It is that component which requires the most care in handling.

While many pigment powders are considered safe, quite a few are not. Some pigments contain Cadmium, Lead, Manganese, Cobalt, Nickel, which are hazardous materials. Before working with pigments, carefully read and follow any of the precautions cited in the manufacturer’s Safety Data Sheets.

Some of the pigment powders, which are considered safe to use, include Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Red Ochre and Terre Verte. Raw Umber and Burnt Umber, on the other hand, are toxic. Some pigment powders, such as Naples Yellow, are classified as highly toxic. Vermillion, which contains mercury, is downright poisonous.

Always Wear a Dust Mask

Breathing pigment dust may result in illness and, in some cases, death. Regardless of pigment type and degree of toxicity, whenever mixing a dry powder, at the very least always wear a NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) N95 certified surgical type of dust mask. This type of mask will filter about 95% of the dust in the air. The problem with a dust mask is that they really don’t fit tightly on your face. The result is that they leak. The wearer breathes dust particles. While a N95 dusk mask is better than nothing, you get much better protection, if you wear an air respirator.

NOTE: NIOSH is the U.S. Government agency responsible for certifying and approving protective respiratory devices used in the workplace.

Always Wear Latex Gloves

You should also get in the habit of always wearing latex gloves, when handling pigment powders. Wearing gloves prevents toxins from entering your blood stream through any cuts in your skin, however small they may be.

Other Precautions

  • To minimize dust, mix pigments very slowly and work in a well ventilated area.
  • Do not touch your face while you are working with hazardous materials.
  • Protect your eyes by wearing safety goggles.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke in your work area when you are mixing pigments.