Can paint fumes affect my unborn baby?

It's highly unlikely that paint fumes can harm your unborn baby, as the risk from modern household paints is very low.

However, solvent-based paints and old paintwork (which may contain traces of lead) may pose a greater risk. For this reason, you should avoid using solvent-based paints and stripping old paintwork while you're pregnant.

Risk of paint fumes and decorating materials

The risk of fumes from modern household paints harming your baby is low, but it's impossible to know exactly how small the risk is. This is because it's very difficult to measure the substances and chemicals your body absorbs during activities such as painting.

Very little research has been carried out into the effects of paint fumes on unborn babies, although the few studies carried out show that the risk is extremely low.

Any small risk there is to your baby is greatest during your first trimester (weeks 0-13). This is because your baby's organs start to develop during the first trimester. Any harmful fumes or chemicals at this stage could affect your baby more severely.

As a precaution, it's therefore best to avoid painting and decorating until at least the 14th week of your pregnancy.

Lead-based paints

Most chemicals that are known to be harmful to developing babies are not used in household paints. However, before the 1970s many paints contained elements of lead (a metal which can be poisonous if it enters the body).

This means it's best not to strip down old paintwork if you're pregnant or planning to get pregnant. If the paint you are stripping contains lead, you could inhale it in the clouds of dust that come from stripping the paint. This could potentially harm the development of your baby.

Solvent-based paints

Long-term exposure to solvent-based paints (oil-based paints) can seriously affect a developing baby, as these paints may contain varying levels of potentially harmful substances.

If possible, you should avoid using solvent-based paints while pregnant to help minimise any risk of the fumes or substances affecting your baby.

Talk to your employer if your job requires you to frequently use solvent-based products.

Reducing the risk

If you want to completely eliminate the risk of paint fumes affecting your baby, you should avoid doing any painting or decorating.

However, if you do choose to do some painting or decorating, there are some steps you can take to help prevent paint or chemical fumes affecting your baby. For example:

  • 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. This way you won't accidentally swallow any of the decorating materials.

If you're pregnant, always make sure you take it easy when decorating. Try to leave any physically demanding or potentially dangerous tasks to someone else.

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 01/05/2013

Next review due: 30/04/2015