Acrylic paint is a popular type of paint that is widely used for a variety of artistic and industrial applications.
Though it’s thought to be more sustainable than oil-based paints, there are some unresolved environmental issues surrounding the medium.
Here, we discuss the basics of acrylic paint, its production, toxicity, and overall eco-friendliness, so you can decide whether to use it or not.
1. What Is Acrylic Paint Made Of?
Acrylic paint is made up of a mixture of different chemicals, including polymers, pigments, and solvents.
The main component of acrylic paint is a polymer made from a combination of monomers (single chemical units) such as methyl methacrylate (MMA), ethyl acrylate (EA), and butyl acrylate (BA).
These monomers are polymerized or joined together using an initiator such as benzoyl peroxide, which causes them to form a chain-like structure.
The resulting polymer is then dispersed in a solvent, such as water, to form the paint. To give the paint its color, pigments are added to the mixture.
These pigments are typically made from a variety of inorganic and organic compounds, such as titanium dioxide and phthalocyanine blue.
Finally, other additives, such as surfactants (helps the paint to spread) and rheology modifiers (stops the paint from solidifying), are included in the mixture to help control the properties of the paint.
2. Is Acrylic Paint Oil Based?
No, acrylic paints are not oil-based.
Oil-based paints use organic mineral spirits such as turpentine oil as the main solvent in their production.
A solvent is a substance that can dissolve other substances, such as polymers, pigments, and other additives, and hold the solution of chemicals that make up the paint.
It also plays a role in controlling the viscosity and flow properties of the paint.
In the composition of acrylic paint, a solvent is used to disperse the polymer components in a liquid medium.
This liquid medium is typically water-based, which makes acrylic paint easier to use and clean up than other types of paint that require harsher solvents.
When the paint is applied to a surface, the solvent evaporates, leaving behind a solid layer of polymer and pigment.
This layer adheres to the surface and forms a durable, water-resistant coating.
3. Is Acrylic Paint Eco-Friendly?
Acrylic paint is one of the more eco-friendly paints on the market, but not without issues.
For starters, it does not contain lead or oil-based components, which makes it less harmful than other types of paints. It can, however, contribute to VOC emissions.
VOCs stands for Volatile Organic Compounds. VOCs are a group of organic chemicals that easily evaporate into the air at room temperature.
The specific ingredients and amount of VOCs in acrylic paint can vary depending on the brand, formulation, and color of the paint, but usually, the issues come from the addition of non-water solvents and thinners such as acetone, methyl ethyl ketone, and mineral spirits.
Some of these VOCs can react with other pollutants in the air and contribute to the formation of smog and other harmful air pollutants.
That said, there are formulations that use alternative solvents or water-based systems that release fewer VOCs and are less harmful to the environment.
Additionally, acrylic paint is known for its durability, which can reduce the need for frequent repainting and the production of additional paint.
However, research points out that acrylic paints still contain hazardous chemicals, mainly due to the pigments added, which can contain heavy metals and other toxins.
These can play a role in greenhouse gas emissions, toxic waste, and energy expenditure.
Additionally, we have to remember that the production and disposal of acrylic paint in and of itself can generate greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and other environmental impacts as it is still made of plastic.
4. Is Acrylic Paint Toxic?
According to research, the toxicity of acrylic paints can vary depending on the specific formulation of the paint, as well as the amount and duration of exposure.
Some pigments used in acrylic paints, such as cadmium and cobalt, can be toxic and carcinogenic, and long-term exposure to these pigments can increase the risk of lung, liver, and other types of cancer.
Another concern related to the use of acrylic paints, as mentioned, is the release of VOCs as the paint dries.
VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, and other health problems, particularly in individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions.
A recent study conducted by the air quality testing company Air-Q found that some brands of acrylic paint did release harmful VOCs when tested in their lab.
The study tested a range of acrylic paint brands and colors for VOC emissions and found that some paints released high levels of VOCs, while others were relatively low.
Overall, the best practice is to use a spray booth or good ventilation during painting to help minimize VOC exposure.
5. Is Acrylic Paint Biodegradable?
Acrylic paint is not biodegradable in the traditional sense, as it is made of synthetic polymer resins that are not easily broken down by natural processes.
The polymers used in acrylic paint, like other plastics, are typically derived from petrochemicals, which means they are not biodegradable and can persist in the environment for long periods of time.
However, some manufacturers have developed more eco-friendly formulations of acrylic paint that may be biodegradable or less harmful to the environment.
These paints are often made with natural or renewable resources, such as plant-based polymers or biodegradable resins.
These alternative formulations can be more environmentally friendly and have a reduced impact on the environment.
6. Is Acrylic Paint Recyclable?
Yes, acrylic paint is recyclable. However, like other plastics, recycling acrylic is notoriously difficult.
According to the University of Missouri, if leftover paint is unusable, you must leave it to dry out completely, then take it to your local household hazardous waste collection point.
Here, it will typically end up in specially designated landfills or be incinerated.
As such, many states prefer that consumers find other alternatives for disposal if the paint is still useable, such as:
- Local paint recycling points, such as PaintCare (availability for these services varies from state to state)
- Community paint collection programs
- Paint exchange groups
- Using it up for another project
7. Is Acrylic Paint Sustainable?
No, acrylic paint is not sustainable, though it is potentially less damaging than other paints.
To explain, the UN defines environmental sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Based on these criteria, acrylic paint falls short in this task in three ways:
Investigating the components of acrylic paint, researchers have observed the production of acrylic paint requires large amounts of energy and resources.
They note several energy-intensive processes, such as polymerization, purification, and emulsification, resulting in 1.8 MJ of electricity and heat per kg of manufactured acrylic paint.
Additionally, the raw materials used in acrylic polymer production, such as monomers and solvents, are often derived from fossil fuels and can have a significant carbon footprint.
The disposal of waste materials from the production and use of acrylic paints can also have negative environmental impacts.
For example, the rinse water used to clean brushes and equipment can contain residual paint and chemicals, which can be harmful to aquatic life and contribute to ocean plastic pollution.
Further research has also examined how this waste can have detrimental effects on soil.
Researchers note acrylic paint waste slows micro-bacterial activity, reduces nutrient uptake by plants, and affects soil composition.
In 2021, scientists noted that acrylic paint is susceptible to structural changes under relatively low heat.
When the polymers in acrylic paint are in a cool state, they act as a barrier against VOC pollutants escaping into the air.
But the more heat applied, the more the VOCs trapped within the acrylic paint molecules begin to move.
For instance, in the above study of VOC pollution, VOC emissions were only considered at room temperature.
However, the research here shows that as temperatures increase, pollutants such as formaldehyde – a carcinogenic, spread into the air at a rapid rate.
This is not because acrylic paint necessarily contains these pollutant substances; rather, they get stuck within the polymer structure, only getting released when temperature increases.
As such, it indicates that acrylic paint has the potential to interact with volatile chemicals in ways previously unobserved and that users should take the necessary safety precautions – such as having good ventilation to reduce risk.