Are Oil Paints Eco-Friendly? 12 Important Questions Answered

Savanna Stanfield

Oil paints have been used as an art medium since the 15th century when the need arose for a type of paint that didn’t take as long to dry.

The oil paints of today are still made in pretty much the same way as they were back then, being primarily a mixture of pigments and linseed or nut oils. 

Because the main oil used in oil paints is made from plant-based materials, it leads many people to the assumption that the paints are eco-friendly. But are they really?

The oil paints used in older centuries were much more eco-friendly than they are today. This has mostly to do with the pigments and other chemicals that are used in the paint.

Continue reading to learn more about what oil paints are made of and why they are not eco-friendly, as well as discover some eco-friendly alternatives.

1. What Are Oil Paints Made Of?

The two main ingredients used to make oil paints today are linseed oil and pigments. 

Linseed oil is a type of plant oil that comes from the flax plant, while most of the pigments used in the oil paints of today are synthetic pigments that are derived from crude oil.

Combining the linseed oil and pigment gives way to paint that has a smooth, buttery consistency. 

However, depending on the use of the oil paint, sometimes other chemicals such as turpentine are added to make the paint thinner and more viscous, which means that it flows easier.

Other chemicals known as siccatives that make the paint dry faster may be added as well.

2. Are Oil Paints Eco-Friendly?

Oil paints in the past were more eco-friendly than they are today. 

In the early centuries when oil paints were used, they were made with organic pigments that were extracted from plants and minerals along with linseed oil that was naturally derived as well.

The fact that oil paints are still made with linseed oil is the most eco-friendly aspect of them today, as it’s derived from the dried and ripened seeds of the flax plant.

But, the pigments used in most paints today are either inorganic or are synthetic organic because these pigments are brighter and last longer than natural organic ones.

Inorganic pigments can still be naturally derived, but some of the pigment itself is created using a chemical reaction such as oxidation to draw out the color in these naturally-occurring elements.

Synthetic organic pigments are derived from petrochemicals and synthesized from aromatic hydrocarbons, which are a subgroup of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

Not only are petrochemicals derived from crude oil, a non-renewable resource, but the crude oil industry is also one of the major causes of VOCs being released into the environment during processing.

The VOCs that are released during the processing of crude oil, along with the VOCs that are found in oil-based paints, are major pollutants that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, the key cause of smog.

In addition to VOCs, refining crude oil for its various uses in addition to some of the pigments used in oil paint releases other pollutants into the environment as well.

Not to mention that collecting it in the first place contributes to habitat loss and deforestation also.

It’s worth noting that turpentine, which is often used as a paint thinner in oil paints is also plant-derived, as it comes from pine trees. 

However, turpentine is also classified as a VOC due to containing aromatic hydrocarbon molecules. Plus, turpentine is harmful to aquatic environments and ecosystems.

3. Are Oil Paints Sustainable?

Again, the most sustainable aspect of oil paints is the linseed oil used in the paint. But unless the paint is made with natural, organic pigments, it is not sustainable.

The petrochemicals that are used to make many synthetic pigments are derived from crude oil, which is a non-renewable resource

It’s also used to make many other products such as plastics and is burned as fossil fuels, so it’s going to eventually run out.

Plus, there are limited ways that oil paint can be disposed of in a way that is good for the environment which makes them unsustainable as well.

4. Are Oil Paints Biodegradable?

Whether or not oil paints are biodegradable is a tricky question. Even though they are made of primarily naturally-derived ingredients, it is not a good idea to let them biodegrade. 

A study has shown that VOCs can biodegrade over time and there are certain microorganisms that can aid in the biodegradation of VOCs. But, there are environmental constraints as well due to pollution and contamination that can occur.

Since oil paints are full of VOCs, they may degrade over time but not without the risk of these chemicals leaching into the soil, water, and air.

5. Are Oil Paints Compostable?

Oil paints are not compostable. Again, this is due to containing VOCs. You don’t want to compost oil paint and have those VOCs leach into your compost. 

This can not only cause harm to the environment but also to you as well as a result of consuming anything grown with compost that contains VOCs.

6. Is Oil Paint Renewable?

Oil paint as a whole is not renewable, but some of the ingredients that are used to make it are.

Linseed oil and turpentine are both renewable resources, but unless the pigments are derived from plants, they are not.

The petrochemicals that many synthetic pigments are derived from are not renewable, which makes many of the pigments non-renewable as well.

With that being said, because some of the materials used to make oil paints aren’t considered renewable, then oil paints aren’t renewable either. 

7. Are Oil Paints Recyclable?

Oil paints are not recyclable due to containing VOCs. They are considered hazardous waste and are typically not accepted in municipal recycling facilities.

However, it’s possible that your city has another facility that does dispose of hazardous waste such as oil paint properly.

8. Are Oil Paints Toxic? 

Most oil paints are considered to be non-toxic, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t pose any risk to humans.

The danger with oil paints is caused by one of two reasons. The first reason is a result of eating the paint, which isn’t as likely but could happen if a small child had access to them.

But the second reason is much more likely, and it comes as a result of inhaling the paint fumes. Again, VOCs are the culprit.

Breathing in or exposure to VOCs can cause several adverse health effects in humans, including:

  • Nausea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • Central nervous system damage

Some VOCs can even cause cancer and reproductive harm, especially fetuses which are more at risk due to water and air pollution which is why it is important to dispose of oil paints properly.

9. Are Oil Paints More Eco-Friendly Than Acrylic Paints?

Neither oil paints nor acrylic paints are necessarily more eco-friendly.

Acrylic paints consist mostly of a mixture of water and pigments along with particles of plastic acrylic resin suspended in the water and pigments.

Since they are water-based instead of oil-based, they don’t require an organic solvent to thin them, so they contain fewer VOCs than oil paints do.

However, when you consider the fact that acrylic paints are made with plastic particles as well as contain synthetic pigments, the majority of the product is made of ingredients that are derived from crude oil, and they still contain some VOCs as a result.

On the other hand, oil paints contain more plant-based ingredients, but they also contain more VOCs that contribute to pollution as well.

Also, acrylic paints are not biodegradable or recyclable either. The only difference between the two is that oil paints are made with more renewable resources than acrylic paints are.

10. Is Oil Paint Better for the Environment Than Latex Paint?

As with acrylic paints, latex paint is no better for the environment than oil paint is, and oil paint is not necessarily better than latex paint.

The reason is because although original versions of latex paint were rubber-based, which would make them a little more eco-friendly, modern versions of latex paint are still plastic-based.

They are made with acrylic or vinyl instead of water, along with pigments suspended in water. 

Again, water helps to thin the paint which reduces the need for VOC-containing compounds such as turpentine.

But latex paint still contains some VOCs and is not recyclable or biodegradable either.

11. How to Dispose of Oil Paints Properly

Remember that oil paints are not biodegradable or recyclable.

And, you can’t dispose of them by pouring them down the sink or throwing them away with regular trash either due to the environmental harm they could cause.

Instead, you should take them to a hazardous waste disposal facility so that they can be disposed of properly.

Some areas have stand-alone hazardous waste disposal facilities in which you can drop off products.

But, some landfills accept hazardous waste as well, in which they will dispose of it for you or take it to a facility that will.

12. Are There Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Oil Paints?

One eco-friendly alternative to oil paints would be paints that are made with natural pigments and no additives such as those listed above.

But unless you just need oil paints, another eco-friendly alternative to oil paints are watercolor paints.

Watercolor paints may still be made with synthetic pigments, but they are also made with gum Arabic, a gum that is exuded from certain trees.

Gum Arabic acts as a binding agent similar to linseed oil in oil paints, but it is water-soluble which eliminates the need for other solvents that contain VOCs.

It’s worth noting that watercolor paints do still contain some VOCs due to the type of pigments used. But in general, they are the most sustainable and eco-friendly of all the paint types.

2 Eco-Friendly Oil Paint Brands 

We mentioned that the problem with oil paints with regard to eco-friendliness is that many of them aren’t made with natural pigments and contain additives such as turpentine.

With that being said, here are two eco-friendly oil paint brands that are made with natural pigments and don’t contain any additives in them.

1. Natural Earth Paint

Natural Earth Paint is made with pigments that were sustainably harvested from around the world.

The paints are also free of additives, fillers, petroleum-based pigments, and synthetic-based preservatives.

The oil for these paints is walnut oil and you have to mix the pigments and oil together to create the actual paint.

2. Natural Pigments

The Rublev Colors Artist Oils from Natural Pigments are made with the same natural pigments that older versions of oil paints are made from. 

They also don’t contain any additives, only the natural pigments and linseed oil. 

Conclusion

Oil paints used to be a lot more eco-friendly than they are now. But thanks to the creation of synthetic pigments, along with paint thinners and other additives being added, they aren’t as eco-friendly anymore.

Oil paints contain a lot of Volatile Organic Compounds, which contribute to soil, water, and air pollution as well as pose a risk to animals and humans especially with improper use and disposal.

Other paints, such as acrylic and latex paint, aren’t eco-friendly either. Even though they contain fewer VOCs, they are made with plastic instead of plant-based ingredients the way that oil paints are.

You can use oil paints in an eco-friendly way as long as you dispose of them properly. Or you can be even more eco-friendly by using oil paints that are made with natural pigments and don’t contain any fillers.

And unless you just need oil paints, watercolor paints are the most eco-friendly paint choice.

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