Ask Woodiwiss: how long will it take for paint smell to go away?

In about an hour, the average home in and around Walnut Creek and the Bay Area can fully cycle fresh air—even with the windows closed. With the windows open, you could cycle fresh air and any paint fumes or smells multiple times an hour. 

Coupled with today’s modern paint, that chemical smell of fresh paint will likely be unnoticeable in about 36-48 hours. The smell from stonger paint formulas may take up to a week to completely dissipate.

Dried paint can still emit vapors, but this drying process is what gives a freshly painted room such a distinct paint odor. This happens in many household chemicals and cleaners, such as anything that comes out of a spray can.

Your newly painted room has a lot going on in it. Here’s what’s worth knowing:

A freshly painted room today will have fewer paint fume than 20 years ago

If you remember painting a room twenty or thirty years ago, or the smell after your parents did, that’s not how it is anymore. Paint formulations today produce fewer paint odors than at any other time in history.

When we work on any paint job, we only use high-quality premium paints. And for interior home applications, this is almost always a latex paint. There are some times where you may have oil based paint on the doors and trim in your house, in that case we can use a low VOC oil based paint like Benjamin Moore’s Advance to keep the odor down and your family safe.  On exterior painting we may use an oil based primer, but the best paint for exteriors are the latex or water based paints as the paint stays flexible over time.

That fresh coat of paint on the walls exists in two forms: its liquid state and its dry state. And all interior paint contains four main ingredients: pigment (the coloring), binder, additives, and liquid. 

“Liquid” is, familiar enough, just water in many latex paints. Oil-based paints and alkyd paints use a thinner or solvent as the liquid. In either case, the liquid is just what keeps the paint wet enough to get it from the can to your walls.

Paint vapors occur as the liquid—usually water—dries on the wall. Because this liquid “evaporates” into the atmosphere, it and any compounds they contain waft around as the paint dries with that fresh paint smell. 

The vapor from paint fumes comes from and contains various solvents and what are called “Volatile Organic Compounds” or VOCs for short. Many of these VOCs are things you’ve heard of, like acetone, ethanol, benzene, and formaldehyde. And some you probably haven’t, like toluene, styrene, and di-and tri-chloroethylene.

All paints have some level of VOCs, including craft acrylic paints. It’s what gives them color, prevents bubbling, allows them to bind to their intended surface (like a wall or a fabric canvas), and provides other long-term health benefits like reducing mildew. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates VOC content in paint at 250 grams per liter for flat finishes and 380 g/l for other finishes (like low-luster, semigloss, etc.). Most of the high-quality paint manufacturers go above and beyond this recommendation.

Also worth knowing is the base of many paints will claim to be low or zero-VOC, but once you get the paint mixed, the VOC content shoots up. And low-VOC paints can sometimes come at the expense of paint quality, meaning you end up having to touch up and repaint more often or risk paint flaking off the walls.

We have a three-part opinion about paint quality and VOCs:

  1. VOCs can be harmful to the elderly, young kids, and those with diagnosed respiratory issues. Let us know if anyone has any health-related sensitivities.
  2. High-quality paints are more stable and worth it in the long run, even if they can’t boast “no paint fume” banners on the can, which are usually misleading anyway.
  3. Low-quality paints often smell worse and take longer to dry than premium paint, which can dry in less than a few hours. The shorter dry time means less paint smell and paint odors.

Impacts of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) on kids, pets, pregnant women, and lungs

Modern paint formulations are often low or zero-VOC. And lower-quality paints can sometimes contain more VOCs because they use more thinning agents and cheaper primary ingredients.

The most common symptoms of paint fumes include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Watery eyes
  • Dizziness
  • Breathing problems, such as asthma attacks
  • Throat and lung irritation

Older adults, pregnant women, kids, pets, and anyone with a respiratory issue can experience problems from fumes after extended periods.

There are some steps to minimizing paint odor:

  • Remove or sequester any fabric that might absorb odors, such as curtains or rugs, before painting. 
  • Cover fabric couches, chairs, and furniture. Woodiwiss paint crews always wrap furniture to protect it from paint and reduce any adverse health effects.
  • Open the window and use any available fans to keep the air moving. Our professional painters know to bring portable dryers and fans to help poorly ventilated rooms.
  • Keep the air dry by turning off any portable humidifiers.
  • Air purifiers can help remove odors as can several shallow bowls of crushed charcoal sitting around the room.
  • In carpeted rooms, sprinkle some baking soda or leave open baking soda sitting around. That’s good advice for any strong odor!
  • And obviously if you experience a problem or think you or a loved one might be, leave the room. Consult a physician if you experience any severe symptoms.

Short-term exposure of several hours or letting it sit overnight is not toxic for most people. And even among those with increased sensitivity, most would have to be exposed to paint fumes for up to a month or more to have any significant health effects.

If you have any questions or want to talk about special or specific brands of paint for your next project, give us a call at (925) 595-3081. We have a process that is sure to use the best paints and material, for you and your family, all while providing maximum airflow and preparation to make sure you don’t run into a smelly project.