Safety Scoop: Can You Paint the Nursery While Pregnant?
Decorating the nursery is practically a rite of passage for parents-to-be, and picking out the perfect wall color is central to the décor. But can you paint while pregnant and still stay safe? Here’s the 411 on painting while pregnant and the precautions you’ll need to take when you’re in full-on nesting mode.
It’s a straightforward question with a not-so-straightforward answer. The current thinking is painting a room in your house—as in baby’s nursery—involves very low levels of exposure, according to the American Pregnancy Association.
“There is no clear evidence that exposure to paint is harmful to pregnancy,” says Sara Twogood, MD, assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at the Keck School of Medicine at University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “However, limiting unnecessary exposure to chemicals that aren’t well studied during pregnancy is always a good idea.”
The problem is there isn’t a lot of data on this. (After all, researchers aren’t going to expose pregnant women to paint fumes just to see what happens.) “Paint is a general term referring to many diverse exposures and mixtures. This makes it difficult to define any specific dangers,” says Michael Cackovic, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Some studies on reproductive outcomes in men and women painters suggested an increase in miscarriage and childhood cancer; however, the studies lack consistent findings.”
Given the unknowns, there isn’t necessarily a “safe” trimester to paint while pregnant, but the first trimester is considered the riskiest time, since baby’s organs are still forming, says Lisa Valle, DO, an ob-gyn at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
If you decide to paint during your pregnancy, consider the scope of your project and be smart about your exposure levels. One-time projects that take a day—like a DIY craft or painting the nursery—result in isolated exposure and are much better than, say, painting your whole house over the course of many months, which would add up to chronic exposure, Twogood says.
There isn’t a type of paint that’s considered 100 percent safe for pregnant women. That said, not all paints are created equal. “In pregnancy, we usually try to advocate that if you’re going to be around paint, you want to avoid paints with harsh solvents,” Valle says. Here, we break down the different types of paint and what to be on the lookout for.
Oil-based paint isn’t a good choice when painting while pregnant, because it contains harsh solvents, Valle says. This type of paint gives off vapors, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), that can cause headaches, eye irritation, nausea, dizziness and fatigue. High levels of exposure to paints with the solvent toluene have been shown to cause growth restrictions and small head size in babies, symptoms similar to fetal alcohol syndrome, Twogood says.
Acrylic or latex paint is water-based and considered much safer than oil-based options, but it can still contain certain solvents and pose potential risks for moms-to-be, Valle says. Avoid anything that contains ethylene glycol, ethers or biocides.
A lot of paints these days are marketed as zero-VOC and are generally considered the best choice for painting while pregnant. Be cautious, though—while some paint bases are free of VOCs, the color pigment that’s added after can contain VOCs. “They’re definitely a better option than the others, but…zero-VOC isn’t enough to say it’s safe during pregnancy,” Valle says.
The surest way to stay safe is to have someone else do the painting—but if you’re going to paint during pregnancy, it’s important to take certain steps to protect you and baby.
• Cover your skin. Cackovic recommends wearing long sleeves, long pants and gloves to keep paint from getting on your skin. If you do get paint on you, wash the area immediately with soap and water.
• Wear a mask. Any mask or respirator approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health will provide the best protection against paint fumes, Cackovic says. If you start to feel nauseous or dizzy at any point, leave the area immediately.
• Use good ventilation. Open your windows and make sure you have good air circulation so fumes don’t linger, Twogood says.
• Avoid lead paint. Lead was banned from house paint back in 1978, so you don’t have to worry about exposure from a fresh gallon, but it may be present in older homes. If you’re removing layers of paint and suspect there may be lead paint involved, have someone else tackle the project.
• Keep food and drink out of the room. The things you eat and drink can become contaminated if they’re in a room where painting is happening, so it’s best to keep it someplace else, Valle says.
• Be cognizant of clumsiness. “Your center of gravity shifts during pregnancy and women may be more prone to losing their balance or falling,” Twogood says. “Have someone else climb the ladder to paint up high.”
• Wash up afterward. Even if you didn’t splatter yourself with paint, it’s a good idea to shower and wash your hair when you’re done, Valle says, to rinse off any lingering fumes.
Updated July 2018
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