Homeowners, especially those with small children, often ask me how to get rid of paint odors. It’s such a big concern for some folks that they’ll ask me about potential odor control before they even book the painting estimate.
The good news is that the evolution of house paint has come a long way with low-odor and even odorless lines for some applications. The bad news is there are still so many reasons to use the smelly stuff, especially if you’re repainting an older home. Alkyd (oil-based) and shellac or alcohol primers are especially effective in sealing water damage and old oil painted surfaces to upgrade them to Latex top coats. But they’re also very smelly with potentially long-lasting vapors. Even the most common low-odor alkyd paints often used today to repaint wood work can have a lingering odor for days under the most ventilated conditions.
So how do you get rid of the smell?
I’ve just received an email from a mother asking me that very question. Her young child’s room was painted almost two weeks ago and she’s left the windows open and the fan on ever since. Still, the paint smell is strong enough that she’s concerned about letting the child sleep in the room. The painting of this room involved a lot of priming to cover the dark brown oil paint used by the previous home owner. Since the color needed to be lightened up and the surfaces converted to a far more Eco-friendly Acrylic Latex, a common top brand Alkyd primer was used to give the whole room a fresh start. And although it had “Low Odor” printed on the can, it obviously was NOT odorless. To compound matters, all the woodwork had to be finished in a leading “Low Odor” brand of Alkyd semi gloss which produced a smooth lustrous finish as well as a migraine inducing vapor.
So what can you do? Well, there a few ways you can overcome these situations beyond obvious ventilation to control, eliminate and even prevent odors from lingering.
“An ounce of prevention”… Before there was such a thing as “low odor paint” we used to add a splash of vanilla extract to every gallon of oil paint to make it “low-odor”. It was cheap, easy to do and had no effect on the color. Now that low-odor alkyd paints are commonplace on the market, adding about a tablespoon of vanilla extract makes them virtually odorless.
Or, as in the case above, the painting is already done. It’s too late for vanilla and the smell won’t go away as quickly they’d like. What’s happening here is that the odors are being trapped in the walls while the paint cures and probably in all the fabrics and rugs in the room as well. They need something else to absorb them for good. So, here’s what I advised her to do. Cut up a few onions and place them in a couple of bowls of cold water. Put one of the bowls in the room and the other in the closet. As simple and crazy as it sounds, the onions absorb and actually eliminate the paint fumes and odors… sometimes as quickly as overnight!
I first learned this trick while creating a baby’s room about 17 years ago. I had spent about 5 weeks converting a badly crumbling and dusty old attic room into a nursery pending the baby’s birth. And as it turned out, the baby was born about two weeks early and was ready to come home just as I was finishing the project. The job required a lot of smelly primers and sealers to bury decades of neglect and water damage. As was customary in those days, I added vanilla extract to minimize the paints’ odor (and damage to my brain cells) but the smell wasn’t clearing up fast enough to bring the newborn in. The homeowner’s Nanny, who was moving into the bedroom next door (and who was also troubled by the smell) used a couple of bowls of cut onions in cold water over night and the smell was gone the next day. I couldn’t believe it!
I’ve recommended this technique ever since with great results. But it should be noted here that this example was in an empty room. In the case of a fully furnished room, as in our case above, you should consider airing out clothing, drapery, rugs or anything else which might be trapping the odors and give them a shot or two of Febreeze to do the trick nowadays.
Now sometimes, there are extreme cases where odors are simply not an option. Some people are highly allergic to the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) contained in paints and the tints used to color them. Some can become quite ill with even short term inhalation of the fumes. In these cases, you have to resort to the whole gamut of tricks:
- Before you paint, empty the room completely to make sure there is nothing that will trap the odors.
- Open all the windows before you open the paint cans and keep them open throughout the entire painting process.
- Add vanilla extract to your Alkyd, Alcohol or Shellac based paints. (Latex paints don’t usually need this step as they’re relatively low-odor to begin with).
- Place several bowls of onions around the room (as above) while you paint to absorb the fumes as they escape.
- When the painting is finished, seal and remove all paint cans, bag your drop sheets in plastic before taking them out through the rest of the house (or throw them out of the window if possible) to keep from spreading the fumes they’ve trapped indoors.
- Refresh your supply of onions in water as the old ones will have had their fill of vapors by the time your finished the painting.
- Keep the windows open and wait until the paint has fully dried and the odors have gone before you replace the furniture and other belongings.
Of course, these tips are offered in connection with interior painting but you should also try adding some vanilla to your paint when painting the exterior in Alkyd coatings as well. It saves the painter a lot headaches… literally. But whether inside or out, these simple ideas combined with some good old fashioned common sense should produce a fresh new look with clean, breathable air you can live with.