View Full Version : Chalk pastels are toxic - seriously?

09-21-2015, 01:30 PM
So I pick up a Mungyo Square box set, all excited to start some art pastels in my small apartment. Then I read the MSDS on this stuff - warning labels everywhere. Another article says I should buy a hair net + mask + goggles. Ugh, seriously?

OK first off - rinse my eyes for 15 mins on contact? I had this stuff in my eyes within the first FIVE MINUTES of playing around. It was everywhere. I used a little Black and Decker vacuum, which also sprays little dust particles around when it's running. Plus I guarantee some was in my hair, skin, etc so now it's on my pillow and my face is in it on all night long.

Do I really need a post-art shower every night? Ugh.

Wash hands on skin contact? I've watched people do this full time on YouTube, and they're not wearing gloves. Their hands are caked in it - same brand I'm using too.

Any help here? According to many Google articles, this applies to all pastel work, even ones listed as AP non-toxic. I remember playing with colored chalk in school. At the end of class, I had so much on me I looked like The Thing from Fantastic Four.

Plus I definitely don't want wear almost-a-hazmat suit in the summer heat.

09-21-2015, 03:57 PM
I've been painting with pastels for over 20 years, and I'm not dead yet.... I'm pretty healthy actually.

If you want to wear a mask you can, though I do not. The most important thing is not to blow on your painting as you are working on it. You don't want the dust to be airborne. I tilt my work forward a bit on the easel so that any dust that falls off lands in a tray of tin foil that I put along the bottom of the painting. I empty the tray after every painting session (into the garbage it goes....).

I don't eat the dust, and I don't breathe the dust because I don't blow on my work, so I'm thinking it's okay. I guess I'm not an alarmist, and I try to be practical about things, so for me painting with pastels isn't all that dangerous....

There are those that take many more precautions than I do. I believe one has to be logical; if you don't eat the stuff, breathe in the stuff, or rub it in your eyes, all should be good. I don't know much about Mungyo pastels, are they student grade or artist quality? I use artist quality pastels, and they behave very well. I don't blow on my work so the dust is very manageable.

09-21-2015, 05:25 PM
I don't worry about it as much as I used to, and I only worried about the cadmiums and cobalts even then.

I turn my work over and snap the back to knock loose dust into the trash rather than blow on it. I also no longer point watercolor brushes with my mouth. Habits like that are a good thing.

If I painted many large pastels every day I might be a little more cautious. But I never got a cough from it and there was a time I was doing up to 20 or 30 quarter sheet portraits in a day in New Orleans.

I do keep washing my hands while painting, in part because that's a help to keep the wrong colors from migrating into areas I don't want muddied. Gloves n a Bottle can help and is less of a frustrating problem than actually wearing gloves. I need to feel the pastels and surface, so I don't use gloves as such. But that stuff, you rub it on your hands and the barrier cream makes it easier to get staining colors off.

The one product I constantly use is The Masters' "The Artist's Soap" which has shell grit in it, very cool ingredients, gentle on the skin and takes off all staining pigments. So I don't have very lengthy skin exposure. I wear an apron over my clothes sometimes or just change clothes when I get too dusty. I do that without thinking and it probably reduces exposure. I have some sinus problems that make masks uncomfortable, particularly the shape of my nose, and don't like gloves when painting. But I'm not all that worried about it overall.

If you start getting respiratory symptoms, that's more serious.

Another thing you can do, though it's expensive is a lot more convenient. Those air cleaners like the AllenAir one I used to have will keep the pastel dust down and incidentally do a lot to reduce ordinary house dust. I'm allergic to house dust and mold, so when I used my daughter's air purifier for several years it was great. Even the stuff in my room didn't need dusting nearly as much or as fast - and it wasn't irritating to use, it just sat there quietly running like an air conditioner or a fan. Expensive, but if you're getting symptoms or just hate cleaning up it can be well worth it.

I always keep a wet towel next to me when pasteling to wipe my hands on, and use the dry end to dry off before picking up another stick. Also helps cut down on how often I need to clean my pastels!

09-21-2015, 07:54 PM
Welcome to the pastel forum. First off, you don't want pastel dust everywhere, so I would recommend a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter that will catch particles that are very small. As Chris mentions, don't blow on your work and do whatever you can to minimize dust in the air.

As with any kind of dust or small particles, you can get a cough or irritation in your throat. I wear a simple dust mask when painting, but many folks do not. I have never worn gloves and don't think there is a need to. Pastel will dry out your hands, so wearing gloves or some sort of barrier cream is fairly common.

As with any art supply, keep them away from food or drink.

Hope this helps,


09-25-2015, 12:36 PM
That is not specifically a trait of soft pastels. It is a trait of the colored pigments in any artistic material. They are almost all toxic (depending only on the color not on the type of material). The issue with soft chalk is that is very easy to produce find dust that you do not notice that you are inhaling, or even worse, children and small animals in the house inhale it (because any wind can carry the dust several meters away) and they are way more fragile to toxics than an adult human.

But pigments themselves are toxic. If you eat the lead of a colored pencil (artist grade) depending on the color you may end up in the hospital.

09-28-2015, 02:15 PM
Two habits that help me not to breathe or ingest pastel dust are: 1) I use a damp paper towel in the "trough" under my painting. When particles fall, they stay there. I dampen it frequently and change it frequently. 2) I use barrier cream (Winsor-Newton Artguard) on my hands before I start painting. When I wash up, the pastel easily slides off, even with the towelettes I use when painting outdoors. Additionally, I keep a humidifier going once I start using the furnace, which generally helps keep all particles from floating around so much. As mentioned, developing healthful habits like not blowing on your painting is a good practice. I get a little sloppy about all "particle control" after a summer of painting in the great outdoors, so have to tighten up a bit when I begin painting more indoors in fall. Don't be alarmed by the warnings, just use common sense!

09-28-2015, 04:26 PM
Life is dangerous! These things must be taken in context. I was a long time smoker but have now given it up. I will not give up my pastels though!
The advice you got is good and sound but please don't get hung up on the dangers, which are only emphasised by the manufacturers to avoid lawsuits!
I was standing by my car by a village post office when I was hit by a truck which snapped my right humerus in two! If I had been in my studio that would never have happened.......:)

09-28-2015, 05:38 PM
You've had some good advice here...you'll also find that the leading brands of pigmented mediums do have hazard warnings on their websites where appropriate...heed them, put safeguards in place when required...and enjoy the medium. Keep it in context!

The larger the firm of makers - the more THEY risk by not heeding toxicity...and the more research goes into finding non toxic alternatives... The problem occurs if one inhales the dust...of most fine particles, not just pastels...it clogs up lungs in the long term...so safety first...don't blow the dust into the air.... hold the board over a bin a give it a couple on taps ...so the dust falls into the bin. If you are doing a large pastel.or a lot of pastels..wear a protective mask.

Mike L
09-30-2015, 04:24 PM
... It is a trait of the colored pigments in any artistic material. They are almost all toxic (depending only on the color not on the type of material)...

Almost right. Color is not toxic, but the material (pigment) that is used to produce a color can be toxic. An example is Cadmium Red, made from cadmium, a heavy metal, is potentially toxic to animals and humans if ingested. Now, look at Cadmium Red Hue; still red, but considered non-toxic because it is not made with cadmium based material. Same for orange and yellow, etc. It's not the color, it's the pigment.

Other materials in a tube or stick of paint can be poisonous, but few are toxic.

EU has been arguing over banning the use of cadmium paints permanently (http://www.analytic-news.com/press/2015/31.html). Although not receiving a lot of support today, restrictions can't be too far away.


09-30-2015, 06:24 PM
An example is Cadmium Red, made from cadmium, a heavy metal, is potentially toxic to animals and humans if ingested.

I cant remember where I read it but cadmiums in many present day artists materials are in a stabilized form that are safe compared to the cadmiums of the 1700-1960s . I think it was from a pigment supplier or paint manufacturer.

Kinda like arsenic is a deadly poison unless it bound to iron. And arsenic is in many fruit seeds people eat daily. We should Consider this lead is also poisonous it is in water coolers drinking fountains most residential and commercial faucets and if there is copper pipes the solder joints contain lead. Brass and copper fittings have fair amounts of lead.

Our world is filled with poisonous stuff formaldehyde is in some ice creams. Chlorine is a deadly poison but in minuscule quantities keep our water safe.

I dont find the risks that high to using cads or other pigments Will just be careful .

09-30-2015, 10:44 PM
I cant remember where I read it but cadmiums in many present day artists materials are in a stabilized form that are safe compared to the cadmiums of the 1700-1960s . I think it was from a pigment supplier or paint manufacturer.

Yes, although politicians may be banning cadmiums in the future, as usual, they don't know much about the subject that they want to legislate :eek:!

Here is some info on cadmiums and other toxic pigments from the websites of a couple pastel makers. It should be noted that the majority of pastel brands (as far as I know) do not use cadmiums. Unison and Blue Earth are two that do.

From Unison:

(http://www.unisoncolour.co.uk/content3.aspx?Group=information&Page=health%20and%20safety)http://www.unisoncolour.co.uk/content3.aspx?Group=information&Page=health%20and%20safety (http://www.unisoncolour.co.uk/content3.aspx?Group=information&Page=health%20and%20safety)

In response to recent enquiries from customers who have contacted Unison Colour, the following is a brief statement concerning health and safety issues relating to our products.
Drawing with soft pastels can produce large quantites of respirable dust. We highly recommend the use of a suitable dust mask and also protective gloves (preferably vinyl to avoid possible allergic reactions to latex in those persons susceptible).
The majority of concerns involve our use of Cadmium and Cobalt pigments, which are contained in a great many of our colours. Both metals are embedded in a product matrix and are widely considered not directly bioavailable, ie. systemic absorption of a metal species, eg. a free metal ion, is not thought to be possible.
We are aware of anxieties with regards to a potential carcinogenic risk from these metals but find recent research reassuring. In fact certain recent research indicates a huge margin of safety. However, as with the use of any dusty material, Unison Colour would recommend good working hygiene and the use of a dust mask.

From Blue Earth:

(http://www.blueearthpastels.com/#!health-and-safety-information)http://www.blueearthpastels.com/#!health-and-safety-information (http://www.blueearthpastels.com/#!health-and-safety-information)

Avoid working methods that generate large amounts of dust. Wear a dust mask and maintain normal levels of studio hygiene. If a vacuum is used for cleaning purposes, it should be equipped with a HEPA filter and bag. For professional use. Keep out of reach of children. Conforms to ASTM-D 4236.
We use opaque, high density mineral pigments for their high tinting strength and outstanding lightfastness. These include iron oxide, titanium, cobalt and European sourced cadmium pigments.
While there has been public concern about cadmium compounds used by other industries, it should be noted that modern cadmium pigments are nearly insoluble, relatively bio-unavailable, and do not require an ASTM warning label for ingestion. This was not always the case. In the 1920's, cadmium pigments contained 100,000 to 150,000 ppm (parts per million) of soluble cadmium. Today's cadmium pigments contain about 10ppm (.01%) soluble cadmium.
Pastel manufacturers must now add chromium oxide (Pg17) and titanium dioxide (Pw6) to their health warning labels. In the case of chromium oxide, a pigment found in nearly all brands, the warning is due to the presence of trace amounts of hexavalent chromium (less than .01%)


09-30-2016, 11:50 AM
Don, Tiago, Debbie, Ruthie & Deirdre,

Thanks so much for all these sensible thoughts. I'm just starting to explore a lot of media, including a lovely full set of Rembrandt pastels I thought I'd lost. Reading some stuff I was starting to look for some elaborate sneeze guard thing, air filter stuff, masks and all that. And it would have made it so cumbersome it would have taken the joy of art out of it all!

I'm going to do the hand lotion, the wet towel, the right vacuum, etc - and I'm setting up an area in my basement where I'll have some space, not be right next to a soft couch etc. I might try gloves, but would probably frustrate me. And I'll use implements for blending maybe more than my hands. But yeah, can't stand wearing a mask. And even though the colors look very tasty, I won't sniff or eat them!!!

10-01-2016, 05:57 PM
All good advise, and your response is good too. I don't use a mask, but I do use Gloves In A Bottle barrier creme on my hands. It is not greasy, absorbs quickly, and was developed to be used by people in professions who either work with toxic chemicals or wash their hands a lot. Every since I started using it (many years ago) my fingers no longer get cracks or bleed from getting too dried out. I have a good quality hepa air filter in my studio, and it is directly behind my easel. When I change the filter I can see that it is capturing any pastel dust because the filter is so pretty with different colors. lol It also collects a lot of my long haired cat's fur! I'd have to shut her out of the room because she is my little shadow; well not so little because she is a large breed known as Ragdoll. Right now she's laying behind my laptop's screen.

Moqui Steps
10-02-2016, 11:57 AM
I looked at a bunch of stuff in my house and studio - apparently lots of dangerous things are "Known by The State of California" to be really bad for you! I guess all those other states have their collective heads in the sand?

10-08-2016, 11:23 PM
I would highly recommend that any pastel artist concerned with the safety of the medium to do their own research from sources such as the ACMI and the manufacturer’s own website. This is a summary of the ACMI ratings from a couple of years back, as is the website information. It may have changed, you can go to their website for current information.

ACMI (Art and Creative Materials Institute) Rating
Art Spectrum Soft Pastels – Non Toxic
Blockx Soft Pastes – Non Toxic
Blue Earth Pastels – Not Rated - according to their website they conform to ASTM-D 4236 but they use cadmium and cobalt
Daler Rowney – Non Toxic
Diane Townsend - Not Rated - according to their website they conform to ASTM-D 4236 but they use cadmium
Faber Castell Polychromos – Non toxic
Girault – Not Rated – their website states that no heavy metals are used
Great American – Not rated – their MSDS reports use of cadmiums, cobalts and chromium oxide
Holbein - non toxic
Jackson Pastels – non toxic
Loew-Cornell – non toxic
Artists Loft (Michaels brand) – Non toxic
Mount Vision – not rated – MSDS lists use of chromium III oxide
Mungyo – Non toxic
Pan Pastels – Non Toxic
Nu Pastel – Non toxic
Prismacolor soft pastels – non toxic
Rembrandt - non toxic
Richeson – Not rated – no info on website regarding use of heavy metals
Schmincke – Not rated – MSDS states use of chromium but not cadmium or cobalt
Sennelier – Non toxic
Terry Ludwig – Not rated MSDS only lists use of chromium III oxide
Unison - rated as CL – MSDS specifies use of cadmium and cobalt
Van Gogh pastels – Non toxic
Winsor Newton – Non toxic (brand has been discontinued)

You may see an increase in the rating of brands to be CL because the state of California has recently classified titanium dioxide (PW6) as toxic. PW6 is the most common white pigment used and will most likely be present in any tint of a color.

Also a quote from the ACMI website

Q – Some products are very dusty. Is all dust toxic?
A - Again, it is important to read the label. Not all dust is toxic. In fact, many dusty or dry products, such as chalk, powdered tempera, and many pastels, are non-toxic, even if inhaled. Other dust-causing products, such as many dry clays, can be toxic, and proper precautions need to be taken. Dust is messy but not always toxic.

Don't take this as the whole truth or as completely accurate - do your own investigation as only you know what may affect you.