House Paint Smells: Getting Rid Of The Smell

Homeowners, especially those with small children, often ask me how to get rid of paint odors. It’s such a big concern for some people that they’ll ask me about potential odor control before they even book the paint quote.

The good news is that the evolution of household paint has come a long way with lines that are low odor and even odorless for some applications. The bad news is that there are still plenty of reasons to use the stinky stuff, especially if you’re painting an older house. Alkyd (oil-based) and shellac or alcohol primers are especially effective at sealing water damage and old oil-painted surfaces to enhance with latex topcoats. But they are also very smelly with potentially long-lasting vapors. Even the most common low odor alkyd paints used for refinishing woodwork today can have a lingering odor for days under the most ventilated conditions.

So how do you get rid of the smell?

I just received an email from a mom asking me that very question. Her youngest son’s room was painted almost two weeks ago and since then she has left the windows open and the fan on. Still, the smell of paint is strong enough to make you worry about letting the child sleep in the room. The painting in this room required a lot of priming to cover the dark brown oil paint used by the home’s previous owner. Needing to lighten the color and convert the surfaces to a much greener acrylic latex, a common top brand alkyd primer was used to give the entire room a fresh start. And even though it had “Low Odor” printed on the can, it was obviously NOT odorless. To complicate matters, all the woodwork had to be finished with a leading ‘low odor’ brand of Alkyd semi gloss which produced a smooth, lustrous finish as well as a migraine-inducing vapour.

So what can you do? Well, there are a few ways to overcome these situations beyond the obvious ventilation to control, eliminate, and even prevent odors from lingering.

“An Ounce of Prevention”… Before “low odor paint” existed, 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 make, and had no effect on color. Now that low-odor alkyd paints are commonplace on the market, adding a tablespoon of vanilla extract makes them virtually odorless.

However, as in the previous case, the painting is already done. It’s too late for the vanilla, and the smell won’t go away as quickly as they’d like. What happens here is that odors get trapped in the walls as the paint dries and probably all over the fabrics and rugs in the room as well. They need something else to absorb them forever. So this is what I advised him to do. Slice some 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, onions absorb and eliminate paint fumes and odors…sometimes as fast as overnight!

I first learned this trick while creating a baby’s room about 17 years ago. I spent about 5 weeks turning an old dusty and crumbling attic into a nursery awaiting the birth of the baby. And it turned out that the baby was born about two weeks early and was ready to go 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 the custom in those days, I added vanilla extract to minimize the smell of the paints (and the damage to my brain cells), but the smell didn’t clear up fast enough to bring in the newborn. The homeowner’s babysitter, who was moving into the next room (and who was also concerned about the smell), used a couple bowls of chopped onions in cold water overnight and the smell was gone the next day. I could not believe it!

I have 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, curtains, rugs, or anything else that might trap odors and giving them a shot or two of Febreeze to do the trick nowadays.

Now sometimes there are edge cases where scents just aren’t an option. Some people are very allergic to VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in paints and the dyes used to color them. Some can get quite sick even from short-term inhalation of the vapors. In these cases, you have to resort to the whole range of tricks:

  1. Before painting, empty the room completely to make sure nothing is trapping odors.
  2. Open all windows before opening paint cans and keep them open throughout the painting process.
  3. Add vanilla extract to your Alkyd, Alcohol or Shellac based paints. (Latex paints generally don’t need this step since they’re relatively low in odor to begin with.)
  4. Place several bowls of onions around the room (as above) while you paint to absorb the vapors as they escape.
  5. When you’re done painting, seal and remove all paint cans, wrap any protective sheeting in plastic before taking it out to the rest of the house (or throw it out the window if possible) to prevent the spread of any vapors they’ve trapped inside.
  6. Refresh your supply of onions in water, as the old ones will have vaporized by the time the painting is done.
  7. Keep windows open and wait until paint has completely dried and odors have subsided before re-arranging furniture and other belongings.

Of course, these tips are offered in relation to interior painting, but you should also try adding a bit of vanilla to your paint when painting the exterior with alkyd siding. Saves a lot of headache for the painter…literally. But whether inside or out, these simple ideas combined with a little good old-fashioned common sense should produce a fresh, new look with clean, breathable air he can live with.

Happy painting!

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