Read The Label


Faculty, staff and students have a right and need to know what chemicals they are working with. Everyone should follow basic precautions when using artist supplies and products. 

Err on the side of caution when using art materials. Always read the label and the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) of the product you are using.  

Health and safety information on artist materials can be challenging to interpret. Much of the industry uses the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) AP and CL seals on their labels.     

AP stands for APPROVED PRODUCT and is usually accompanied by the word "Nontoxic".

CL is an abbreviation for CAUTIONARY LABEL, and is used when risk and safety information is required on the label.

The following are reasons for artists to question the "nontoxic" message. A few of these are listed below:

  1. Potentially toxic chemicals are likely present at some level in all products, regardless of risk assessment.

  2. It is inappropriate to assume that all possible chronic hazards of chemicals are currently known.

  3. Personal exposure should be prevented when using chemical products. 

Reading "nontoxic" on artist material labels implies that the paints, for example, can be used for activities such as body painting, painting with the fingers or tongue, tattooing, and decorating dishware.  If one reads more about this topic, this is not necessarily a safe way to use these products.

Toxicology Review of Art Materials

Federal law requires toxicologists to evaluate art materials and appropriately label them with warnings for any potential acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) health hazards. This evaluation is performed according to the guidelines of ASTM D 4236, Standard Practice for Labeling Art Materials for Chronic Health Hazards. The assessment uses factors such as chemical form and concentration, anticipated frequency and duration of use, and bioavailability of the chemical. Bioavailability is the extent that a substance can be absorbed in the body in a biologically active form.

The way art products are evaluated relies on the use of averages and assumptions; the nature of the process leaves a lot of room for debate about many of the individual factors used. The result is that different opinions may arise as to the relative toxicity of a particular art material. These are complex issues and there is validity in more than one opinion.

Realize that the toxicological assessment of a product can only rely upon current scientific and medical knowledge of existing chemical hazards. Although ASTM D 4236 states that "knowledge about chronic health hazards is incomplete", there has been a leap made from describing materials as having the "absence of known hazards" to declaring that a product is "non-toxic" under the ASTM Standard. These phrases mean the same thing.

California Prop 65 Warnings
The State of California has unique labeling requirements for products that contain certain chemicals. These chemicals are listed, under rules of the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (otherwise known as "Proposition 65"), as being known to cause cancer and/or reproductive toxicity. If chemicals on this list are in products sold in California, the product label is required to provide clear and reasonable warning to that effect.

Prop 65 exempts products that do not pose a "significant risk" from the labeling requirement. However, as described above, "significant risk" is another debatable term (just like "organic" food). The result is that   warnings are applied to all products that contain any Prop 65-listed chemicals. These will also be listed as ingredients on the product's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) and/or label.

Chemicals on the Prop 65 List include things like cobalt, nickel compounds, cadmium compounds, carbon black, chromium, lead and crystalline silica. For products containing these chemicals, the label will include phrases such as: "WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer".

X Means Harmful
Products deemed to present a significant risk under conditions of foreseeable use, based upon Federal guidelines (ASTM D 4236), carry the European symbol for a harmful product, which is a prominent black X on an orange background. This should draw attention to the fact that these products should not be applies by spraying.