Toxicity in watercolors

My soon to be six year old daughter is a little artist. She draws and paints litterally every day.

When she was very little I bought creative materials that were super safe and non-toxic (reading every label) but as she got older, she grew out of those chalky tempera colors and crayola crayons.

When I was painting next to her with my QOR Watercolors she was so excited about how the colors spread and desperately wanted to try them out. Well, I removed my cadmium yellow primrose because I knew that one was toxic and let her play with the other colors a bit. And she fell in love.

When I was a child me and my sister did paint and draw just as much as my daughter. We did through that through our childhood and still do. We both have conditions that are known to be caused by toxic chemicals. At that time I don’t think there was that much information about toxic chemicals in art supplies and I don’t know what materials we used. Might not be correlated at all but of course it makes me wonder…

So, I started to search the internet for watercolor alternatives that are very high quality but still okay for children. Looked into products marked with “Giftfri Förskola” (Non-toxic Preeschool), which is a label commonly used in Sweden. They listed Winsor and Newton Cotman Watercolors, Caran D’ache Fancolor Gouache and some other brands that I’m not familiar with.

At my mom’s, she tried out some Sonnet Watercolors by Nevskaya Palitra (they also make St Petersburg White Nights) and they worked beautifully for her. They are supposed to be non-toxic and recommended for children from 3 years and up, and also very economical. I started to do some research on them, and also on my QOR colors and some other artist and student grade brands that I have been curious about.

First of all, you always need to be careful when you use art supplies. Don’t get it in your mouth and try to keep your hands clean from paint. Don’t eat or drink where you are painting and the area should always be well ventilated. Kids that are too young to be able to follow theese rules must of course use other supplies. Wash the kids hands right away if they get color on them and change clothes in case they get paint on their clothes (and my tip is to consider which clothes they have on them because some pigments stain a lot!). Don’t let too young kids paint without supervision.

Over to the choise of colors. Lightfastness is not as important for me when it comes to kid’s art supplies. One needs to prioritize, right? But I do want some lightfast colors, so that we can use them together (I can just skip the fugitive ones). What I was looking for was:

  1. Non-toxic colors that are well documented
  2. High quality colors with great pigmentation, and a lot of dispersion
  3. Some metallic and vivid colors
  4. Economical
  5. Great packing and larger pans

So I read a lot of SDS (Safety Data Sheets) for each products and looked at some videos on Youtube about toxicity in Watercolors. I will list some very useful links at the end of this post. Dickblick website also have a lot of information on each pigment.

There are many things that goes into toxicity and I don’t get it all, but I’ll try do explain the hazards as I’ve understood it.

There is a label called ACMI-certified seal.

AP Seal Graphic

The Approved Product (AP) Seal
Identifies art materials that are safe and certified in a toxicological evaluation by a medical expert to contain no materials in sufficient quantities to be toxic or injurious to humans, including children, or to cause acute or chronic health problems. Children in grade six and lower, and adults who may not be able to read and understand safety labeling should use only non-toxic materials. The AP Seal ensures products are non-toxic when used as intended for young children, the physically or mentally handicapped, and any persons who cannot read or understand the safety labeling on product packages.

CL Seal GraphicThe Cautionary Labeling (CL) Seal
Identifies products that are certified to be properly labeled in a program of toxicological evaluation by a medical expert for any known health risks and with information on the safe and proper use of these materials. This seal appears on only a small percentage of adult art materials in ACMI’s certification program and on none of the children’s materials.  These products are also certified by ACMI to be labeled in accordance with the chronic hazard labeling standard, ASTM D 4236, and the U.S. Labeling of Hazardous Art Materials Act (LHAMA). Products with this seal are not hazardous if used correctly. It is important to read the product label in full before opening a product that has the CL Seal. These products should never be given to children in grade 6 or lower or anyone with a physical or mental handicap who is unable to read and understand safety labeling on packages.

You would think that a product is okay if it has the AP seal but it’s a bit complicated, because when I research pigments, they are listed as AP in some brands and CL in some. How sure can you be about the companies have tested their pigments and disclosed all chemicals that are incliuded? I don’t know how this works, but to me it seems a little shady that some companies doesn’t list all the ingredients, while others do.

Some of the pigments below might be okay, and there can also be varities from different manufacturers and from when the paints were produced. The amount of the pigment or ingredient also plays a role when it comes to toxicity. Some ingredients are only hazardus if they are airborne but I will list them here anyway. Colors that contain a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer or reproductive harm will have a ‘YES’ under the Prop 65 heading.

So, what I’ve found to be harmful or potential harmful pigments are:

Pigment Family Pigment Codes Hazard Prop.65
Cadmiums  PY35, PR108, Causes cancer by inhalation and probably by other long time exposure too. Can also cause lung and kidney disease YES
Carbon Black PBk7, PBk9 Can contain traces of polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbons. This warning only applies in relation to airborne particles of respirable size.
Chromium Cerulean Blue PB35, Harmful to the skin, eyes, blood, and respiratory system, including lung cancer. YES
Cobalt Compounds
Cobalts: PB36, PG50, PB28 May be harmful if swallowed. If swallowed, get prompt medical attention. Skin contact may cause allergies. Have a CL seal. YES
Copper Phthalocyanine Phthalos: PB15:3, PG7 and some other pigments May be harmful if swallowed. If swallowed, get prompt medical attention. NO
Hansa Yellow Light PY3 Might cause cancer or reproductive issues. NO
Mica In iridescent colors Mica can affect you when breathed in. Repeated high exposure to the dust can irritate the lungs and may cause lung scarring (fibrosis). NO
Nickel Compounds
Nickel Azo Yellow PY150, Nickel Titanate Yellow PY53 Material may be an irritant to mucous membranes and respiratory tract. Contact with skin may result in irritation. Swallowing can result in nausea, vomiting and irritation of the gastrointestinal tract.
An eye irritant.
Titanium Dioxide PW6 Exposure can irritate the eyes, nose and throat. Has been shown to cause lung cancer YES
Pigment Red 83 PR83 Irritating to eyes, respiratory system and skin. NO
Pigment Red 101 PR101 Animal studies have shown iron oxide in the lung can cause a mild inflammatory response. NO
Zinc Oxide PW4 May be harmful if swallowed. If swallowed, get prompt medical attention. Toxic to aquatic organisms. Zinc Oxide can affect you when breathed in. Symptoms of metallic taste in the mouth, headache, fever and chills, aches, chest tightness and cough NO
Viridian Hexavalent Chromium, PG18 Increase the risk of lung cancer. May also cause cancers of the nose and nasal sinuses. YES

(The information above is according to QOR and Daniel Smith Safety Data Sheets, which were the most extensive information that I have found. I’ve also researched some of the ingredients through other Safety Data Sheets of each ingredient)

Other ingredients that might be included in watercolor or watercolor mediums to watch out for:

Ingredient Listed in brands Hazard Prop.65
Crystalline Silica Only listed in the following QOR colors: Raw Sienna, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber Airborne particles of respirable size can cause cancer. YES
Gum Arabic Pretty much every brand except QOR Causes serious eye irritation. Avoid contact with skin, eyes and clothes. NO
Octylphenoxypolyethoxyethanol Daniel Smith Causes eye irritation. Slight skin irritation. Expected to be a low ingestion hazard. NO
Phosphoric Acid Daniel Smith Can affect you when breathed in, irritate the airways causing coughing and wheezing. Eye and skin irritant. NO

This is what I’ve found out about each brand (click on the brand name for more detailed information):

Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolors
Toxicity: Very well documented
Characteristics: High quality colors with great dispersion and a lot of granulating colors
Range: 252 colors. Including very vivid pigments, primateks and iridescent colors
Price: Expensive
Packing: Comes in both tubes and half pans

Holbein Artist Watercolors
Characteristics: High quality colors with little dispersion and not very granulating colors
Range: 108 colors. Including very vivid pigments and iridescent colors
Price: Expensive
Packing: Comes in both tubes and half pans

QOR Watercolors
Toxicity: 17 low to no toxicity colors, 15 probably low. Very well documented
Characteristics: High quality colors with great pigmentation, and a lot of dispersion
Range: 83 colors. Some vivid colors. Metallics
Price: Very Expensive
Packing: Comes in 11ml tubes and also in mini sets with half pans

Shinhan Watercolors Premium (PWC, artist grade)
Characteristics: Haven’t tried them, but they are said to be of high quality for their price
Range: 104 colors, with very vivid pigments but no metallics.
Price: Pretty Cheap
Packing: Comes in tubes

Shinhan Watercolors Professional (student grade) 
Characteristics: Haven’t tried them, but they are said to be of high quality for their price
Range: 48 colors, with very vivid pigments but no metallics.
Price: Very Cheap
Packing: Comes in tubes

St Petersburg White Nights Watercolors (Nevskaya Palitra)
Characteristics: Haven’t tried them, but they are said to be of high quality for their price.
Range: 134 colors, with very vivid pigments and metallics.
Price: Quite cheap
Packing: Comes in tubes and full pans

Sonnet Watercolors (Nevskaya Palitra)
Characteristics: Very high quality for their price. Vivid colors, great dispersion.
Range: 24 colors, with very vivid pigments. There was also a set of metallics but I think they are discontinued.
Price: Very cheap
Packing: Comes in full pan sets but not available open stock. Though you can replace them with White Nights

About Giftfri Förskola (Non-toxic Preescool Label)
After all of this research, I got a bit tired of decisionmaking and started to google for products that actually have that label. And I revisited the 12 set of White Nights with that label… Which contained two cadmium yellows and a zinc white! I mean, what? I wonder how that could happen. Did they recieve the wrong SDS for classification? Or are they measuring something else? Well, for me, that cuts that label out. Maybe I’ll contact them and ask them what that is all about.

So what to do, what to do… A lot is pointing towards Daniel Smith and QOR simply because they are so transparent about their ingredients but they are both very expensive. One thing I could do, however, is to go by the information from QOR and Daniel Smith about pigments that are pretty much safe, and only buy those pigments, from different manufacturers that seems to be somewhat serious about their Safety Data.

Summing up
So, if you want to splurge your kid with beautiful high quality watercolors you might make use of this information. It could also be good to consider for yourself and of course it’s good for the environment, too. I want to make clear that I’m not a doctor or scientist or whatever so you need to take this information for what it is. And I don’t know if all of this is necessary, I mean there are a lot of other harmful chemicals and pollutants in our daily life too. But I guess it can’t harm. Or it can, I don’t know.

Well, happy painting!

List of useful links:
ACMI Seals:

The Color of Art Pigment Database:

Paint Library:

Daniel Smith SDS: