First, a History of “Whack A Mole” on Toxic Solvent-Based Strippers
Pre-1970s benzene was a popular paint stripper, it was later determined to be carcinogenic. It was replaced by methylene chloride, a very fast and effective paint remover. Methylene chloride/dichloromethane (DCM) is now considered a neurotoxin and a possible carcinogen that has caused many fatalities. It is banned in the US and many countries.
The latest replacement, NMP (n-methyl-2-pyrrolidone), which is not as harsh as Methylene Chloride, and is actually quite tolerable for many chemically sensitive folks, does have a Prop 65 warning for birth defects or other reproductive harm. I list only one paint remover with this chemical alongside the best alternatives.
In the mainstream realm, new formulas are being sold with acetone, turpentine, toluene, and xylene. I don’t list any paint strippers with these solvents because their higher VOC levels emit the strongest fumes and they are challenging to use.
An Alternative – Safer Solvents?
There are better options now, lower (and even zero-VOC) formulas. Safer more environmentally friendly solvents include dibasic ester, bio-based solvents, and alcohol solvents.
In this article, I look at those options along with “soy-based” and “citrus-based” paint and varnish strippers – though these terms are misleading because they don’t refer to the active majority ingredient. (Often the majority ingredient is NMP, but I list brands with safer solvents).
You still need to wear protective gear including safety glasses, gloves, and a mask. Though all of the options here can technically be used indoors.
These safer solvents are effective but they take considerably longer on most coatings than the harsh solvents of the past.
Solvent-Free Options to Remove Paint
Depending on what kind of paint or varnish you are removing and what the substrate is, there may be other (solvent-free) options. In this post I discuss – boiling with baking soda, mechanical options, and eco-friendly water-based options.
PS. Paint strippers and paint thinners are different solvents. Paint thinners can be found here.
This post contains affiliate links. Upon purchase, I make a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Soy-Based Paint Strippers
“Soy-based” paint and varnish strippers are made with a bio-based solvent methyl soyate, a methyl ester solvent distilled from soybean oil. This is not the main ingredient though, the popular brands can still be based on N-Methyl Pyrrolidone (NMP) a solvent known to the state of California to cause birth defects and reproductive harm, or the safer Bis(2-methoxyethoxy)methane.
These work really well to remove paint and clear coatings although they have a long dwell time and often need multiple coats. They are easy to use and don’t drip so they can easily be applied to furniture, moldings, and cabinetry.
Blue Bear SoyGel Paint Removers
Blue Bear makes two formulas that are powerful paint and coating strippers, less toxic, lower in odor, and lower in fumes than the older options. They are 100% biodegradable, but the paint has to be disposed of properly. Many chemically sensitive folks do well with and prefer these “soy-based” paint strippers.
The Safenol version is slightly lower in odor than 605Pro and is free of NMP solvent. This is definitely the one I would choose. Both versions are non-caustic and can be used indoors by most people. This brand is at the top of my list because it’s the best all-round option.
The ingredients of the SoyGel with Safenol are: Bis(2-methoxyethoxy)methane (solvent), Water, Dibasic Ester (Solvent), Surfactant, Silica, and Cellulose. No NMP in this formula!
The ingredients of the 600GL formula are: N-Methyl Pyrrolidone (NMP) (~40%), Dibasic Ester LVP, Soy Ester, Thickening, and Surfactant Blend. There is a Prop 65 Warning for N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone (NMP), known to the state of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm.
Removes: Water-based paint, oil-based paint, lead-based paint (it encapsulates the lead), acrylic paint, some epoxies (two-part epoxies with solid counts lower than 40%), enamel paint, lacquer, urethanes, catalytic conversion varnish, shellac, and other single-component coatings. Does not remove: Milk Paint, penetrating sealers.
Use on: Concrete, masonry, wood, and metal. Strips furniture, cabinetry, flooring, molding, doors, windows, stairs, balusters, and handrails. Do Not Use On: PVC, drywall, limestone, plastic, veneer, terrazzo tile, or rubber.
Ease of use: They both work in about 30-60 minutes, even if there are multiple coats. Many people report needing to use multiple applications. They are fairly runny on vertical surfaces.
Safenol is The Best Option For:
- Its versatility (if you only want to keep one option around)
- Multiple coats of paint (better than citrus-based options)
- Vertical surfaces
- Difficult coatings like oil-based paint, enamel paint, conversion varnish (as well as regular paints)
- To remove and encapsulate lead-based paint
Where to buy:
SoyGel formula with NMP from The Real Milk Paint (this one is the same as the newly labeled 600GL) and sometimes available on Amazon.
Blue Bear Soy Gel w/Safenol formula without NMP, is available at Green Design Center or Walmart.
Citrus-Based Paint Strippers
Paint strippers that contain citrus peel extract are also very effective. Like the “soy-based” strippers this natural component only makes up a small percentage of the formula, they still need another majority solvent. In this case, I saw either N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone (NMP) or benzyl alcohol as the majority solvent.
These paint removers have low emissions and a citrus-based/orange odor. They are biodegradable, but the paint or varnish stripped off probably isn’t.
Like soy-based gels, they work more slowly in removing paint and coatings than more toxic products. Though these first two options, SoyGel and Citri-Strip, are the best (most effective) paint strippers on the list.
Citri-Strip is an industrial-strength paint and varnish remover. Like the soy-based products, it’s a gel formula. It’s non-caustic and non-corrosive, and most people could use this indoors. Chemically sensitive folks should test out a sample of all options on this list.
Ingredients: Benzyl alcohol (30-60 %), Diethylene glycol monobutyl ether (5 -10 %), (2-Aminoethoxy) ethanol (3-7 %), Mineral spirits (1 -5 %), Alcohol ethoxylated (0.1 -1 %), Terpinolene 0.1 -1.0 %, d-Limonene (0.1 -1 %).
Removes: Use it to strip acrylic-latex or oil-based paints and coatings. You can strip several layers of latex and oil-based paint, varnish, lacquer, and shellac.
Use on: Wood, metal, and masonry.
Ease of use: Leave it on for 30 minutes or up to 24 hours to remove multiple layers. A little runny on vertical surfaces. Many people report needing to use multiple applications.
Why Choose Citri-Strip Over Soy-Based Safenol?
- You prefer an alcohol-based solvent to Safenol’s bis(2-methoxyethoxy)methane
- You don’t mind the citrus odor
- Thicker than Safenol, it’s easier to use on vertical surfaces
- Best for one layer paint, I would use Safenol if you have more layers
Where to buy:
Through Walmart, Amazon, at a local store.
A Safer Solvent Alternative – Without Soy or Citrus
3M Safest Stripper is based on safer solvents dibasic esters (DBE): dimethyl adipate and dimethyl glutarate. It’s non-caustic and can be used indoors.
Ingredients: Water (65-75%), Dimethyl Adipate (20-30%), Dimethyl Glutarate (1-5%), Smectite (1-5%).
Ease of use: It comes in a liquid or a semi-paste, the semi-paste helps to reduce drips on vertical surfaces. It can work in as little as 2 hours and can be left on for up to 30 hours. Safest Strip can be rinsed down the drain.
This product often requires a few more applications than the above soy or citrus formulas.
It’s not clear if this is still in stock.
Alcohol Based Paint Strippers
Dumond Smart Strip Advanced Paint Remover
This zero-VOC water-based formula is based on the active ingredient benzyl alcohol, an organic compound that can be found naturally in plants and essential oils. Though like most alcohols, technically there is a hazard when inhaling it, this is really one of the safest options in my opinion.
The SDS lists only a faint aromatic odor that comes from the alcohol, though many people would consider it odorless. It’s 100% biodegradable, non-caustic, and is made for indoor and outdoor use.
Ingredients: Benzyl alcohol as the solvent (30-50%), Water (40-60%), and Titanium Dioxide pigments.
Removes: Effective at removing multiple layers of architectural and tough industrial coatings. It removes paints, urethanes, varnishes, acrylics, lacquers, enamels, and many other finishes. It can remove up to 15 coats in one application. Not recommended for the removal of lead-based paints and primers, and some high-performance coatings, such as epoxies, urethanes, and enamels.
Use on: Virtually all exterior and interior surfaces – wood, brick, stone, concrete, plaster, metal, most plastic, most glass, and fiberglass. Not recommended for use on some types of glass, plexiglass, some plastics, vinyl, and rubber. It can be used to safely strip bathtubs.
Ease of use: Allow the paste to dwell overnight or longer.
When to Choose Smart Strip:
- You want an alcohol-based solvent but you don’t want all the extra ingredients in Citri-Strip
- You want one of the “cleanest” options that is still super effective
- You definitely don’t have a lead-based paint
Where to buy:
On Walmart.com and Amazon.
Caustic Paint Strippers
Don’t get turned off by the term caustic, caustic does not necessarily mean toxic. Lye is the main ingredient in the paint stripper below and it is also the main ingredient in soap (though the end-product soap does not contain lye).
Being caustic is mainly a risk for skin and eye contact. The product I list below is a no VOC product.
Caustic paint strippers are water-based with lye that is either in the form of caustic potash (potassium hydroxide) or caustic soda (sodium hydroxide). This type of stripper removes paint by reacting with and breaking down the chemicals until they turn it into a soapy goo.
This is in fact technically the most environmentally friendly product on the list. This is a high ph alkaline product that is neutralized with water and vinegar afterward.
This option is best for removing oil-based paint from masonry surfaces (i.e concrete, brick). They do remove water- and oil-based paint from some metals and wood. This type of paint stripper does not work on epoxy and polyurethane. They can also erode aluminum and blacken some hardwoods.
Dumond Peel Away 1
This lye and lime-based paint remover is zero-VOC and biodegradable. It can be used indoors. It works super well on specific types of coatings.
Ingredients: Calcium hydroxide/slaked lime (20-30%), Sodium hydroxide (1-10%), Starch (1-10%).
Removes: Up to 30 coats of lead, oil, and alkyd-based paints and coatings in a single application. Works best on pre-1980 based coatings (i.e. doesn’t work as well on water-based paints and varnishes).
Use on: Interior and exterior wood, brick, stone, concrete, stucco, plaster, metal, steel, cast iron, fiberglass, carved and molded surfaces, and more.
When to Choose Peel Away:
- You don’t mind taking skin and eye precautions in order to go with the most eco-friendly option
- You have pre-1980 coatings
- Best for removing paint off brick, stone, concrete
Where to buy:
On Walmart.com, or Amazon.
Boiling Water & Baking Soda Paint Remover
This technique works to remove paint from metal or hard plastic. If you have paint on metal or hard plastic and the item can be boiled, this is without a doubt the least toxic (in fact totally non-toxic) option.
This method causes the bond to break between the metal and the paint or plastic. It’s easy and safe.
Instructions for Metal
Place your hardware in a pot of boiling water, add baking soda, boil for 30 minutes, and then scrub the object lightly. This may work without the baking soda.
Instructions for Plastic
Bring the water and baking soda to a boil and remove from the heat. Add the plastic items into the solution and soak for 5 minutes. Remove and gently scrub the item.
Alternative Method for Metal
Boil rusty or old painted fittings and hardware in 50/50 Linseed Oil Soap and water for a few hours. Leave to cool overnight. Remove the fittings, and brush them off in clean water, and leave to dry. Be sure to capture old paint sludge and dispose safely.
Mechanical Methods of Paint Removal
Skipping a chemical paint stripper might seem like the least toxic method to remove paint. Although this is a non-chemical option, you have to consider the many hazards in paint dust – white pigments like titanium dioxide, talc, and limestone can all be hazardous. And of course, lead in older paints. Wood dust is also a hazard!
3M Lead testing swabs can be used to test whether it is safe to strip the paint with mechanical means. Many of the chemical strippers above like SoyGel encapsulate lead, so they are much safer for lead paint.
With these methods, you could also damage the surface under the paint if you are not experienced.
But if you know what you’re doing and you take the right precautions, this is the chemical-free method.
Sandblasting – For large areas, sandblasting is an eco-friendly way to remove paint. Although it does take skill and experience to do this correctly and it is usually performed by someone with professional experience. You do have to dispose of the paint dust properly.
Scrape away paint – You can use a plastic or metal paint scraper to remove peeling paint.
Sanding – You can sand with an electric sander or manually remove paint. Like with the other methods, it’s easy to damage the surface if you are not careful.
Power Washing – Power washing can be used to remove paint, especially on exterior surfaces.
Using heat: A heat gun can loosen and soften paint which will make scraping easier. A torch is sometimes used as well but it is an open flame so you have to be very cautious. A heat gun is also a fire risk and can create fumes. A low-intensity infrared heater is used by some folks but it can damage the wood.
Please consult with professionals to perform these methods.
Acid-Based Paint Removers?
While there are a couple of blogs that mention citric acid and hydrochloric/muriatic acid for paint removers I found no authoritative source on this. I did find people that had tried muriatic acid on concrete to remove paint and they did not have very much success with it. While one site says it can work in some circumstances it can also damage wood (source).
Conclusion, What Should You Use?
- Baking Soda Method: For small metal and hard plastic items that can be boiled
- Peel Away (lye and lime): For Pre-1980s coatings, especially on masonry, go with the most natural option Peel Away and take precautions with skin and eyes.
- Smart Strip (alcohol-based simple ingredient list): When you definitely don’t have lead-based paint, this is the best all-round stripper that is the next purist and safest option.
- Blue Bear Soy Gel (without NNP): When you need an all-purpose stripper to work on many different coatings or you want to safely encapsulate lead paint.
- Non-Toxic Synthetic Paints
- Non-Toxic Natural Paints
- Non-Toxic Wood Varnishes
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
- Fine Homebuilding reviews of paint strippers
- Family Handyman regarding muriatic acid
- Woodshop News history of paint strippers
- EPA ban of methylene chloride
- NCBI: Human Health Effects of Dichloromethane methylene chloride carcinogen and nuerotoxin
- Prop 65 Warning on NMP
I think it is probably a good idea to make some changes to recommending sandblasting. Although it may not involve chemicals, sandblasting with silica sand (the standard) is just as harmful if not worse than many of the strippers on the market for you and other living creatures caught in the crossfire, as silica dust can cause lung cancer.. Opting for walnut or soda blasting is a much safer alternative.
When I worked in the aircraft industry, we had a really great hydrogen peroxide based paint stripper after using to the old yellow caustic stuff before that. It took longer, but was safer and you didn’t need gloves, though we always did. It would just dry out your hands. It was neat because it would leave aluminum etched coatings intact.
Stefanie M says
Thanks so much for the info and enjoy a coffee on me. I have a question-I strip and refinish old juicers from the 60’s (they are aluminum) and I was looking for something somewhat non toxic that I could completely immerse or dunk them in and strip the original paint. I have tried Citrus Strip and it’s just eh. Would you recommend the Blue Bear Safenol instead? I shared a link so you could get a better idea. Thank you so much-
I haven’t used them to compare side by side. None of them on the list are as strong as the older more toxic strippers. Those two are likely similar based on reviews.
Linda DiPierro says
Which is the best paint stripper to use on a fiberglass coated resin bird bath basin?
I put about 7 coats of Rustoleum 2X spray Paint & Primer and 2 coats of Krylon spray clear sealer and found out that all spray paints are actually oil-based. Rustoleum and Krylon both said their paints are NOT meant to be used submerged under water so now I need to remove it all before I can proceed to put on the correct paint and sealer.
I mention one for fiberglass
Bob Jonah says
Had some guys paint my deck last year. they did not notice my canoe stored under the deck, and now the green canoe has lots of beige drips all over it.. The canoe is vinyl ( Royalex ). Is there a stripper available that will not harm VINYL?
Thanks for this information!
If we’re having someone else complete the chemical stripping and they prefer to use something considered more “toxic” because they’re familiar with a certain product and how it works……will the chemical stripping leave any residue behind that will affect us once we have the table back in the house? We’re planning to use Osmo or a linseed oil for the topcoat.
Thanks for your help!
It depends on the stripper used. OSMO is also very solvent-y.
Thanks for doing the research! I’m off to the store with a safe healthy non-VOC shopping list.
Jean Lynch says
Corinne, thank you for this round-up! I have been wanting to try 3M Safest Stripper, but I can’t ever find a place to buy it. It’s always “out of stock”, which makes me wonder if 3M will discontinue it. Any advice?