“Wack 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 along with many 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 for the chemically sensitive.
An Alternative, Safer Solvents?
There are better options now, lower (and even 0-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 do work 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 lye-based options.
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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. Both versions are non-caustic and can be used indoors by most people.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ease of use: Allow the paste to dwell overnight or longer.
Caustic Paint Strippers
Caustic paint strippers are water-based and use lye as their main ingredient. The lye is either caustic potash (potassium hydroxide) or caustic soda (sodium hydroxide). It removes paint by reacting with and breaking down the chemicals until they turn it into a soapy goo.
Caustic does not necessarily mean toxic. Lye is the main ingredient in soap (though the end product does not contain lye). Being caustic is mainly a risk for skin and eye contact. The product below is a no VOC product.
This is in fact the most environmentally friendly product on the list. This is a high ph alkaline product that is neutralized with water and vinegar afterward.
They are 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.
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.
Boiling Water & Baking Soda Paint Remover for Metal and Plastic
This technique works to remove paint from metal or hard plastic. It 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.
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.
With these methods you could also damage the surface under the paint if you are not experienced.
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 lots of people that had tried muriatic acid on concrete to remove paint and they did not have very much success with it.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 7 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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