We will start with non-toxic paints and sealers that have full disclosure from the companies on how long the paint or sealer takes to cure and finish offgassing so we know when our reptile pets can safely re-enter their enclosure.
The following are the least toxic paints, clear sealers, and colorful stains that will work on terrariums and reptile enclosures. These are also non-toxic for the person applying them. I’ve personally tested all of the options on this list.
Safety for Reptiles
And all paints have been reviewed for reptile safety by Dr. Samuel Mwaura, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. Reptiles exhibit a highly selective feeding behavior and are less likely to nimble on foreign objects such as paint housing. However, there may be instances where reptiles, particularly young ones or those displaying peculiar behavior, will unintentionally consume small amounts of paint or other substances inside their enclosure. Reptiles are also sensitive to environmental chemicals, such as fumes and off-gas from the paint. Using non-toxic paints and sealants, like the ones on this list, for reptile environments is essential to reduce potential concerns, says Dr. Mwaura.
Paints by Material & Environment
We will go over options that can work on all types of materials – wood, high density polyethylene (HDPE), PVC, melamine, metal, rocks, terracotta, and glass.
While these options are water-proof in the sense that they can be wiped down and they can work in humid environments, none of these paints or sealers are for submerged areas.
Expert Review: Dr. Samuel G. Mwaura, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, reviewed and contributed to this article.
This post contains affiliate links. Upon purchase, I make a small commission at no extra cost to you.
1. ECOS Pet Dwelling Paint
ECOS Paints Pet Dwelling Primer and Pet Dwelling Paint are a 0-VOC acrylic paint and primer that are safe for all animal enclosures including reptile enclosures and terrariums. It’s a water-proof exterior-grade paint that comes in eggshell, semi-gloss, and gloss.
Suitable for primed or previously painted metal, wood, vinyl and some stone. Prime wood with the Pet Dwelling Primer and prime metal that has been primed with a factory finish (but not yet painted) with Universal Primer.
ECOS Paint can work on unglazed, unfinished stone but it may be beneficial to prime with Masonry Primer to create a bonding surface for the paint, especially if the substrate is particularly porous.
Not for use in areas that are permanently wet.
You want an exterior grade paint for indoor terrariums because this is the most water-proof, durable and cleanable paint. Semi-gloss and gloss are also easier to clean and more durable than eggshell so if you will be wiping down the area frequently it’s best to go with those sheens. Dr. Mwaura also recommends using an exterior paint because it’s less likely to flake off (and therefore to be consumed).
Because this paint is fast to cure, your reptile buddy can get back to their home quite quickly.
Step 1 Check the temp and humidity. You need to be between 50°F (10°C) and 70s to lower 80s F and lower than 70% relative humidity.
Step 2 Prime over bare wood, bare or factory finished metal, plastic, dark colors, a higher gloss paint, an oil-based paint, or heavily sanded or scraped surfaces. Use one coat of Pet Dwellings Primer for most wood and allow 24 hours before painting. (The Universal Primer can be used over oil-based paint if you follow the instructions on their website).
Step 3 Paint two coats of Pet Dwelling Paint on primed or previously painted (with water-based paint) metal and wood. It can be recoated in 2 hours if the first coat is fully dry.
If you want to paint the floor of the terrarium, use the semi-gloss or gloss sheens which are more durable.
Step 4 Bring your pet home. Your reptile can re-enter at 24 hours, says a rep for the company. Hardening of the paint continues for up to thirty days and you should avoid wetting it, washing it, or scuffing it during that time.
ECOS Paints comes in a large selection of colors, plus they can color match to any other brand. You can order sample pots of the ECOS colors to test them out or to paint small decorative areas.
- A quart of Pet Dwelling Primer is $44
- A quart of Pet Dwelling Paint is $46
- A colored sample of ECOS Interior Eggshell is $4
PS. In the UK? This paint is called Lakeland Paints in the UK. Just be sure to select their exterior paint and primer which is the same formula as Pet Dwelling Paint/Primer.
PPS. In Australia? Australians should go with Ecolour Eco Weather Proof Exterior Zero VOC.
Other Acrylic Paint Lines…
You can certainly use other acrylic paints that are exterior grade. The challenge is that most exterior paints are not 0-VOC (and neither are most primers). I don’t know of a paint that beats ECOS Paints/Lakeland Paints, but if you do find a 0-VOC acrylic exterior paint and primer that will be just fine as well.
2. Linseed Oil Paint
Allback Linseed Oil Paint is made with linseed oil, clay fillers, and natural pigments. It’s free of solvents.
This sticks to just about anything – metal, wood, rocks/stone, glass, ceramic, plastics (except a very shiny slipper polypropylene like the inside of yogurt containers, and silicone).
You can use this paint on interior items, wooden framing and if you have a glass terrarium this is perfect for going right over the glass (either on the interior side or outside side).
How long linseed oil paint takes to cure very much depends on the thickness of the paint and the temperature and humidity of the air. It needs a few weeks to fully cure before you can begin wiping it down. If your terrarium is a tropical environment you would also need to wait for it to fully cure before the item gets humid. It’s also a good idea to let it fully cure before introducing the item into the terrarium so that it’s not offgassing any (natural) VOCs says Dr. Mwaura.
Allback Linseed Oil Paint 200 ml is $32
3. Milk Paint + Tung Oil
Milk Paint is an all-natural paint, perfect for over raw wood, terracotta and raw stone (that’s not polished/shiny). It does not give off any VOCs. You can leave it unsealed though the paint will flake off with time and not be as easy to clean compared to if you added a topcoat. With a natural protective coat of Tung Oil or Walnut Oil, the finish will be very durable and washable.
The Real Milk Paint is made from casein (a protein found in milk), lime, a plant-based filler, and earth pigments.
It’s very easy to apply this to raw wood, bare terracotta and bare stone, and these are the best applications for this paint. (I wouldn’t bother using this if you’re painting over an existing paint).
Topcoat of Oil
Milk Paint does much better with a topcoat of oil to be very durable to water. Tung Oil over Milk Paint will make the paint durable enough to be wiped down and cleaned. It is also durable enough for the floor of the terrarium.
The main downside is the Tung Oil darkens and dulls the color a bit. You can see the bright blue with Tung Oil over it above (and then shellac, but shellac is not for use on outdoor wood).
Note: the Tung Oil will also reveal any unevenness so be sure to use 2-3 coats of Milk Paint even if the first coat looks like enough.
Tung Oil and Citrus Solvent are food-safe and pet-safe once cured.
Application of Tung Oil:
Step 2 Apply oil to the Milk-Painted wood, terracotta or stone. Let the oil absorb into the Milk Painted material. For wood, you likely need to mix Tung Oil with Citrus Solvent (and use the half and half mix), unless the wood is very old and dry. (If you’re painting stone or terracotta, you can go with Soapstone Sealer instead if you like which is walnut oil and wax).
Step 3 Repeat until saturation. You repeat the Tung Oil application as many times as necessary until the surface doesn’t absorb any more oil. Once you reach the point of over-saturation, wipe away the excess oil and let the oil begin the curing process. It takes 7 to 15 days to be dry to the touch and 30 days for complete curing before you can wash it down.
Step 4 Bring your pet home. Wait the full 30 days for the full cure so that it’s not offgassing any natural VOCs, advises Dr. Mwaura. (Both Tung Oil and Citrus Solvent give off natural VOCs).
- Milk Paint 1 pint under $20
- Milk Paint sample pot under $5
- Half and Half (Tung Oil + Citrus Solvent) 16 oz under $35
- Walnut Oil with Wax 4 oz under $20
4. Chalk Paint
Chalk Paint like linseed oil paint sticks to just about anything. The only downside is that it’s not durable on its own without a topcoat of polyurethane or acrylic. Annie Sloan Chalk Paint sticks to metal, wood, stone/rocks, terracotta, almost all plastics, ceramic, and glass.
And it comes in very small pots so that you can use it on smaller elements or to get many colors to paint your glass (on the outside side of the glass).
It’s extremely low VOC and just needs a few days to cure to be safe.
For the sealer on top, and you can use a natural wax – I would use the non-toxic versions from Real Milk Paint (not the solvent-filled wax from Annie Sloan for a reptile enclosure) or you can use a synthetic clear coat like a 0-VOC polyurethane or a 0-VOC acrylic.
Annie Sloan Chalk Paint mini pot $16
5. Clear Wood Sealant & Wood Stain
Rubio Monocoat Hybrid Exterior Wood Protector comes in stain colors like darker browns, lightening colors, and bright colors for the wooden parts of your enclosure.
The graphic to the left shows the stain colors on two different types of wood.
You only need to apply one coat and the cure time without the Part B is 7 days.
If you want to finish any wood in your reptile enclosure with a clear sealant I would go with a natural drying oil/penetrating oil here on its own.
Rubio Monocoat Hybrid Exterior Wood Protector is an exterior grade linseed oil that comes in clear. This is a one-part system and requires no catalyst or accelerator. (I would recommend using it without the optional accelerator). Curing times without the Oil Accelerator (Part B) is 7 days. So, a much faster cure time than Tung Oil, plus you only need one coat (where Tung Oil requires many coats). You do need to heed the companies’ cure times when it comes to safety for your pets, Dr. Mwaura emphasizes.
This is not as pure as Tung Oil since it’s got modified oils and waxes but it’s still non-toxic, Toy-Safe, food-contact safe, and pet-safe.
Tung Oil, another transparent option, is very safe and very durable once cured. You can follow the same instructions as above (in the Milk Paint + Tung Oil section) but this time it’s going straight onto the raw wood. Tung Oil does naturally darken the wood, though it does not have pigments. Tung Oil with citrus solvent is used on almost all wood unless your wood is very old and very dry.
- Rubio Monocoat Hybrid Wood Protector 20 mil sample under $15
- Rubio Monocoat Hybrid Wood Protector 100 mil small bottle under $30
- Half and Half (Tung Oil + Citrus Solvent) 16 oz under $35
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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