Engaging in arts or crafts can be so relaxing, so inspiring, so... dangerous? The truth is that many creative pursuits bring us into contact with substances and materials that could be harmful to our health. Even materials that are non-toxic can become dangerous.

Painting, photography, knitting, sewing, quilting, tatting, whittling, decoupage, collage, papier-mâché, leatherwork, woodwork, beading, intaglio printmaking... the list could go on and on! And with so many types of artistic and crafty endeavours, the hazards obviously vary from medium to medium. But the risks can be sorted into three main categories: inhalation, contact with the skin, and ingestion of harmful materials.

Inhalation risks

Dust and fumes from art materials can pose inhalation risks.

Dust kicks up when working with chalk, pastels, plaster, wood, dry or powdered clay, and paint pigments.

Fumes can come from materials that contain toxic metals (stained glass materials, ceramic glazes, some oil paints) and from chemical solvents (paintbrush cleaners, aerosol sprays or spray paints, rubber cement, permanent markers, shellac, paint strippers, dyes, and some materials used for photo processing).

How to reduce inhalation risks:

  • Proper ventilation is a must, especially considering that many of us do our crafting in small spaces – out in the shed or garage, up in the studio, or tucked into any available corner of our homes. Open windows or use a fan to point fumes and dust away from you or your workspace. In some situations, it might be safer to work outdoors.
  • Wear a protective mask or respirator while using materials that create dust or fumes.
  • Choose dustless chalk, oil-based pastels, and water-based paints, markers, and adhesives.
  • If mixing plaster, do so either outdoors or in a well-ventilated area.

Risks to your skin

Certain types of arts and crafts tools and materials can damage the skin by causing cuts, irritations, allergic reactions, and burns.

Materials that pose a risk to your skin include any tools used for cutting, gouging, or slicing (scissors, engraving tools, whittling knives); chemicals used in many types of art (solvents, acids used in etching, solutions used in photo processing); heated implements (ceramic kilns, hot glue guns); flammable materials.

How to reduce risks to your skin:

  • Set aside special arts-and-crafts clothes - smocks, coveralls, handkerchiefs to cover your head, painter's caps. Keep these clothes separate from your normal clothes - even when you wash them.
  • Wear appropriate protective gear whenever possible. This could mean gloves when handling corrosive or hazardous material - or a simple thimble when quilting or hand-sewing.
  • Never apply any art product to your skin, unless it is indicated for safe cosmetic use.
  • When using cutting or gouging tools, always direct tools away from your body.
  • Safely cover any wounds, rashes, or burns while working on arts and crafts, as chemicals can be absorbed into the skin through open skin.

Ingestion risks

While children are at higher risk of ingesting harmful materials, accidental ingestion can happen to artists or craftspeople at any age.

Ingestion of any number of toxic and non-toxic substances can lead to poisoning or illness, including pigments used in painting, drawing, or dyeing, and turpentine or other solvents.

How to reduce ingestion risks:

  • Do not eat, drink, smoke, or apply makeup in your arts and crafts workspace.
  • Do not touch your mouth with brushes or other art tools, and avoid touching your hands to your mouth or biting your nails while you work.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after working with art materials. Keep your nails short to prevent trapping chemicals or harmful materials under your nails.
  • Use soap and water or baby oil or a skin cleanser. Wash under fingernails and keep nails trim; do not bite.

Other artsy, craftsy risks:

  • Risks to your eyes: Wear protective glasses when possible. Contact lens wearers should be cautioned that lenses can trap dust or other airborne materials and irritate the eyes.
  • Risks to your hearing: Wear earplugs or earmuffs when working with loud machinery or tools that could damage hearing.
  • Risks from textiles: Yarn, fabrics, and animal hair or fur can harbour mould, dust, and other potentially harmful materials, and can pose a fire hazard if not safely stored. Examine textiles closely before purchasing or using and store in a dry, well-ventilated place.

General rules for handling arts and crafts materials:

  • Read labels carefully and follow instructions to a "T". Do not use materials for unintended purposes. Both Canadian and US governments have laws and regulations for mandatory labelling of hazardous material including arts and crafts supplies.
  • Use the smallest amounts of materials possible to prevent overexposure to potential toxins or hazards.
  • Choose safer materials whenever possible. Keep materials out of the reach of children and pets.
  • Do not allow your pets or young children to be unsupervised in your workspace.
  • Sign up for instructional classes to learn all you can about using art materials and tools.
  • Do not wear loose, draping clothing or jewellery while working.
  • Keep materials in original containers whenever possible so that you also maintain full instructions and safety warnings.
  • Know and post first aid instructions for injuries or exposure, as well as the phone number for poison control.
  • Keep your workspace neat and tidy to prevent spills, slips, and falls. Clear out dust and maintain good ventilation.
  • Be sure your workspace has a smoke detector, a fire extinguisher, and a source of running water.
  • Enquire with your local waste facility to find out the safest way to dispose of hazardous materials.
  • Young children, pregnant women, and those with medical conditions may need to be especially cautious when using or being exposed to arts and crafts materials.

Amy Toffelmire