Protect the Skin You’re In
Updated: Feb 25
Well, it’s not grammatically correct, but it is a poignant reminder that it is the only skin we have and we better care for it wisely.
Skin is the largest organ of the human body. On average, humans have about 20 square feet of skin. Most of us like to think of our skin as a means of containing our inner organs and as a means of releasing materials from our bodies. Natural oils, perspiration, embedded dirt and dead skin are what most think of when considering what skin expels. Skin is a two-way street. It also absorbs friendly and foreign material. Since this is not meant to be an anatomy and physiology lesson, but one that focus on a particular substance, let’s get to the heart of the matter.
One of the great things that skin does is to regulate our temperature. A vast array of blood vessels are found in the papillary dermis layer of the skin to provide nutrients to cells and to aid in temperature regulation.
The purpose of this Syntax of Color is to examine how turpentine, a popular solvent used by artists, if not carefully managed, can cause bodily harm.
It has been documented that turpentine can be absorbed by the skin and enter the bloodstream. Artists use turpentine to dilute oil paint and clean brushes. It stands to reason that the mechanism in turpentine that causes oil to breakdown will also dissolve the natural oils in our skin. With this weak barrier against harsh solvents gone, turpentine easily passes through the capillary-rich dermal layer and on into the bloodstream.
This Syntax of Color is focused on skin infiltration by turpentine, but turpentine can enter the body through respiration as well. The “safe” or permissible amount in air and exposure limits is complex and a topic for another edition.
A host of skin problems can be encountered by short and long-term exposure to turpentine. Casual, short-term contact can result in irritation and redness. Prolonged exposure may cause dermatitis. Dermatitis is an inflammation of the skin that is red, swollen, and itches.
Long-term exposure may result in sensitization. After the body has been exposed to turpentine for a prolonged time period, mechanisms are established that trigger a reaction with very little exposure. Nearly all artists know stories about someone who has painted for a long time who complains that just a brief whiff of turpentine will cause them to have dermatitis. That’s the essence of sensitization. At that point, a sensitized artist needs to retool and eliminate the use of turpentine entirely. Many artists have switched media to avoid all potential exposure to solvents. How many watercolorists were once avid oil painters who previously used turpentine with reckless abandon?
Artists who wish to use turpentine may turn to ways of protecting exposed skin from coming in contact with the solvent. Gloves are a simple solution. Many people will march straight to a local hardware store and pick up a package of generic latex gloves and feel assured that they are protected from the harmful effects of turpentine contact with skin. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The industrial hygiene industry produces a seemingly endless assortment of gloves. Each has protective qualities for a targeted number of solvents, and for a limited amount of time.
A typical latex glove is rated very poorly with regards to turpentine exposure. It has only about 5 minutes worth of protection and overall it is unsuitable for use with turpentine. The glove that is highly rated for use with turpentine is Nitrile. Those who have a latex allergy commonly substitute this glove for natural latex. However, a number of manufacturer’s test warn that Nitrile only has about 30 minutes of protection against turpentine.
For most artists, it would be foolish and expensive to suggest that they change gloves every thirty minutes during a painting session. However, it would be prudent to recommend that artists change studio habits so that gloves are used when the greatest risk of exposure to turpentine is encountered, usually during cleanup time.
When using turpentine to dilute paint, use a covered container so that the surface of the liquid is only exposed to the air when a brush needs to be dipped into the solvent. Open coffee cans filled with turpentine will be the subject of a future Syntax of Color essay. The practice of using an open can of turpentine with a large exposed surface results in a high vapor concentration in a studio space. This is a recipe for a health disaster as well as a fire hazard. If this describes your studio, the use of gloves is a bit senseless since inhalation provides a incredible means of transporting the harmful components of turpentine into the body.
So, review your studio practices and eliminate open cans of solvent. Select the proper glove for the solvent you are using. Nitrile appears to provide limited time protection (about 30 minutes) against turpentine, as well as mineral spirits and VM&P Naptha. Do not retain gloves over a long period of time. If they have been exposed to solvents during an afternoon of painting, discard them at the end of the painting session. Since Nitrile is rated for about 30 minutes of fairly heavy solvent exposure, you must change them within that time limit if you want the protection this glove provides. Multiple reuse of gloves will fail to provide protection as the barrier created by the glove will be compromised as the glove is exposed to the harmful effects of the solvent. Further, if you happen to be working with solvents and a glove tears, remove it and wash your hands. Remember that a gloved hand gets hot and the pores are open and susceptible to infiltration. Keeping a compromised glove on your hand just traps solvent in the glove and allows it to pass easily into your bloodstream.
Search the internet for sources of boxed gloves. Keep them wrapped until you are ready to use them and store them in a cool dark place. Do not expose them to air and sunlight so that they have an opportunity to breakdown.
Remember that latex gloves are fine for keeping hand free of dirt and grime but are not suitable for use with solvents. Barrier creams are fine for light protection of the skin and will help to loosen dirt when washing hands, but do not provide any protection against solvents.
Be vigilant in protecting your skin. It is a pathway to introducing unwanted materials. Safe practices now will help you have a long, productive and healthy painting career.
The Syntax of Color
Original Grammar of Color Essay
Vol: 1 No. 4 (Published 03-16-05)