Adhesives come in all types, shapes, and sizes - ranging from relatively safe “library paste” and “glue sticks” to potentially more harmful rubber cement, epoxy resins, model glues, and other contact adhesives. Some adhesives are pasted directly onto surfaces while others are sprayed on using aerosol cans. Many adhesives contain toxic and flammable chemicals that can affect health.
Choosing safer alternative adhesives can be challenging. You still need a product that works well for your project.
Solvents in Spray Adhesives and Rubber Cements
Some of the most commonly used adhesives include rubber cements and spray adhesives (also known as spray mount and spray tack). Typically, the harmful chemicals in these products are the liquid solvents. These solvents allow the adhesives to remain liquid in the container and evaporate as the product hardens. Many of these solvents are flammable and toxic. Common adhesive solvents to avoid are hexane and toluene.
- Hexane is a toxic solvent that has health effects ranging from irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat to nerve damage, unconsciousness, and death.
- Toluene also irritates the skin, eyes, nose, and throat, has been linked to birth defects, affects the nervous system, and causes internal organ damage.
- Some products may contain both hexane and acetone, which may act together to increase the destruction of nerve cells, particularly in the fingers.
A Closer Look at Labels
Although the front labels of adhesive products may include some hazards, they don’t include the toxic hazards.
The back label has more complete information about potentially harmful effects and safe use. But trying to read the back label can be challenging, and important information can be overlooked. For example, spraying a flammable solvent near a gas pilot light or someone smoking can cause an explosion.
What to look for under “CAUTIONS”
- “Contains” followed by names of toxic/hazardous chemicals.
- “Harmful” followed by health effects and recommendations to protect yourself.
- “First Aid” with instructions for medical treatment in the event of overexposure.
- “Delayed Effects from Long Term Overexposure” with specific information such as, “contains solvents which can cause permanent brain and nervous system damage.”
Learn more about buying safer art supplies.
How to Protect Yourself
Avoid products that contain hazardous ingredients. If you must use them, avoid swallowing them, breathing them in, or touching them.
- Use in a well-ventilated area - preferably outside if possible.
- Use gloves compatible with the product. See UC Berkeley's Glove Selection Guide.
- A dust mask won’t protect from solvent vapors. Use less hazardous products or ventilate to remove vapors. A respirator is the last line of defense. See OSHA's Respirator Guidance for more information.
- Consider wearing coveralls with long sleeves and wash them regularly.
- Use soap, water, and a brush to remove adhesives from skin rather than solvents.
Empty aerosol cans can be disposed of as solid waste. Aerosol cans containing adhesive solvents must be disposed of as hazardous waste. Learn more about waste disposal for artists.