Please note that I am NOT affiliated with any of the products mentioned or linked in this post.
Do a search for alcohol ink on the web and you’ll find DIY projects on Pinterest, videos tutorials, photos of work in progress, and much more. What you won't find much of, is information about how to use alcohol inks safely. And that is the reason I’m writing this post.
Is Alcohol ink hazardous?
The reality is that alcohol ink, and isopropyl alcohol (which most people use with their inks) are hazardous materials and there are precautions you should be taking when you use them. Not only are they both highly flammable, but isopropyl fumes can be inhaled into your lungs, or the alcohol can be absorbed by your skin.
One of the reasons alcohol inks are so unique is because as the alcohol (often Ethyl) dries, it evaporates and you're left behind with very vivid color pigments that can be blended, layered and re-activated. In addition to the ink, artists use isopropyl alcohol (click here for a copy of the Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet for isopropyl)and/or a blending solution to achieve various effects and reactivate the ink. If you have a look at the Tim Holz MDS sheet (material data safety sheet) linked here, you’ll see that on the first page under “Hazard Identification” it says “Do not breathe”. In other words, it's not a good idea to inhale the alcohol vapors while you are working. Additionally, the alcohol can be absorbed through your skin (not to mention the pigments will stain your skin and can be difficult to remove).
The first time I used alcohol ink, I knew nothing about the hazards. Most of the projects I found didn't say anything about safety and not much has changed since then. It wasn't until I decided to take it up as a hobby and bought the book “Creative Alcohol Inks'' by Ashley Mahlberg that I learned how important PPE is. By the way - if you’re new to alcohol ink or are thinking about giving it a try, I highly recommend her book!
What precautions should you take while working with alcohol inks?
At the very minimum work in a well ventilated space. Keep in mind without an air quality monitor there’s no way to really know what your exposure level is. I have a studio with a built in exhaust fan that blows air outside, and even with it running on high if I take my mask off I can smell the fumes. And if I can smell the fumes, you can bet that means I’m breathing them in.
Wear a respirator with a VOC Cartridge. Either a full face mask, a half mask or a half mask with safety glasses. Making sure you have a properly fitting mask and the correct cartridges is just as important as wearing the mask itself. Yes - this does mean that you won't be able to manipulate the inks using a straw or your breath (which isn’t really recommended anyway because its very easy to inhale the alcohol that way), but there are plenty of other ways to move the ink. Bulb blowers, blow dryers, compressed air, airbrushes, the worlds smallest leaf blower (yes I’m serious lol) heat tools and more. To prolong the life of the VOC cartridges I keep my mask in an airtight bag when I'm not using it. This is the type of cartridge you will need: 3M Organic Vapour/Acid Gas Replacement Respirator Cartridge
Last but not least - wear nitrile gloves. Why nitrile? Because they are latex free and provide the best protection from chemicals.
Go forth and make beautiful art - safely.
I think as artists, we’re doing people a disservice if we aren't making them aware of the recommended safety precautions. That includes posting photos and videos of work in progress without PPE just because it looks nicer. So right now I’m committing to wearing PPE in every photo or video I make (the ones you can see me in at least).
I didn’t write this post to DISCOURAGE anyone from trying alcohol inks. I’m not a doctor or an expert toxicologist. What I do know is that alcohol inks are hazardous, and without an air quality monitor, we really have no idea how much we are being exposed or what the long term effects could be. For that reason, I choose to use protection rather than completely give up something I love doing. Ultimately, we are all responsible for our own safety, and everyone has different levels of risk aversion, but at least by sharing this information, people can make an informed decision.