6 Common Wood Stain Fumes Side Effects and Remedies

Sometimes you are so eager to stain the floors of your house before thanksgiving or the arrival of a baby, only to realize that the formula produces a long-lingering and overpowering smell. It’s even worse to read the stain label  and realize that the formula is toxic. So, you wonder what could be some of the wood stain fumes side effects, or how you’d remedy the situation.

In the above scenario, the best thing to do is to ensure proper ventilation. The formula has harmful compounds like hydrocarbons, alcohol, alkanes, cycloalkanes, glycol ether, and sodium hydroxide. And your family may end up with severe side effects that you did not expect.

Fortunately, you do not need to stop using stains. Please read through this article as I discuss how wood stains affect your health, what to do when you experience these effects and a lot more.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that stain fumes have an irritating harsh, and pungent smell. This attribute makes them quite uncomfortable for a woodworker without mouth, eye, and face protection.

Unfortunately, the above is not the only health effect of stain fumes. Along with degrading interior air quality, they potentially lead to nausea, breathing issues, headaches, irritations of the throat and eyes, breathing issues.

Worse still, prolonged exposure can lead to wood stain poisoning. This effect is a more serious exposure level that may result in blurred vision, burning sensation, and collapsing. And you’d need immediate medical attention before the worst happens, death!

Some of the most affected body parts include:

1. Ears, Eyes, Nose, and Throat

Image of newly stained deckYou need your eyes to see the area you are staining. Hence, it would be impractical to do the work with closed eyes. The move even sounds quite comic! It is only reasonable to keep your eyes wide open, and thus the fumes get into the body system through them.

Similarly, you need your hands to apply the stain, and you cannot cover your ears from the fumes. Therefore, they become a gate for the toxic fumes in your body. In addition, we are all inhaling and exhaling all the time as that’s how we keep alive. Thus, you cannot avoid breathing in and out during the staining job.

These fumes will affect the mentioned body parts and will lead to severe pain. You will even experience vision loss or burning in the lips, tongue, or other parts where the fumes land in the body.

2. Stomach and Intestines

You can expect your digestive system to suffer from toxic fumes after inhaling them, especially when using the mouth. Some of the problems include burns in the food pipe or esophagus.

Also, you may notice diarrhea to show that there are foreign and unhealthy compounds in the stomach. Even worse, there may be blood in your stool because of burns in the stomach or gut.

Additionally, the stomach discomfort from the fumes may cause you to vomit. You may also observe blood in the vomit as the fumes burn the gut and stomach wall. Also, the discomfort may manifest as severe abdominal cramps or pain.

3. Heart and Blood

The fumes will automatically be absorbed into the bloodstream once they get to the lungs or stomach. Hence, you’ll experience rapid low blood pressure or shock, resulting in an unexpected collapse.

4. Lungs and Airways

Strong stain fumes may cause throat swelling, which blocks the airways. Thus, you’ll have difficulty breathing. In addition, breathing in strong fumes generally leads to breathing difficulties.

5. Nervous System

Unfortunately, the stain fumes effects do not end with the respiratory and digestive systems. They will inevitably get into the brain during blood circulation. Therefore, you may feel dizzy or lightheaded.

You can experience difficulty concentrating even for short durations. Also, the fumes may alter the nervous system and lead to brain damage. Some symptoms of this occurrence include memory loss and confusion.

6. Skin

The skin is probably the first part of the body that comes into contact with the fumes as you work. It looks sealed, but toxic fumes can cause severe injury, such as burns and holes in the tissues underneath. Also, you may experience a burning sensation or general irritation.

You may have noted that the above effects are likely to affect the one engaging in the staining project. Even more, it may not click how the fumes may affect a third party who does not come into contact with the stain can. So, let’s decipher other stain fumes effects.

  • Stain Fumes Can Lead to Allergic Reactions

You may not interact one-on-one with the toxic formula in the can. But you may find yourself in a freshly stained environment. Unfortunately, stain fumes persist for a long, long duration, and you’ll end up inhaling the fumes.

These fumes can certainly trigger conditions like asthma. Therefore, genetically predisposed persons are at a high risk of manifesting the disease. In addition, studies show that higher VOC levels in children’s bedrooms increase the risk of multiple respiratory disorders.

Specific types of VOC, such as propylene glycol and glycol ethers, result in a higher likelihood of eczema, asthma, and rhinitis. Hence, the more people inhale the toxic fumes, the more vulnerable they are to these conditions.

  • Pregnancy Risks

image of water based wood stain. What are the Wood Stain Fumes Side Effects?Generally, the risk associated with indoor stains or household products is quite low. However, the risk of harm is higher if you have stains with solvents instead of water. So, these solvents emit toxic fumes that harm both a mother and her unborn child.

More specifically, exposure to toxic stain fumes during the first trimester might increase the risk of congenital abnormalities. However, researchers are yet to confirm these findings further. But as they say, prevention is way better than cure.

In addition, researchers also suggest that exposure to fumes from oil-based stains before conception is also hazardous. How? Well, they increase macrosomia incidences and birth weight.

Therefore, it would be best to avoid painting while pregnant or looking to conceive soon. You may not see instant adverse effects, and it is good to stay safe. However, sometimes staining may be inevitable.

Please consider using water-based stains and ensure that you are in a well-ventilated work area in such a case. In addition, it would be prudent to avoid using stain formulas during the first trimester.

  • Wood Stains Poisoning

This scenario comes about when you ingest or swallow wood stains. Also, you can get wood stain poisoning if you inhale solvents in the formula or chemical vapors or if you spray your eye.

The intake may be accidental, where one gets into contact with the stain without thought. Conversely, some cases are deliberate, especially if one intends to inflict self-harm.

Wood stains generally have solvents, pigments, and binders. These compounds, in turn, consist of petroleum distillates, alcohol bases, polyurethanes, varnish agents, sodium hydroxide, and hydrocarbons like alkanes.

Allow me to add that these ingredients are essential in helping the stains perform their role. They aid in adherence, longevity, and delivering a perfect finish. However, some of them are hazardous to humans.

Besides, these compounds interact with other prescribed or non-prescribed medications in your body. Therefore, they can enhance the side effects of other medications, resulting in worse conditions.

Wood stains poisoning has obvious signs and symptoms. But they differ from one individual to another and depend on factors such as existing medical conditions. So, the effects may be severe in some and mild in others.

This poisoning affects various internal body systems such as the nervous, respiratory, digestive, and vascular systems. Also, it affects other parts such as the skin, nose, ears, eyes, tongue, and throat.

Specific signs and symptoms include:

  • Respiratory difficulties, which become severe if you inhale the chemical for a long duration.
  • Bloody vomit or stool.
  • Vision abnormality, including loss of vision.
  • Burning and associated paint in the food pipe, throat, and mouth.
  • Throat inflammation, resulting in swallowing and breathing difficulties.
  • Severe skin burns that even cause skin tissue perforation.
  • Feeling dizzy.
  • Collapsing.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Sudden reduction in blood pressure or hypotension.
  • Severe stomach and abdominal pain and cramping.
  • Brain injury.

As we can see, wood stain poisoning is quite dangerous. Hence, it would be best to avoid it at all costs. You can begin the safety journey by always adhering to the usage instructions associated with any household products.

Also, please correctly label all poisons in the house and keep them in suitable storage locations. As they say, keep hazardous chemicals and other materials out of children’s reach. This way, you avoid unnecessary accidents.

It would help to always wear protective gear when working with potentially poisonous stains. In addition, be aware of basic first aid steps as accidents happen. Such knowledge helps you to handle emergencies before help arrives. 

Some quick first aid tips are as follows.

  • Skin Exposure. Wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and water
  • Eyes Exposure. Rinse your eyes with running water from a tap for 15 to 20 minutes. Then, rest them by closing them for approximately 15 minutes. Also, please seek medical attention if you notice more pain or problems with your vision. 
  • Swallowing. Drink some water or milk as you watch out for symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea. However, do not give a drink if the victim has symptoms that make it hard to swallow.
  • Lightheadedness or Dizziness. Seek fresh air immediately and call poison control.
  • Please avoid making the person throw up unless under the instruction of a healthcare provider or poison control.

NB: Ensure that you record the victim’s weight, age, and condition, name of the product and ingredients, the time they swallowed the stain, and the amount as you call emergency. This way, the health providers know how to begin their treatment.

Since prevention always supersedes cure, it is wise to minimize your exposure to toxic stain fumes. So, here are some best practices to adopt and reduce your risk.

  • Read product labels before you select a product, especially for indoor stains. Also, ensure that they generate fewer VOCs or harmful fumes. More specifically, you can go for water-based formulas.
  • Go through the safety information on the stain carefully. Pick out any first aid information, required protective measures such as goggles or gloves, and warnings. You can even purchase a respirator to reduce the risk of inhaling the fumes.
  • Make it a policy to paint in well-ventilated areas. You can even wait for the weather to dry and open some windows. Also, please get a box fan in the window to direct airflow outside the room.
  • Consider taking frequent breaks, where you go outside to get some fresh air.
  • Keep the windows as open as you can for about two to three days after staining the room. This way, you allow paint fumes to exit the space. Also, please avoid entering or staying in the freshly stained room during this period.
  • Close any leftover paint cans tightly to keep toxic vapors from leaking into the surrounding area. You can choose to dispose of the leftover formula. But be sure to do it properly and safely.

That said, please note that various stains feature different toxicity levels. Of course, oil-based formulas have more harmful solvents. It would be best not to ignore the few toxins in water-based products.

Check out these two product types in detail.

  • Oil-Based Wood Stain Toxicity

Liquid wood stain uses harmful solvents to remain in liquid form and to remain together. Moreover, you’ll see warnings such as mutagenic, flammable, carcinogenic, and skin irritant on the product label.

These attributes sound scary, but you face minimal risks in a well-ventilated working area. Also, the only concern would be breathing in the harmful vapors if you are not tossing the formula in your eye or drinking it.

Ventilation is a key issue in oil-based stains as it reduces the vapor’s concentration in the air. Therefore, the formula is safer to use even for long working sessions. In addition, the stain is only dangerous during the application and drying process. So, you will no longer worry about fumes once the finish cures.

It is also worth noting that the wood stain is very flammable when in liquid form. Hence, please keep it away from ignition sources. Ensure that you also wipe off the excess stain immediately. In addition, lay the rug flat to dry as it has a chance of spontaneously combusting.

  • Water-Based Wood Stain Toxicity

Fortunately, water-based wood stains are less toxic than oil-based formulas. The Safety Data Sheet of major stain brands shows that, unlike traditional products, water based-stains do not have hazardous substances.

Even so, it would be so risky to drink the formula as the stains have ingredients that are not suitable for your digestive system. In addition, you will still suffer some discomfort after ingestion. But it will not be as serious as if you took an oil-based stain.

Water-based stains are an excellent alternative if you want to reduce your risk exposure during application. Also, the formula is not toxic after it cures. Therefore, you can comfortably use it for indoor staining projects.

The downside of these stains is that they are more pricey than oil-based ones. You’ll also need more layers to deliver rich color and an expert finish. But it would be best to consider it for your safety.

Also, despite water-based products being a safe formula for household projects, it would be best to interrogate FDA regulations on the same. In addition, manufacturers should regularly test their products to confirm user safety.

Please note that you may not get an entirely food-safe product. But you can explore other food-safe wood stain options for your kitchen project. Check out the following alternatives for your work.

1. Using Coffee as Wood Stain

Surprisingly, instantly brewed coffee at three to four times normal strength delivers a perfect wood stain. It may not be as dark as the stains in the market. But it darkens the lumber and gives it a lovely look.

In addition, your wood may end up looking completely different. Therefore, it would be best to test out the coffee stain on scrap wood before applying it to the whole surface. This way, you’ll avoid unpleasant surprises.

2. Using Red Wine to Stain Wood

Red wine is a perfect choice if you want a non-traditional color. Fortunately, it is easy to apply as all you need to do is dip a rag in the wine and rub the wood. Also, you will deliver a deep color with three coats.

3. Tea as Wood Stain

Tea is another common option for improvising food-safe wood stains. However, please beware as it is a bit lighter than coffee. Therefore, it may be difficult to get a dark color for your project.

Even so, you can darken the wood slightly by brewing a strong cup of black tea. Then, soak a cloth into the solution and apply it to the wood. Also, please follow the direction of the grain to get a more sophisticated result.

Frequently Asked Questions

Some of the most asked questions on the subject include:

  • What Ingredients Do Oil-Based Wood Stains Have?

Oil-based wood stains have compounds such as alcohol formaldehyde, glycol ether, petroleum, and sodium hydroxide. These components are all harmful to the human body as they are corrosive, toxic, and carcinogenic.

Worse still, these ingredients become volatile organic compounds as they evaporate. They also linger in the atmosphere for days or even months. Therefore, they may affect everyone within that environment regardless of whether they participated in the staining project or not.

  • Are There any Effects of Off-Gassing?

Yes, off-gassing has effects, especially when you place furniture with toxic stains in a small, poorly ventilated environment. In addition, off-gassing can last a long duration even after the shine from the stain fades.

The off-gassing rate can increase or decrease depending on the temperature and humidity levels. For example, hot and humid spaces increase the rate and cause more hazardous effects.

Some stains give off an overwhelming pungent smell that can lead to nausea and dizziness. In addition, the effects do not have to be overt as you may experience headaches, skin and eye irritations, or allergic reactions.

Long-term exposure is what should cause alarm. It can cause kidney and liver damage. And even worse, it destroys the central nervous system. But either way, it would be best to keep away from both long-term and short-term exposure.

  • Can Staining Wood Cause Cancer?

Fumes from toxic wood stains have carcinogens that increase a person’s risk of one or more cancer types. Fortunately, you are safe as long as you adhere to all the necessary precautions and safety measures.

For instance, please consider water-based stains for your indoor projects. The products have low odor and fewer VOCs. Therefore, you will not expose yourself to harm. Also, ensure that you work in a well-ventilated area if you have an oil-based formula.

  • How Do I Get Rid of the Wood Stain Odor?

You can get rid of wood stain odor by ventilating the work area properly. Also, wait for the finish to dry well before getting or staying in the room. In addition, please research both the exposure risk and off-gassing danger of the product you are using.

It would be best to remove the stain and start the project over. The process is expensive and time-consuming, but it will eliminate the product’s wood stain odor and dangerous off-gassing.

Finally, apply an encapsulating sealer. However, please wait for the stained wood to dry for at least a month before using the sealer. Otherwise, the new product may rehydrate the lumber and worsen the situation.


Wood stains have dissolved chemicals that make them emit strong and toxic fumes. They emit gasses even at normal room temperatures and result in eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, kidney and liver damage, vomiting, and dizziness. Even worse, ingesting toxic stains can lead to a severe nervous breakdown and collapsing. Therefore it would be best to beware of:

Wood Stain Fumes Side Effects.

The best way to get rid of these fumes is to avoid stinky stains. You can also invest in eco-friendly, odor-free, and low VOC formulas. Therefore, you will not pose a threat to your health.

Realistically speaking, it is impossible to avoid oil-based stains, especially for outdoor projects. Also, these applications need the formula attributes to weather the storm and offer longevity. Thus, please always work in a well-ventilated area and wear protective gear.

Image of a woodworker wearing hearing protectors for woodworking

Tyron Otieno

Tyron is an avid woodworker and writer. He founded this website to help other woodworkers, whether hobbyists or professionals by sharing his knowledge and experiencie after a decade of woodworking.

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