House & Home

10 Tips for Safer Paint Stripping

Posted April 23, 2015

For a successful repainting project, it's important to start with the removal of old paint that has peeled, chipped, or bubbled. However, in the past, products designed to strip paint have tended to contain a potent chemical cocktail that was dangerous to both human beings and the environment. Fortunately, there are alternative methods available these days. Some are based on modern technology and others on good old fashioned elbow grease.

General Tips

  1. Be patient. Expect that paint removal with the help of elbow grease and/or non-toxic products is likely to involve increased physical effort and take longer to work. The good news, according to professional painting contractors, is that although safer paint strippers work more slowly, they do remove more paint in a single application.
  2. Wear safety gear. Protect your eyes, nose, and hands from flying paint dust or chips by donning goggles, a breathing mask, and heavy work gloves.
  3. Protect the surrounding area when working outdoors. Paint removers that are safer for human beings may still be harmful to your flowers and shrubs.

Elbow Grease Methods

  1. Scrub small spots with a Magic Eraser. A lightly dampened Magic Eraser is excellent for easily removing small drips and spills caused by latex paint. Just be sure to test it first on an inconspicuous area, as it can dull surface finishes. Magic Erasers and similar sponge-type products are made of open-cell melamine foam. While they feel soft to the touch, they actually work to clean up via their abrasive action. (And that rumor about Magic Erasers containing formaldehyde? Snopes debunked it years ago. As with sandpaper, just don't try to use them on your skin.)
  2. Use a paint scraper. Pressure wash your surface first, followed by scraping large areas of peeling paint with a putty knife. Bring out the paint scraper once you are no longer getting successful results with the putty knife. Draw the paint scraper down gently in a vertical motion. Complete the task by sanding with fine sandpaper.
  3. Sand. Strip paint by starting with coarse sandpaper (24-grit) and gradually progressing to extra fine 100- or 120-grit, as needed. Use an electric sander for large expanses. Hand sand or use a steel wool scouring pad for smaller areas and hard-to-reach carved or embossed wood surfaces. Clean after sanding to remove dust.

Commercial Paint Removers and Strippers

  1. Look for products free of potentially harmful chemicals. Avoid methylene chloride, formic acid, carbonic acid, xylene, and toluene.
  2. Read labels carefully. Make sure that the paint remover which you are considering is suitable for your intended use.
  3. Try a soy- or citrus-based gel product. These paint removers are biodegradable but they still pack a powerful punch. (They smell better than the toxic varieties, as well.) The products can be rolled, brushed or sprayed on and after they've performed their task, scraped or pressure washed off.
  4. Loosen paint with infrared heat. Loosening with an infrared heat device, followed by scraping, can be used to remove paint, glue, or varnish. The substance must be heat-sensitive (unlike, for example, milk-based paint, epoxy, or shellac) for treatment to be effective. In some cases, application of organic linseed oil the preceding day will prepare the paint adequately. The appliance is expensive to purchase but also available for rental. (Some DIYers claim that a blow dryer can be substituted to give a similar, but cheaper method of paint stripping.) The surface will be ready for repainting immediately.

Laura Firszt writes for

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