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Safer Ways to Strip Paint

Two nasty chemicals are gradually leaving store shelves. Here, a look at less hazardous ways to get rid of old paint

Photo by Colleen McQuaid

Problem ingredients: Methylene chloride, a volatile solvent found in fast-acting paint strippers, is a known neurotoxin and possible carcinogen that has caused many fatalities over the years. Also called dichloromethane (DCM), it was removed from The Home Depot and Lowe’s stores in 2018, and then banned nationwide by the EPA in March 2019. Sales of strippers containing this ingredient are prohibited beginning in mid-September 2019. Lowe’s and The Home Depot have also voluntarily purged paint strippers with NMP (n-methyl-2-pyrrolidone), a less volatile, slow-acting solvent, because it’s been shown to adversely affect fetal development. So, if you’re planning a paint-stripping project, consider one of these safer options instead.

Option A: SAFER CHEMICALS Look for strippers with sodium hydroxide, dimethyl glutarate, dimethyl adipate, or benzyl alcohol, which are more benign than methylene chloride or NMP and have few or no VOCs. None of them work quickly, however; they can take anywhere from 1 to 24 hours to soften paint, and may call for reapplication—and more waiting—to penetrate thicker layers.

Option B: HEAT STRIPPING To strip paint as fast as (or faster than) methylene chloride, use a heat gun, infrared heater, or steamer. Infrared devices are particularly effective; they don’t vaporize lead, as high-powered heat guns can—and you won’t need to sand the wood grain that steam raises. But they can char or ignite wood if left in one place too long, and won’t work on masonry or thick metal, which require chemicals or abrasive blasting.

Shown: Smart Strip PRO ($92 per gallon; Amazon), which contains low-VOC benzyl alcohol, took about 90 minutes to soften this coat of paint.