Wearing a mask when staining wood: VOCs and mask types

On the internet, many people are suggesting that you do not need to wear a mask when using a paint brush or roller when staining or painting wood. I am here to warn you, that is not true. I will explain why you need to wear a mask when staining or painting wood of any kind or method. I will provide science backed explanations and ways to limit your exposure.


Should you wear a mask when staining wood

You should always wear a mask when using any oil based stain or paint of any kind. Many people suggest that you only need to wear a mask when spray painting. However, that is not true. First off, you should not stain wood with a sprayer. Secondly, airborne paint particles should not be your only concern, because oil-based stain also emits VOCs.

What are VOCs?

VOCs are Volatile Organic Compounds that are proven to cause a wide array of health effects from cancers, to neurological, and respiratory issues in communities with higher VOC concentrations (Wu, Xiangmei (May) et al.) Additionally, VOCs are proven to cause sinus irritations, loss of coordination, nausea, and damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system (Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality, 2022)

How are VOCs emitted in oil-based stains?

VOCs are emitted from oil-based stains by off-gassing. Off-gassing is a method where gas that was stored in a material is released into the air. Off-gassing occurs in oil-based paint as soon as you open the can. VOCs are then created in its highest concentration, during the curing or drying process of oil-based stains, whenever most of the stain is evaporating.

Is wood stain toxic?

Wood stain is toxic and a mask should be worn regardless of the method that you apply the stain. Wood stain off-gasses VOCs which are known to harm the human neurological and respiratory system and correlate to an increase risk in certain cancers (Wu, Xiangmei (May) et al.)

“You should always wear a mask when using any oil based stain or paint of any kind.”

Is wood stain safe to use indoors?

You should only stain wood indoors with the proper use of ventilation.

The main way to lower the VOC exposure when working with wood stain is to be in a well ventilated environment. Being outside is ideal, but an open garage, or well ventilated room will suffice.

How to ventilate when staining wood

Being outside is the best form of ventilation when working with wood stains. However, you may not have that luxury if you are staining cabinets or other stationary or heavy items. In that case you want to..

  1. Open doors and windows
    • Open as many doors and windows as possible to allow for fresh air to circulate through the room and house
  2. Turn on fans
    • Use fans to get the air circulating so that it can move from inside of the house to outside
    • Place fans so that is it blowing air outside
  3. Place portable fans towards windows
    • Place fans so that is it blowing air outside and sucking the air from the inside of you house
    • This will help remove the harmful particles from inside of your home
  4. Replace filters (if needed)
  5. Turn on your AC
    • Set the HVAC system to “on” to help with the air flow in the house (Improving Ventilation in Your Home, 2022)

What kind of mask should I use when staining wood

Because wood stain releases VOCs, you should wear a particulate mask, also known as a gas mask. You should not wear a N95 respirator or surgical mask when staining wood because those types of masks only block large airborne particles. Since VOCs can easily slip through those type of masks, you will need a mask with a ventilation system and filter cartridges to provide yourself with adequate protection from VOCs.

One of the respirators that I have tried and recommend is this respirator by 3M

3M Half Facepiece Reusable Respirator 6200

I used this respirator to paint my baby grand piano in a tent. Particulate masks are definitely effective.

You may be able to find a higher quality one online as I can only recommend this one because this is the only one that I have used. The mask filters did need to be replaced after a few paint sessions, but since I was doing a such a big project in an enclosed space, I would still say that it is a good mask.

How long for wood stain fumes to go away

The general rule of thumb is to allow 8 hours for the oil based stain to dry and for most of the VOCs to escape. This is the period when the highest concentration of VOCs will be emitted from the wood.

However, it is still good to know that you will still have off-gassing for years. VOCs are present and at a high level they are dangerous. At a low level, but for extended periods of time, they are also shown to cause negative effects.

While the chemicals that oil-based stain off-gas and and the VOC level 20 years after the wood has dried may too low to cause any known effects, if you want to mitigate the risk significantly, then you should use water-based stain. Water based stain has a significantly less VOC emission and is less toxic to the human body

Wood stain off-gasses VOCs which are known to harm the human neurological and respiratory system and correlate to an increase risk in certain cancers

Wu, Xiangmei (May) et al.

How to mitigate VOC exposure when staining wood

The best way to mitigate your exposure to VOC when staining wood is to stain in a ventilated environment and wear a mask. Staining wood outside will significantly decrease your exposure to VOCs. However there are still other ways you can decrease your risk of VOC exposure which includes..

  1. Ventilation
    • As mentioned before, staining outside is ideal. However, it its not possible, follow the steps mentioned above on how to ventilate when staining wood
  2. Wearing a mask
    • Always wear a particulate mask, also known as a gas mask with a ventilation system
    • N95 and surgical masks will not protect you from VOCs
  3. Using water based stain
    • Use water based stain when possible because it emits a significantly less amount of VOCs in comparison to oil-based stain
  4. Using a water based top coat
    • If you have to use an oil-based stain, try to use a water based top coat to mitigate the VOCs that are emitted long term through oil-based stain
    • However, be sure to follow instructions on using a water-based topcoat over oil-based stain to ensure you do not ruin your project.


Thank you so much for reading this article. We learned how wood stain is toxic and how to protect yourself from the harmful effects. Additionally, we learned how to mitigate exposure as well as discuss alternative options that emit less VOCs.

I really hope this article was beneficial to you, and thank you for reading it!

Improving Ventilation in Your Home. (2022, June 29). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/improving-ventilation-home.html

Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality. (2022, June 30). US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality

Wu, Xiangmei (May) et al. “Exposures to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and associated health risks of socio-economically disadvantaged population in a “hot spot” in Camden, New Jersey.” Atmospheric environment 57 (2012): 72-79 .


My name is Rachel Blanding and I am a woodworker. I started woodworking at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I mainly create and refurbish furniture and create art. In this site I will share with you the knowledge I have gained over the years, and what worked for me and what didn't.

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