Is Drawing Charcoal Toxic or Harmful?

Safety Precautions for Working With Charcoal and Pencils

Art students drawing with charcoal
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Your art supplies are great tools for creating art, though it's important to understand how to use them safely. One common question that many people have is whether or not charcoal and pencils used for drawing are poisonous. 

Overall, you can rest assured that these drawing supplies are not toxic, though dust is an issue with charcoal. There are some safety precautions that you can take to ensure that you and your family are not harmed by your artistic endeavors.

Is Drawing Charcoal Toxic?

In general, drawing charcoal is not toxic. Charcoal is made from willow or vine (typically grape vine) and this natural stick is the purest form. Most compressed charcoals use natural gums as binders, so they are also generally safe.

If you want to be completely certain, choose a brand that is labeled 'non-toxic.' Also, you can look for labels that carry a certification such as the 'AP' seal of the Art and Creative Materials Institute, Inc.

Precautions You Should Take With Charcoal

When working with charcoal, you do need to be aware that it does create a lot of dust. Don't blow the dust off by mouth, as you can inhale the fine particles, which may cause lung irritation. 

  • A sharp tap of the drawing board will encourage particles to drop from the page.
  • They can also be flicked away using a very soft brush.
  • Use a wet cloth or mop to clean surfaces, never sweep it up.

People who are sensitive to particle irritation or who frequently use charcoal in large amounts would be well advised to use a dust respirator (dust mask).

It should go without saying that you do not want to hold charcoal in your mouth. This can be a bad habit if you're used to working with pencils and it's one that you should break anyway to avoid accidents. 

When you need to free up a hand, simply lay your charcoal stick down. While you probably won't feel any ill effects from absentmindedly holding charcoal in your mouth, it's messy and can be a pain to clean up.

What About Graphite, Carbon, and Other Pencils?

Graphite pencils are also generally deemed to be non-poisonous. It's important to remember that pencils do not contain lead, even those common No. 2 'lead' pencils, so there is no risk of lead poisoning from pencils. Instead, graphite is a soft form of carbon.

The caution with graphite and carbon pencils (or any art supply, for that matter) comes more from the accidental swallowing of the object. This happens more often with children and pets, so it's important that you keep your art supplies out of their reach. Even so, it's not common for poisoning to occur and the bigger issue is the choking hazard. 

If someone does swallow parts of a pencil, you can give poison control a call just to be sure. Paints and solvents are another story and there are some are more toxic than others. Call poison control if anyone ingests any of these.

It should be noted that carbon pencils and some charcoal-like products are actually made with waste carbon from burning oil. They may also have oily and possibly toxic solvents and binders added.

You can always ask art supply retailers for the MSDS (Materials Safety Data Sheet) for your specific product or look it up online.