Safety in the Studio: Decoding Hazard Symbols

The hazard symbols found on many artists’ materials have changed. Do you know the difference between ‘flammable’ and ‘oxidising’? Read on to find out what these symbols mean and why they matter to artists.

Safe, healthy studio practices can ensure that your health and the environment are not compromised, even when you work with potentially hazardous products. As an artist, mindfulness whilst handling these materials, including paints, is of the utmost importance, as is knowing how something may be harmful.
As part of our on-going series regarding #safetyinthestudio, we are helping you decode the meaning behind the many hazard symbols listed on artist material packaging. In the EU, Winsor & Newton materials are labelled according to legislation which classifies products according to their intrinsic properties.

You will recognise the old hazard symbols typically seen on artists’ materials below:

old hazard symbols

old hazard symbols

old hazard symbols





Flammable | Harmful | Dangerous to the Environment

Since 2009, these symbols have been phased out and a new set of international pictograms have taken their place. The pictograms will be always be accompanied by a signal word, either “Danger” or “Warning,” and hazard and precautionary statements. Where applicable, precautionary statements cover prevention and response to specific hazards, and storage and disposal of the product.

Small tubes of paint may only contain the pictogram and signal word. For all products with these symbols a safety data sheet is available. The pictograms you are now most likely to see on artist material packaging are the following:


flammable warning sign

Avoid contact with heat, sparks or any open flame, and do not smoke whilst using! As an example, you will see this on a can of Professional Fixative, which should be used in a well-ventilated space to lower the risk of ignition

Exclamation Mark

Exclamation Mark

This symbol is used for less serious health hazards like skin irritation. It indicates that a material can cause irritation to the skin or eyes, or sensitisation. It also includes acute toxic effect that might arise through ingestion, dermal contact or inhalation. This appears on the packaging of Professional Fixative, along with a statement about first aid treatment if irritation does occur.

Health Hazard

Health Hazard

This symbol relates to longer term health hazards such as respiratory sensitisers and could be on dusty materials such as charcoal. You will also find this symbol on the packaging of Oils, Mediums, Varnishes and Solvents, representing an aspiration hazard. When using such products, avoid inhalation and wear suitable protection such as a dust mask.

Environmental Hazard

Environmental Hazard Symbol

This symbol will appear on materials that contain solvents, such as turpentine, lead, and zinc oxide, the latter which is found in Artists’ Oil Colour Zinc White. Any packaging with this symbol on it needs to be disposed of responsibly and should not go in mixed municipal waste collection (such as household and garden waste). In some cases, your local Council may be able to collect the waste from you.

Alternatively, you may be able to deliver it to a household recycling or civic amenity site free of charge. Your local Council will be able to advise you on where to take all types of hazardous waste in your area.


Explosive Hazard Symbol

These substances may explode if exposed to fire, heat, shock or friction. Shock can mean being dropped or knocked, or a sudden change in temperature. Protective clothing should be worn when coming into contact with these substances.


Hazard Symbols, Oxidising

This symbol refers to something that may combust, or burst into flames, even without contact with the air. They can also intensify a fire which is already burning. Keep your distance from these materials, and if you do come into contact with them, wear protective clothing.


Hazard Symbol, Corrosive

Corrosive substances can burn and corrode skin and cause permanent eye damage. Do not breathe these vapours or sprays, and wear breathing equipment and protective clothing whilst working with or around them. They are also known to corrode metals.


Toxic Hazard Symbol

Do not swallow, breathe in or allow these substances to come into contact with skin. They may cause life threatening effects even if you are only exposed for a short amount of time.

Gas under pressure

Gas under pressure - Hazard Symbol

Avoid any contact with your skin or eyes. The container may explode if heated, so be sure not to do so. Protect from sunlight and store in a well-ventilated place. . When released, the gas may be extremely cold. Handle with caution.

Other Warnings

Not all warnings are accompanied by a hazard symbol and may be communicated by text only. Text-only warnings are generally considered less severe hazards; it remains extremely important to read and follow appropriate safe handling measures.

  • Contains <name of sensitising substance>. May produce an allergic reaction.

The chemical elicitation warning above provides additional protection for persons who have known chemical allergies. Warning them that a product contains certain chemical at low levels; levels below a concentration known to have an effect on an unsensitised person i.e. someone without an allergy.

  • Warning! Hazardous respirable droplets may be formed when sprayed. Do not breathe spray or mist.
  • Warning! Hazardous respirable dust may be formed when used. Do not breathe dust.

The warnings above will be found on products that could cause harm if inhaled in large quantities in relation to use and application of the product. When spraying users are advised to use appropriate personal equipment to avoid directly breathing in droplets or dust.


For more on #safetyinthe studio read our Oil Painter’s Guide to Protecting Yourself and the Environment, or learn 14 safety tips tailored toward artists courtesy of our friends at Liquitex.