The Dangers of Using Chemical Stripping Agents To Remove Paint From Bathtubs, Why We Never Use Them

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As someone who has been around the kitchen and bath restoration industry for quite some time now, I’ve seen quite a few things throughout my career. While customer satisfaction is always priority number one in this industry, there are other considerations that always need to be viewed carefully and thoroughly. At Deitz Surface Detailing we handle projects ranging from kitchen restorations all the way to bath restorations.

Over the years, I’ve become very familiar with not only best practices in this industry but also learned the ins and outs of safety hazards and potential issues that could surface at any time. One of the big problems that seem not to be addressed nearly as often as it should be involves the use of chemical stripping agents being used when refinishing bathtubs.  Before diving too deep into the topic at hand, I can assure you this is something that’s not only hazardous but should be avoided for many different reasons.

That’s what this article will entail in depth and break down for you. We are going to take the time to cover the dangers and issues using these chemical stripping agents pose to not only the homeowner but the workers/employees performing the refinishing job.

Let’s jump into it. To begin, let’s start with the basics.

Bathtub Refinishing- What Is It and How Does It Work?

Some of you reading this may need a rundown or a bathtub refinishing 101 to give you an idea of the topic at hand before diving in further. So, what is bathtub refinishing? Bathtub refinishing can go by many names. It may be referred to as bathtub resurfacing, bathtub re-glazing or bathtub re-enameling.

To keep it simple, bathtub refinishing is the process of refreshing the surface of an old beat up, worn down or damaged bathtub. The primary goal is to get the bathtub back to a new-like condition and give that original pop and dazzle it had when it was installed or when the home was originally purchased. Nobody likes an old beat up looking tub.

What’s the Process Look Like with Bathtub Refinishing? What’s All Involved?

Again, to keep things as simple as possible, this process is essentially repairing damaged areas or bathtubs. Most frequently this can involve repairing chips or cracks using a polyester body putty. Following successful completion of servicing all damaged areas of the tub, the surface can now be prepped. This phase will involve using an mild acid cleaner.  This etching is going to help with providing proper adhesion with the following surfaces.

  • Porcelain
  • Enamel
  • Fiberglass

Often silane can be used as well to help through this process. At this stage, the silane bonding agent primer can be applied which will be followed by a new top coat. The goal in mind is again, to get your bathtub looking back to its original state and showing some beauty again. Not to mention, fixing damages that your tub may have currently.

Some DIY enthusiast attempt this process independently using kits sold at home department stores but this process always fails in about 6 months, it’s always recommended to allow a professional to handle the task and get the job done the first time correctly.

Now, if you noticed during our brief breakdown of the process, we never mentioned anything related to using and chemical stripping agents throughout the refinishing process. Let’s dive into detail why this is never recommended and why Deitz Surfacing Detailing does not, under any circumstances, use these substances to complete any of our projects.

Bathtub Refinished

The Sand and Scrape Method Is A Much Safer Alternative Opposed to Chemical Stripping Agents

At Deitz Surface Detailing, we stick to the sand and scrape method for all refinishing work were the tub has been recoated before.  Let’s take a dive into this process, see what it looks like. Following that, we will break down how much safer of an alternative this can be.

Removing paint from a bathtub

The Benzyl Alcohol Based Chemical Stripper Approach- A Safer Alternative That Works

Many businesses have begun experimenting with safer solutions and alternative solutions to getting the job done safely. Using benzyl alcohol-based strippers has been one of the best solutions discovered so far.  Following the use of the benzyl alcohol, you can sand and scrap to finish the removal portion of the job. While this is obviously more labor intensive, it has an apparent reason for being used. It’s safer, and that’s the most critical factor of the entire equation. Always think safety first.

In most circumstances, unless there, is a full-blown or widespread problem with your entire bathtub, only the damaged areas will need to be fixed and then the whole bathtub is refinished. Areas such as loose or peeling surfaces can easily be remedied by starting with a razor blade and finishing the job with 180-grit sandpaper only if the coat has been applied correctly.  If it has been applied incorrectly then all of the old coating has to be removed. This is a much safer alternative in comparison to using the methylene chloride filled chemical stripping agents.

Yes, it requires more work as stated before, but as an employee or employer in the bathtub refinishing industry it should be considered not only as a best practice but become the only practice. This will ensure you avoid anyone ultimately getting hurt or being exposed to these chemical agents which can cause irreversible damage from long term exposure or death.

Here’s the Full Scope View of The Sand and Scape Method

First, let’s begin by detailing what tools we need to complete the job and how to begin the project. A common tool and material list for a bathtub refinishing job would look similar to this.

  • Razor Scrapper
  • Screw Drivers
  • Utility Knife
  • Orbital Sander
  • Respirator
  • 120-180 Grit Sandpaper
  • Scouring Powder
  • Cleaning Scotchbrite Pads
  • Ventilation Fans
  • Bondo or Polyester
  • Eye Protection
  • Caulk
  • Masking Tape
  • Painters Tack Cloth
Scraping off paint from a bathtub

Preparation Always Comes First- Preparing Your Bathtub for the Task

Step 1

Once we have our tools gathered up and we are on site, the next step is to prepare the bathtub. First, even though we are avoiding the most harmful chemical, we will still want to ventilate the room either by using the vent fan or a fan blowing in a direction away from the room. We will also seal around the fan to keep air from drawing around the fan. Ideally, the easiest approach is when the bathroom has a window and we can direct the fan to blow and circulate air straight out, if not then we have to use ducting to run out the closest outside opening.

Step 2

Next, we would suit up and put on the proper safety gear including our hand and eye protection.

Step 3

Now we can begin removing the caulk from the bathtub. Be sure that you remove the overflow plate before beginning this step. Remove all caulk around the tub where it butts against your tile surround. You can use your utility knife to cut and remove the caulk. This may take a few attempts with the knife to remove the caulk. In addition, don’t be alarmed if you scuff the tub or leave marks during this process. It will clean off later in the process.

Step 4

Now we need to start cleaning the bathtub. You can begin this process by taking your razor scraper and begin scraping under any soap dish or corners of your tub. You should begin noticing the soap scum beginning to fall off. Your going to use this same process on the entire tub and work off as much soap scum as you can. You will also use your soap scraper to work around the drain. Be sure to target and remove any plumbers putty during this phase.

Always keep in mind that this is the most critical step in the entire process. Doing a complete and quality job during this phase makes or breaks the project. Especially around the drain where many individuals fall short.

Step 5

Once you feel you have done a complete job during the scrape phase, now it is time to clean the area with a mild acid cleaner with the scotch-Brite pads. You can rinse the tub and double check for any left-over caulk, silicone or film. After rinsing, you can dry the tub with a chamois and paper towels. You can also use a blacklight to double checked for any spots you may have missed during the process.

Step 6

Checking for damage and completing repairs will be the next step in the process. You can complete this by laying down a few sheets of masking paper in the tub and mix/use polyester or bondo with a putty knife and apply the glaze over any chips or defects in the tub. I do recommend the polyester body putty over bondo.

Allow the putty to dry for about 15 minutes and you can begin sanding the glaze spots, repeat if needed.

Step 7

Now it’s time to mask your tub.  In this step make sure the tub is completely dry and no water is present near the drain. Take your orbital or hand sander and begin with 120 grit sandpaper. Sand any rust or dirty areas of the tub. You also want to make sure to hand sand the corners where the tub meets the tile floor and down the entire tub well. Continue to wipe while sanding to keep the dust to a minimum. You can use a microfiber towel as you move through the sanding process.

Step 8

Use acetone to remove any left-over dust or remaining debris in the tub. Be sure all areas not being re-surfaced are covered and protected before beginning this step.

Now, you can scrub the tub three times using the mild acid cleaner to ensure it’s ready for the new paint or surface material. You can spray on the new finish. Once the finish is dry you can begin re caulking the tub and enjoying the fresh new look.

Now, let’s take the time to break down why we use this approach and the dangers of doings things the old school way.

What Are the Dangers of Using Chemicals and Stripping Agents?

Not long ago, a study was published regarding the deaths and adverse health impacts using chemical stripping agents can have during the refinishing process with bathtubs.  The underlying cause has been linked to a chemical known as methylene chloride.

Unfortunately, it’s always been offered in stores as not only a solvent but also a paint stripper. DIY handymen attempting to complete projects around the house will purchase it and it’s also been marketed and sold to many professionals in the bathtub refinishing industry. It’s not necessarily the product alone that causes most adverse health impacts, but it’s the applications in which they are used.

When used when working with refinishing bathtubs, it’s highly likely that the professional or DIYer is in a tiny square foot bathroom with poor ventilation.  This is a recipe for disaster. Unless you’re a celebrity with a 600 square foot master bathroom with a beautiful bay style window and fans circulating, it’s likely the ventilation in any bathroom you use this product inside of, is not ventilated nearly adequately enough to deem this application safe.

Why Is the Confusion Taking Place and Why Don’t We Know More About This Issue Yet?

According to an article published by NPR, it believed that a lot of the confusion is 100% due to the fact that it’s sold so prevalently in-home improvement stores and the print tends to be very small if the product does advertise that it should not be used in bathrooms.

Furthermore, it’s believed that because it’s sold in these stores, it would be more well known that you could be in significant danger or that there would at least be a more considerable disclaimer advertising to be careful when using in poorly ventilated rooms. Stating that an easier to understand manner, people tend to trust and rush using agents like this they are purchased from reputable home-improvement and department stores.

The fumes can be extremely toxic, so it’s imperative to always exercise caution and use all safety precautions possible when using these chemical stripping agents.

Breaking Down the Issue Down Further -Methylene Chloride- What Is It and Why Is it Harmful?

Methylene Chloride or DCM (Dichloromethane) is considered a geminal organic compound. It produces a sweet aroma and is used commonly in stripping agents or as a solvent in general. It’s regarded as the least toxic form of a chlorohydrocarbon, but that by no means makes it safe. As stated before, with low ventilation, it’s hazardous when inhaled in generous quantities.

How Do I Know If I Have Been Over-Exposed to Methylene Chloride?

Keep in mind that I’m in the refinishing industry and by no means hold a Ph.D. nor am I trying to provide medical advice, but I can inform you of some of the potential symptoms and warning signs you may notice if you have been overexposed to methylene chloride. Here’s a look at some of the common symptoms you may encounter after over-exposure.

Common Symptoms of Over-Exposure to Methylene Chloride

  • Headaches
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Faint Feeling
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Irritation of the Upper Respiratory Track
  • Irritation of the Eyes

Now, let’s take a quick look at some of the extreme symptoms or warning signs you may encounter with over-exposure to methylene chloride.

Major Warning Signs of Over-Exposure to Methylene Chloride

  • Suffocation
  • Loss of Conciseness
  • Coma
  • Possible Death

In addition to all the symptoms and potential health hazards discussed, there are a few more points and considerations to keep in mind.

Other Potential Hazards of Methylene Chloride and Potentially Dangerous Health Impacts

Considering that methylene chloride is regarded as a DCM, it is known to carry a few other health hazards. DCM is broken down and metabolized into the body as carbon monoxide.  This can lead to the apparent health issue of carbon monoxide poisoning if you are exposed in substantial amounts or over a prolonged duration with poor ventilation.

It’s been noted and shown that prolonged exposure has led to optic neuropathy and hepatitis as well. If your skin contacts these chemical stripping agents, you may also encounter of the fatty tissue in the skin is broken down which ultimately leads to a burn on your skin.

What Hazards and Dangers Can Chemical Stripping Agent Exposure Lead to In the Future?

The last consideration to keep in mind is that symptoms aren’t always apparent immediately with exposure to chemical stripping agents. Sometimes everything can seem perfectly fine for years to come. Considering that methylene chloride is regarded as a carcinogen, it’s very possible that over-exposure with low ventilation will have the same impacts and damaging impacts as other carcinogens we are all familiar with such as smoking cigarettes. 

Overexposure could lead to an increased likelihood of cancer or potential issues with the liver, lungs, and pancreas.  It could also leave damaging impacts on pregnant women exposed to these agents or even cause a miscarriage if the fetus is exposed to the inhalation of the chemicals. Even worse, the DCM contained in these stripping agents can cross paths with the placenta and cause fetal toxicity to your newborn baby.

Should Bathroom Refinishers Be Worried Going Forward?

What OSHA Has to Say About the Matter- Why Avoiding Stripping Agents is Essential

OSHA has plenty to say about this topic according to this article published on the matter. The first thing that OSHA points out that we have not discussed yet is the permittable standards for methylene chloride and when it becomes dangerous. Specifically, OSHA states that just smelling the chemical stripping agents is alone, enough cause for concern. By detecting the odor of these agents, it’s already at a level that could be considered hazardous for your health or could ultimately end in death or other serious health concerns.

How Does OSHA State That This Specifically Impacts Bathroom Refinishers?

Understanding that these chemical stripping agents are dangerous is one thing but understanding how it directly impacts bathroom finishers is the entire point this article is trying to encompass. First and foremost, it directly affects refinishers in the bathroom industry due to the frequency and amounts of these agents that are used by either spraying them or pouring them into the basins of bathtubs. Following that, the danger isn’t over.

In the bathtub industry, you must remain in the enclosed space to brush the product evenly all over the entire tubs surface. This is when being in that confined tight space with poor ventilation gets very risky in a hurry.  The chemical agents contain a high percentage of the methylene chloride as discussed previously, and when sprayed, poured or brushed, the fumes evaporate even more rapidly. Its properties have (vapor pressure) speeding up the vapor production in these small spaces quickly.

It doesn’t take nearly as long as one would think for most of the breathable air to be overpowered and controlled by the dangerous vapors in these situations. After in-depth investigations, OSHA has pointed out that workers in the bathroom refinishing industry are commonly doing the following with chemical stripping agents when danger tends to strike most frequently

  • Using Methylene chloride-based agents to remove bathtub coatings
  • Consistently Working Alone In small rooms with no windows or ventilation.
  • Using zero forms of respiratory protection and skin protection
  • Lacking and Not Being Provided Any Training on The Dangers of These Chemical Stripping Agents.

What OSHA is Stating the Health Hazards Are and What Impacts It Can Have on The Human Body

OSHA, for the most part, is stating many of the things we have already discussed. Also, OSHA says that a primary concern is the rapid chance of brain function decreasing when exposed to the chemical agents in high doses.

OSHA also states that the amount of the vapor inhaled by the individual makes a significant impact on which of the health hazards you may experience. This makes it tough to fully understand what dangers humans will be in because it’s impossible to know the exact amount of the vapors that have been inhaled during the exposure. OSHA breaks down the health hazards slightly differently stating that long term exposure to methylene chloride can cause

  • Cancer in Humans and Produce Tumors in the Breast and Salivary Glands.

What Precautions Can Be Taken to Limit the Risk and Dangers? What Can We Do to Stay Safe?

Now that we know the dangers associated with using these chemical stripping agents, what can we do to fight back and make sure we are staying safe in the workplace if it’s necessary to use them?

The Best Overall Option and Approach That Should Be Considered Opposed to Methylene Chloride

If it’s possible you should elect to follow step number one listed above. Avoiding the use of methylene chloride is the safest and best approach to refinishing bathtubs and doing it safely. Other products are available as alternatives that can still effectively get the job done and limit the health hazards (we will cover these alternatives shortly). As a matter of fact, we don’t use chemical stripping agents at all. We only use the sand and scrape method.

The next best option is to follow the safety guidelines as closely as possible and educate yourself and your employees on the dangers associated with chemical stripping agents containing methylene chloride. That can begin with a respiratory mask that can be used during the stripping process. Your goal with these masks is to make sure they are FULL-FACE respiratory mask.  These are known as full-face atmosphere-supplying respirators. 

A half mask is not permitted and does not adequately protect the user from the dangers and exposure to methylene chloride.

Don’t Forget About the Hand Protection- Make Sure to Have Gloves Up to Regulation

Also, you can now purchase gloves that are methylene chloride resistant. These gloves will be made of polyethylene (PE) and vinyl alcohol.  This material will be resistant to the methylene chloride. They also meet the minimum standard set forth by OSHA for hand protection.

Clothing and Eyewear are Essential to Eliminate Danger- Don’t Ignore These Items

For eye protection, you will want to make sure you are using full goggles or face shields. These will provide the maximum amount of protection, and they are also up and compliant with the minimum standards and requirements set by OSHA. For the methylene chloride resistant clothing, it’s recommended to wear aprons, sleeves, boots, and shoes that meet the minimum standards set by OSHA. These will protect the other necessary parts of the body from being exposed to methylene chloride.

Knowledge Is Power- Don’t Forget to Educate Your Workers and Yourself on The Dangers Involved.

Educating yourself and your workers on the dangers involved with using these chemical stripping agents containing methylene chloride is another critical piece of the puzzle. It’s something you need to ensure you are completing. Also, it’s set forth as common standard practice that should be followed by OSHA. Here’s what they recommend is the best approach.

OSHA has set forth a guideline for training for both Methylene Chloride and Hazard Communication standards. This requires you to supply information and train your employees. It’s a must that you provide this material to your workers in a language that they understand. OSHA states that the training should include but not be limited to the following guidelines.

Education Guidelines for Yourself and Workers/Employees Related to Methylene Chloride

  • Possible Avenues That Can Put Someone at Risk of Exposure and Provide Protective Equipment (PPE)
  • Educate Employees on the Health Hazards Associated with Methylene Chloride
  • Present an Illustrate Proper Guidelines for Work Areas Where Methylene Chloride Will Be Present
  • Train Workers to Detect the Presence of Methylene Chloride
  • Implement Procedures So Your Employees Can Protect Themselves Against Methylene Chloride Exposure
  • Train Employees on What Specific Labels, Pictograms, and hazard Data means and how to appropriately handle these chemicals and dangerous toxins.

Other Adjustments, Options, and Alternative to Using Methylene Chloride Chemical Stripping Agents

As stated previously in this article, the best approach is just to avoid using methylene chloride all together. It will give the best protection and eliminate all the dangerous hazards associated with its uses. However, we still need the ability to do our job and get your bathtub looking glossy and beautiful again and back to its original state.

So, what can we do? Your best bet to keep the business running, as usual, is to use safe alternatives that have not only proved to be safer and contain none of the same health hazards as methylene chloride but are apparently capable of still getting the job done and restore the beauty to your bathtub in a timely, affordable and safe fashion.

Don’t Ignore Safety Just Because Methylene Chloride Is Not Present- Other Precautions Still Need To be Considered

Don’t get lazy just because you have solved the problem and decided to use a different approach to get the bathtub back to its original state. When using the alcohol and sanding approach, it’s still imperative that you ventilate the bathroom. Even though you have avoided the dangerous fumes and chemicals, it’s not a reason to ignore proper ventilation when possible or provide yourself or employees the appropriate safety equipment including proper eyewear, and chemically resistant gloves.

Don't use Chemical Stripper on Bathtubs

Recapping the Benefits of Using Alternative Methods Such as Scraping and Sanding

We wanted to give a quick recap of the benefits you will experience using the scrape and sand method. First and foremost, and the advantage that’s been discussed is the apparent reduction in health hazards by using this approach.  The sanding and scrapping method eliminates the odor and health risk associated with using chemical stripping agents containing methylene chloride.

This in return creates much less of a mess. When using chemical stripping agents, it’s impossible to avoid all possible mess and clean up scenarios. Even worse, that mess when using the chemical stripping agents, it not only a mess but a toxic mess.  Worst case scenario when using the sanding the method, the highest hazard you are producing is dust and debris which is easily controlled with proper ventilation, portable ventilation, eye protection, and some simple wash clothes can be used to help with the cleanup process.

The potential for improved efficiency is also possible with using the sand and scrap method.  Chemical strippers can take time to activate and kick in.  Also, it’s rare that chemical stripping agents only need one coat to get the job done. If you skip this step altogether and get straight to the sanding, over time, you may be completing the process in much less time. This is beneficial to you, your workers and the homeowner’s final bill for the job being completed.

Lastly, using this method could reduce your cost. It requires fewer parts and could reduce your overall medical insurance bills due to annual physicals and medical surveillance standards if you opt to continue using the dangerous chemical stripping agents. 

Putting It All Together- Safety and Quality First- Work with A Professional Who Cares!

To sum things up, it’s obvious that using chemical stripping agents is extremely dangerous to yourself and your employees. The damages could be immediate and fatal, or the injuries could be prolonged and not show signs immediately after exposure.

Overall, it’s just not worth the risk.  With great alternatives clearly being possible that not only reduce the overall danger, but also minimize clean-up, time on site, and cost, it would be crazy not to start adjusting with how you run your business and the practices you implement on a regular basis. If you don’t make the changes, you are keeping workloads higher for your employees, and you will continue to expose everyone to the dangerous chemicals that not all protective equipment can avoid.

Keep up with your OSHA guidelines and standards and begin making the change to the safer, cheaper and overall better alternatives that is currently being implemented by businesses in the bath refinishing industry all over the country.

Do you have any experience or alternative methods you use to refinish bathtubs? What’s been your experience and success with your alternative solution? Be sure to mention your alternative methods by leaving a comment below. If your looking for a reliable company to handle your refinishing needs for your bathtub, be sure to contact us today.

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About Me

Deitz Surface Detailing Kitchen and Bath restoration is a family-owned restoration company that started in 2013 with over 8 years of experience in the kitchen and bath restoration industry.

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