The Dangers of Oil-Based Stains

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Mar 07, 2022

Safety is always a huge priority when working on any project, including a wood floor job. Keeping yourself and your customers safe while working is critical. A standard part of a wood floor job is the actual staining of the wood for aesthetic purposes. Oil-based stains are the most traditional stains and are known to be extremely flammable, smelly, and dangerous if not properly stored or used. Continue reading to learn about the risks of using oil-based stains and how waterbased stains are a safer alternative.


Oil-based stains consist of petroleum distillates, varnish, and linseed oil. Each contribute to the danger of oil-based stains. Petroleum distillates are colorless, flammable liquids that cause mild gasoline or kerosene-like odor when the oil-based stain is applied. When petroleum distillates are inhaled, ingestion, or come in contact with the skin or eyes, it can irritate eyes, nose, and throat and cause dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, nausea, and dry, cracked skin.

Varnish is the combination of resins, oils, and solvents that creates the transparent, hard, protective film on a wood floor after application. Many varnish products contain benzene, a highly flammable carcinogen. It also emits a strong odor with intense fumes that cause drowsiness, headaches, skin irritation, and dizziness. High exposure can even cause unconsciousness and respiratory distress.

Linseed oil is derived from dried seeds of flax plants and is a carrier in many oil-based paints and stains. When linseed oil is exposed to air, it combines with oxygen molecules that cause a chemical reaction, creating heat. The heat can cause a fire on a flammable object, like a rag, at as low as 120 degrees Fahrenheit without a spark.

"The heat can cause a fire on a flammable object, like a rag, at as low as 120 degrees Fahrenheit without a spark."

Clean Up

To apply stain, a rag or cloth is normally used. A contractor will dip it into the container of stain and wipe it onto the wood. The process is repeated until finished. What can you do with the oil-soaked rags? Most would just assume they should be thrown out or stored away for the next job. This is when a staining project becomes more dangerous. If not properly disposed of or stored, as the rags begin to dry, the combination of heat, oxygen, and cloth can lead to spontaneous combustion and start a fire. As mentioned above, linseed oil can spark a fire just by being exposed to the air.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, an estimated 14,000 fires occur annually from spontaneous combustion. For home structures, the garage was the most common area of origin (20% of fires) and oily rags were the most common items first ignited (35%). To prevent spontaneous combustion, oil-based stain rags must be stored and disposed of in a specific way.

  • Rags should not be in a pile
  • Keep them outside and away from building structures
  • Put dried rags in a metal container that is airlocked and sealed
  • Keep the containers in a cool place out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources

Removing oil-based stains or cleaning up spills requires a solvent, like mineral spirits that dissolve oil, and quick thinking to eliminate a potential fire hazard. There are many different methods and options, but they require additional supplies and steps to be successful.


Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are emitted into the air as soon as the can of stain is opened. They’re also emitted when the stain is applied and then again as it dries. As an oil-based stain dries, the solvents evaporate and release VOCs into the air, contributing to air pollution and a strong solvent smell.

VOCs are carbon-containing substances that become vapors or gases and assist with the application and drying of stains. When combined with other pollutants, smog can form and create even more environmental and health problems. VOCs contain the solvent odor that comes from oil-based stains. It is an unpleasant scent that could last for months or even years after stain application. It can be irritating for the people who smell the odor and inhaling fumes are harmful to human health. Prolonged exposure can cause wood stain poisoning, resulting in a burning sensation, blurred vision, and collapse.

Adequate ventilation in the work area is important to reduce oil-based stain odors and help with the indoor air quality. A good ventilation system is necessary to help with eliminating odors and improving air flow and air quality. The EPA reports that the indoor concentration of VOCs can be up to 1,000 times higher than what they would be outdoors, and low air quality can cause health problems.

HyperTone Stains

The best defense against oil-based stains and their hazards is to avoid them completely. Waterbased stains are a safer alternative to oil-based stains because water is used as the solvent as opposed to oil. Acrylic resin forms the bond between the wood and pigment of the waterbased stain as it is applied. Then, the water evaporates from air exposure, leaving behind the resin and colorants on the wood surface. It also allows the stain to dry quickly and be ready to walk on in as little as 30 minutes. The ingredients are the clear difference between an oil-based stain and waterbased stain. Removing the petroleum distillates, varnish, and linseed oil of oil-based from the equation significantly creates a safer stain and reduces dangerous risks.

Basic Coatings® HyperTone™ Stains is a water/oil hybrid, the first-of-its-kind formulation that provides unrivaled color penetration with all the benefits of a waterbased stain. Benefits of a waterbased stain include:

  • Non-flammability, which makes the clean-up process easier. Because water is the solvent, used rags can be piled together, stored together, and disposed of in a regular garbage can without the risk of sparking a fire. Used rags will not spontaneously combust. If there is a spill, only soap and water are needed to clean up. Accidental drips of water from sweat or bottles will also not affect the project, and contractors can continue working as usual.
  • Low odor, which avoids issues associated with offensive, extreme fumes.
  • Low VOCs increase sustainability and improve air quality. Click here for the HyperTone Stains VOC Calculation Chart.

For those looking for a safer stain option, HyperTone Stains is the best choice for residential, commercial, and sport floors. It’s available in 14 standard colors with the ability to mix new colors for a wide variety of color options. Click here to view our HyperTone Stain Chip gallery for limitless possibilities. For more information about HyperTone Stains, click here. To speak with a Basic Coatings representative, click here.