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I have read that paint contains VOCs(Volatile Organic Compounds), and solvents generally, and I could wait for them to dissipate, but i've read there are ways to remove the smell of paint such as half an onion in a bucket of water, such as slices of lemon on a plate, such as small bowls of distilled white vinegar.

Do these techniques actually remove all the nasty elements from the paint fumes, or just some of the nasty elements from them? Do they remove all the paint fumes?

I wouldn't want to remove the smell but leave the VOC or other bad elements there. If that's the case i'd rather just leave a window open in the room, closing it periodically, seeing if there's finally a time when the paint smell doesn't build up when the window is closed, then i'll know the paint isn't emitting any more fumes.

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  • $\begingroup$ Would a lighted candle work? $\endgroup$
    – f p
    Jul 23, 2013 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ @fp it'd be unattended so probably not such a good option but if it's much more effective than e.g. lemons, then i'd consider it. $\endgroup$
    – barlop
    Jul 23, 2013 at 16:13

2 Answers 2

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I've never heard of onions, lemons or vinegar removing a paint smell, but I would guess that they'd just cover up the unpleasant odor with something nicer.

As to your later comment:

I wouldn't want to remove the smell but leave the VOC or other bad elements there.

VOC stands for "volatile organic compound." (See the Wikipedia page on VOCs) Volatile compounds are ones that evaporate easily. Technically, the smell of that onion (or lemon, or vinegar) is a VOC, just not a particularly harmful one. (Not knowing the particular chemicals that make up a onion's scent, I can't say for sure that it's a volatile organic compound, but it's a pretty good bet.)

That fresh paint smell comes from VOCs (and potentially from other volatile compounds), so by the time the smell is gone, any VOCs you couldn't smell are likely gone too.

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VOCs, as BLHaas said, are "volatile organic compounds"; that is, compounds that have a high vapor pressure and so readily evaporate into the surrounding air, and are mainly hydrogen-oxygen-carbon. The ones we smell and identify as being VOCs are most often "aromatics", which have one or more six-carbon rings (phenyl/benzyl, napthyl, etc). These aren't all bad; the smell of cooking meat, of flowers, herbs, fresh-cut grass, lemons, and yes even onions, are all VOCs. The VOCs in paint are what you smell, and also what are bad for you (at least some of them), so theoretically, getting rid of the smell means you've gotten rid of the problem.

The VOCs typically associated with latex and oil paints are mineral spirits, typically an amalgam of 7- to 12-carbon hydrocarbons produced by petroleum refinement. Oil paints require a high percentage of these in order to properly dissolve the pigment and achieve the desired consistency. Latex paints are based on an acrylic resin, which for many decades now has required relatively low VOC content in favor of a simple water base. However, acrylic acid, the basis of the acrylic resins holding the pigments and binders of the paint, can easily degrade into another example of a stinky organic chemical class; aldehydes. Aldehydes are caused by hydrolysis and subsequent hydrogenation of carboxylates, of which acrylics are a member. The simplest one is formaldehyde, and it's not great news; it's carcinogenic and acutely toxic in sufficient concentrations (higher than those in the average freshly painted room). Aldehydes also have a relatively low odor threshold; humans can detect aldehydes in concentrations measured in the low parts per billion. So it doesn't take much to stink up a room.

To actually answer your question, the most common trick I could find was to cut an onion in half and place each half, cut-side-up, in opposite corners of the room. The chemistry behind that is apparently inherent in the active ingredient of onions that irritates your eyes when you cut them. This ingredient is produced by enzymatic alteration of amino acid sulfoxides, and is called Syn-propanethial-S-oxide. Notice the "thial" portion of the name. Thials are to aldehydes as thiols are to alcohols; the switch from an oxygen to a sulfur, as with thiols, typically increases a thial's reactivity and lowers its boiling point compared to an aldehyde. So, you have a highly reactive sulfur-based chemical that yearns to evaporate into the air and irritate your mucous membranes.

Another thing it will apparently do, interestingly enough, is undergo a dipolar cycloaddition reaction with aldehydes[1], like the ones produced by evaporation of impurities in acrylic paint. This rearranges the thial and the aldehyde into a combined substance with a five-membered, oxygenated ring, which ostensibly does not offend the senses as much as either precursor. Because aldehydes are offensive in such low concentrations, it similarly doesn't take much Syn-propanethial-S-oxide to remove them and reduce the level below the odor threshold.

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  • $\begingroup$ so onions will make the room safe and remove the odour by addressing the cause(aldehydes) rather than by masking anything. Is it only Aldehydes that are toxic in the paint fumes? If not, what are the other things that are toxic or smell and will onions remove them too? $\endgroup$
    – barlop
    Sep 4, 2013 at 5:19
  • $\begingroup$ Acetone is in paint and so are benzene and toluene. All of these are toxic but the acetone is less so since it naturally occurs in our blood. $\endgroup$
    – Caters
    May 14, 2015 at 2:25
  • $\begingroup$ This answer might go some way towards providing information that might help in answering the question, but I don't think it answers it. $\endgroup$
    – barlop
    Apr 23, 2018 at 22:26
  • $\begingroup$ For me, this answers the question of “does onion neutralize formaldehyde”. If formaldehyde is an aldehyde, then it’ll react with (= be neutralized by) onion’s evaporated thial, and if the problematic concentration of aldehydes is lower than one of thials then it might be a viable tradeoff. However, generic tVOC monitor will probably not notice a difference and the question then would be is onion’s outgassing also harmful. $\endgroup$ Jan 11 at 12:50
  • $\begingroup$ Anecdotally, a few cut onions seemingly reduced the stark chemical smell upon entering a flat with hardwood flooring much more than limited ventilation means available, and it doesn’t feel like it’s simply the matter of overpowering one smell with another (as would be the case with, for example, incense sticks—which would additionally introduce a whole lot of PM into the air). However, it’s an ongoing experiment. $\endgroup$ Jan 11 at 12:52

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