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Is Wood Stain Toxic? Everything You Need to Know

You’re building a toy for kids. Or maybe a countertop that food is placed on. But is wood stain non-toxic and food safe?

Wood stain is toxic during the application and drying processes, but is non-toxic after curing for 30 days. Most wood stains are not tested for food safety, and therefore cannot be labeled food safe, but are manufactured to comply with FDA regulations for food safety.

After curing, wood stains are generally considered safe and non-toxic, even if they’re not technically “food safe” by FDA regulations.

If you’re looking for a completely food safe wood finish, keep reading for some natural options!

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Have you ever wondered how toxic wood stain really is? Come find out if wood stain is toxic or not, and if it's food safe! #woodworking

Oil-Based Wood Stain Toxicity

Liquid wood stain contains harmful solvents that bind the stain together and keep it in liquid form. Looking at the Safety Data Sheet for a common brand of wood stain, you’ll see the following warnings:

  • Flammable
  • Mutagenic (Can cause cell mutation)
  • Carcinogenic
  • Skin Irritant

These all sound scary, but the risks are minimal given you’re using wood stain in a well-ventilated area. Assuming you’re not drinking the stain or tossing it in your eye, the main concern is breathing in harmful vapors.

Ventilation reduces the concentration of vapors in the air, making wood stain safer to work with for consumer.

So obviously, wood stain is dangerous during the application and drying process. However, the dangerous solvents evaporate out of the stain as it dries, which is part of the reason the vapors are so dangerous.

The good news is, though, that once the wood stain is fully dry, it’s no longer toxic!

That means if your primary concern is about wood stain toxicity after the stain has dried, you have nothing to worry about!

It’s also worth noting the “flammable” warning that’s listed above. Once again, this isn’t an issue after the stain is dry, but when in liquid form, wood stain is very flammable.

Wood stain should be kept away from any ignition sources. If you used a rag to apply the wood stain or to wipe off excess stain, you should lay the rag out flat to dry, as it has a chance of spontaneously combusting otherwise.

Water-Based Wood Stain Toxicity

Water-based wood stain is significantly less toxic than traditional wood stain. Looking at the Safety Data Sheet of a major wood stain brand, we can see that unlike traditional wood stain, water-based wood stain doesn’t contain a single hazardous substance.

That’s not to say you should drink it. But water-based wood stain doesn’t contain the dangerous binders than traditional oil-based wood stain does, and is therefore significantly less toxic as a result.

This makes water-based wood stain a viable option if you’re looking to reduce your exposure risk during application.

And just like traditional wood stain, water-based wood stain is non-toxic after it has fully cured.

The vapors produced are less toxic, making it a viable option if you’re looking to reduce your exposure risk during application.

Water-based wood stain is slightly more expensive that oil-based stain, and frequently needs more coats of stain to a achieve a robust color, but that might be worth it to you for a safer product.

Wood Stain and Food Safety

FDA regulations require that for a product to be deemed “food safe” it needs to be regularly tested. Testing is expensive, and stain manufacturers forgo this effort.

As a result, there aren’t any wood stains on the market that advertise as food safe. However, most wood stains are probably fine to use on woods that come in contact with food.

First off, if you’re finishing the piece, it’s likely your wood stain won’t come in contact with food anyway. Check out my post about food safe wood finishes for more information.

Secondly, wood stains are formulated to comply with FDA food safety regulations, they’re just not tested to receive the actual designation. This means that it’s highly likely that after drying, wood stains are food safe.

Personally, I don’t fret about wood stain food safety. The stain is ultimately covered another finish, and even if it wasn’t, given a full cure time, the stains should be fine to come in contact with food.

Just to back this up, I once stained and finished my own butcherblock countertop. Food came in contact with it all the time.

But if you’re truly concerned, read on. There are some options that aren’t technically “wood stain” but will color your wood for you.

Food Safe Wood Stain Options

Products marketed as “food safe wood finish” don’t exist. But there are a number of edible products that can act as wood stain, if you want to use a truly food safe wood stain.

Note that for all of these products, you’ll need to add a sealer on top of them. Natural wood stains can smear and fade without a top coat. Check out my article on non-toxic and food safe wood finishes to figure out what you should use.

Using Coffee as Wood Stain

Instant coffee brewed at 3-4 times normal strength makes a great wood stain. It won’t be as dark as many stains on the market, but it will darken your wood.

I recommend testing out your coffee stain on some scrap wood before you start.

While you can find pictures of coffee-stained wood online, often times the look depends on the wood, the type of coffee used, and the strength of the brew. Because there are so many variables, it’s likely your wood will look completely different, so make sure you test before you apply.

Using Red Wine to Stain Wood

If you’re up for a non-traditional color, red wine will stain wood to be (surprise!) a reddish color.

It’s easy to apply – all you need to do is dip a rag in some red wine, and rub it onto the wood. You’ll probably need at least 3 coats to get a deep color.

Tea as Wood Stain

Tea is another commonly used natural wood stain – but beware, it is significantly lighter than coffee (which isn’t even that dark!) Clearly, it’s difficult to get a dark color with natural stains.

Brew a strong cup of black tea. Dip a rag into the tea, and apply the stain in the direction of the grain. This should slightly darken the wood.

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