Chemicals in the Arts

It is hard for others to believe that artists work with chemicals.  Outsiders sometimes think only factory workers or lab technicians must be aware of hazardous exposures.   However, we use a number of chemicals on a daily basis, from paints and markers for renderings to solvents and dyes in the costume shop.  We are seldom satisfied with ready-made products- we often want to change some aspect of a garment or accessory.  We sometimes use products in ways the manufacturer never intended; we see new possibilities in every material we encounter.

Over the span of your career in entertainment you will find yourself employed in a number of different ways:   on a free lance or independent contractor basis, an employee of small non- profit groups without safety plans or employee training, or an employee of a large, well funded organization with Health & Safety representatives to help you. You may work with peers who have had no training in personal safety. Regardless of your work situation, you will always find yourself under a deadline, pressured to work quickly and cheaply.   You will hear conflicting information from employers and safety experts.

If you work for an employer that requires you to use chemicals, that employer must supply personal safety gear for each employee.  In entertainment, however, we will often be self-employed or independent contractors.  Under many circumstances, you must take responsibility for your own safety.    You must able to assess your work conditions and you alone must choose to guard your safety, and when and how to make exceptions.  Provide your own safety equipment, if none is available on a job, or take the initiative to improve working conditions.

Fortunately, you do not have to get a PhD in Chemistry but you do need to learn some basic concepts.  The following discussion is very general; it is intended to be a basic introduction to the important concepts of personal safety.  For more information, please consult the resources at the bottom of this page.  Everyone working in entertainment should own a copy of The Health & Safety Guide for Film, TV & Theater by Monona Rossol.

Chemical Exposure & Terms

Chemical exposure terms were largely invented to describe what happens in manufacturing or in industrial accidents.  Industrial Hygienists use two general categories for rates of chemical exposure:  Acute (one time) or Chronic (accumulative.)  Acute exposure means a single incident such as an industrial accident or leak, and Chronic refers to chemicals used routinely or every day.

It is difficult to document the cumulative effects of small amounts of chemical exposure over time.  Symptoms of over- exposure often appear as cold or flu- like symptoms, mystery rashes or a tired, listless feeling.  This set of symptoms can be very hard to trace to a single source.  The maddening thing is every person is unique: you may work with a particular chemical for years without incident, only to find one day your body developed immediate reactions or over-sensitivity. Learn to read your body’s signals.

MSDS Sheets

Manufacturers of chemical products sold in the US are required to supply Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS)  sheets on request.  These forms must list the chemical compounds in the product, known side effects and recommended safety precautions.  Some manufacturers supply lucid and brilliant information.  Some supply vague and confusing information.  The costume shop keeps an MSDS sheet on every product in a safety notebook.

The following discussion will aid translating the MSDS sheets. There is some detective work required to really understand these sheets.  An excellent source of help is the MSDS Hyper Glossary available online through www.Safety

Should an chemical emergency require medical attention, please grab the MSDS sheet book to take to the hospital with you!

Toxic, Corrosive, Nuisance & Irritant

Health & Safety Standards were originally formulated by testing animals, and then workers doing daily repetitive tasks that can be inspected and quantified, such as working in a car painting company.  The terms Toxic, Corrosive, Hazardous, Nuisance Level or Irritant and Non-Toxic are legal terms; they are a result of how sick the test subjects became when exposed to a chemical under quantifiable circumstances.

When creating these terms, scientists and safety experts had to choose a number– if 4 out of 10 rats died, developed cancer or abnormalities, is the substance toxic, or hazardous?  If 7 out of 10 rats died, is that toxic?  If no rats died but they all experienced miserable rashes or labored breathing, is that toxic or an irritant?  If 1 rat always dies, do you just consider there is a minority population that’s always going to be affected?  The point is– a product may be legally defined as safe if a minimum number of rats were affected after repeated OR prolonged exposure.  But what about the affected rats– do you want to be one of those rats?

In entertainment, it is difficult to measure our exposure as no two days are alike.  We may not use chemicals for months, and then use them 8 hours a day for weeks.  You may work in a well equipped studio one month, and in a primitive shack on a movie location the next month.  You may work with some chemicals at a minimum exposure level on a daily basis for 35 years.  What is the accumulative affect of that exposure?  Legal cases of long-term exposure are nearly impossible to establish, since lawyers may call into question every lifestyle choice you made over that time span.

There is almost no testing available for intermittent exposure, so we don’t really know the long-term results.  We do have some very real cases of theatrical artists exposed to chemicals every day who have developed rashes, experienced birth defects in their children, had heart attacks or lung impairment.

The key to safety is deciphering the MSDS sheets. MSDS sheets, however, are written in very technical language.  The manufacturer writes these for each product– there is a lot of variation, and their can be some deliberate obfuscation.   One universal factor, though, is the terminology a manufacturer must use for chemical compounds and their known affects on test subjects.  If you can read the terminology, you can judge how and when to use a chemical.

I’ve included a list of basic terms and concepts below.  While the distinctions between terms below may seem very minor, they are important factors for determining which mask or filters to use.  Remember– we can’t see these distinctions with our eyes, but they are vital on a molecular level.   For further information, please see the resources listed at the bottom of this page.

Toxic: products with a median lethal dose when administered orally or as continuous contact with bare skin of an albino rat, or continuous inhalation for one hour by albino rats. Not to be confused with Poisonous, which has a high lethal rate.

Corrosive: products that cause obvious damage to living tissue through directly destroying the exposed part or indirectly by causing inflammation

Hazardous: statistically significant evidence based on at least one study that health effects may occur in employees.  This is a wide definition, and may include the most highly toxic carcinogens all the way down to allergens

Nuisance/ Irritant: causes reversible, temporary inflammatory effect on living tissue at the site of contact, such as rash or swelling (Pepper Spray is an eye irritant)

Non-toxic: a vague term used to mean simply not poisonous or even food-grade/ edible.  Be aware that just because something is non-toxic does not mean it is 100% safe to use in a way the manufacturer never intended!  Water colors, for instance, are not meant to be eaten, but if you wet your brush in your mouth, you may ingest toxic pigments.

Male VS Female

It has been standard practice for years to recruit men as medical test subjects.  Until very recently, testing did not consider differences between men and women when testing products.  So traditional medication doses– calculated on the weight of a patient- are based on male subjects.   The same is true for industrial safety testing– the tests have been done almost completely on a male work force.

We do know that female anatomy contains more body fat than male anatomy, allowing females to survive longer without water and to survive freezing temperatures longer.  You should be aware that some of the chemical we use are fat soluble and women may store higher quantities of chemicals in their bodies.  Women of child bearing age may be more at risk for cumulative exposures than men, but there has been no testing to satisfactorily corroborate this theory.

Regardless of gender, long term intermittent chemical exposure is not well understood.  And, both men and women can have powders or dust embedded in their hair, eyebrows or clothing.  When we go home at night, we may be carrying small amounts of toxic chemicals to our families.

Reliance on Chemicals

In spite of the scary discussion above, chemicals are our friends in entertainment- we use them all the time!  But use them in an educated manner, take safety precautions seriously and wear personal protective gear (see Safety Gear page at right.)

When in doubt, use NON-TOXIC products to limit your exposure.  There is a movement in our industry to discover these substitutions as many old venues cannot be adequately retro-fitted for ventilation.   We have been making hats and wild accessories since the very dawn of theater– it may be an interesting adventure to bring back some of the traditional theatrical techniques.

When you do want to use chemicals, your education begins with reading the box and the directions for any product you want to use, including gloves and masks!   We develop work methods because someone else showed us how to use something– don’t forget to investigate for yourself!

Vapor, Fume, Mist, Dust, Solvent, oh my!

To assess the chemicals we use, we must first understand the form chemicals take and how they are absorbed into the body.  The terms above are universally accepted terms, and are the key to understanding labels, MSDS sheets, directions and other information.  For further information, see the resources listed at the bottom of the page.

Vapor: Vapors occur when a compound dissolves on exposure to air, and are composed of single molecules in their gas phase.  Vapors diffuse or migrate through a room or workspace reaching farther than its origin.  Organic refers to carbon based forms.  All organic vapors are harmful. (Example: Barge Cement emits harmful  organic vapors)

Dust: Fine particles of dry matter generated by handling or crushing materials.   Dusts may be organic or inorganic, and it may suspend temporarily in the air if disturbed.  Dusts are made of a large number of atoms or molecules. Dusts and vapors may intermingle. Dust particles are small enough to be inhaled into the lungs.  The term Powder is another word for dust.  (Asbestos is a dust)

Fumes: Very fine solid particles as a suspension in air, closely related to dust but airborne.  Fumes may contain gases (vapors) and dusts.  In many cases the vapors are toxic or corrosive.

Mist: A mist or fog occurs when small droplets of the compound suspend in air.  The molecules are in their liquid phase.

Solvent: A substance that dissolves another substance to form a solution or mixture.  Sometimes non-toxic substances are suspended in a toxic solvent base, so even though the product seems safe, there are toxic fumes.  Hairspray is molecules of sticky stuff suspended in a solvent base.  Some solvents are toxic, and all organic vapors are toxic.  (Acetone is a toxic solvent)

Toxic Products Used in Costumes

The following list contains products commonly used in costume shops listed by the chemical form.  When choosing a respirator and gloves, be aware of what you are guarding against.  (See the Safety Gear page to right)


Acetone, Turpentine, Paint thinners, lacquers, art markers, Barge, adhesives, oil paints, inks, varnishes

ALL organic  solvents are extremely toxic and present the most serious hazards to the health of costume designers and technicians


Paints, leather dyes, shellac, hair spray

MISTS MANY are suspended in a solvent base

DYE POWDERS: Rit, Tintex, Fiber-reactive dyes, Procion, cold water dyes.   Dyes are available in powder or liquid form.

RIT is TOXIC in its powder form only. Dye powders are highly concentrated and easily inhaled.  Once airborne, the powders      can travel a significant distance and will settle on items such as clothing and coffee cups.  MOST china and metal utensils have a porous surface and dye molecules will embed.  Never use a utensil for both dye and food.  Do not keep food utensils near dye powder.  Please note dye shelves can be coated with powder that falls onto surfaces below it.  PASTE UP or work inside a glove box.

Protect your skin with RUBBER or impervious gloves, wear a long sleeve smock, cover hair

USA 829 Design Union:

The Health & Safety Committee of United Scenic Artists considers these ingredients unarguably deadly and should be avoided.  Look for these chemical ingredients on MSDS sheets and on the list of ingredients for products:

Methylene chloride also called dichloromethane, methylene dichloride, methylene bichloride (used as a solvent for oil, waxes, celluloce acetate, esters and paint remover)

N-hexane—a chemical solvent used in some leather adhesive glues


Safety Emporium The MSDS Hyper Glossary- brilliant for decoding MSDS sheets!

The Health & Safety Guide for Film, TV & Theater. Monona Rossol

ACTS Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety,

a non-profit corporation that provides technical services and safety publications to the    arts, crafts, museums and theater communities, with free and low cost services to artists.  Industrial Hygenist Monona Rossol is the principal in this organization.

The Costume Technician’s Handbook, Rosemary Ingham & Liz Covey

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DRAMA 255 COSTUME DESIGN 20th Century & Menswear

SPRING 2009 Course Code: 03070

‘The health of a nation, a society, can be determined by the art it demands. We have insisted of television and our movies that they not have anything to do with anything, that they be our never-never land; and if we demand this same function of our live theatre, what will be left of the visual-auditory arts — save the dance (in which nobody talks) and music (to which nobody listens)?’ — Edward Albee


Office: Drama 147B Phone: 824-2179 Email: the best way to reach me!

Office Hours: T/ TH 3-4 PM or by appt Shop Hour: T 12- 1 PM


The history of 20th Century drama is richer, in one century, than the entire history of Western drama to this point. This one quarter cannot begin to scratch the surface of all the “isms” for this century. We will, however, explore several central tenets:

· Approaching each script as a blank slate to define the type of production

· Using concepts of modernism and surrealism to create script interpretation

· A study of character costumes and what clothing reveals about characters

· A study of contemporary menswear, the international language of the 20th century

· Research into location and situation specific costumes


The Language of Clothes Alison Lurie

The Elegant Man, Riccardo Villarosa & Giuliano Angeli

A Walk in the Woods, Lee Blessing

Ubu Roi Alfred Jarry


1. Drawing exercises- ongoing drawing from life and garments on forms

2. The Language of Clothes- Ongoing reading & discussion

3. A Walk in the Woods & Menswear Design & Menswear reports

4. Ubu Roi- possible collage rendering technique

5. Museum Project with Pretend City (exact scenarios TBA)


Please bring your texts and scripts to class on days we discuss reading.

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