The Very First Thing You Should Do After Thrifting Vintage Decor

published Oct 6, 2023
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Vintage yellow rocking chair and lamp on street flea market
Credit: InnaFelker/Shutterstock

If you’re like me, you have a favorite coffee mug that fits your hands just right. Mine is an old vintage one that I scored years ago, and that prized mug filled with my favorite brew is often my best motivation to get out of bed. However, I recently learned that my morning motivator might not be as innocent as I’d like: As with other vintage ceramics, it could contain lead.

Fears of lead poisoning usually center around paint within an older home, like when children pick up random paint chips, especially in houses that predate 1978, when the federal government banned consumers from using lead-based paint. But dangers were lurking well before the 20th century. 

“Surprisingly, the awareness of the hazards of lead paint dates back to the Middle Ages,” says Glynn Palermo, the chief restoration officer at M.S. Rau, an antiques dealer. Even so, it remained in use for years. In the United States, lead paint use dates back to Colonial times, when it was favored for walls because it dried quickly, was durable, and offered a pleasing opaque color. Despite the knowledge that using lead was risky, things didn’t change for centuries.

I didn’t consider there may be other ways lead is sneaking into my system, like through my beloved thrift store purchases of dishes and decor.

The good news is that you can test any vintage items at home before using them, and tests are readily available online for under $20. “These kits usually include swabs or solutions that change color when lead is present,” says Willow Wright, the owner of Urban Redeux in Alexandria, Virginia.

Wright stresses that there are certain signs of lead that you should be wary of even before you grab a testing kit. “Keep an eye out for any paint that is peeling, chipping, cracking, or flaking on items,” she recommends. Fine dust or chalky appearance can also be an indicator. “Lead-based paint often retains vibrant colors or fades to a powder blue or gray shade over time,” adds Wright.

If you, like me, are using vintage items in your home, there may be cause for concern. Here are four things you may want to test for lead before putting them to use at home.

Children’s Toys

Although vintage toys are charming, especially if they are a family heirloom, these can pose a risk for kids. “It’s advisable to exercise caution with old painted metal toys, dollhouses, or wooden toys with peeling or chipped paint,” advises Wright. Although your childhood wagon may be the perfect play toy for your child, if you plan on using it and other playthings for anything other than decorative purposes, it’s essential to use a testing kit to see if they contain lead. 

Ceramic, Crystal, or Porcelain Dishware

The easiest way to consume lead quickly is by using tainted dishware and cooking items. “For example, ceramic or porcelain dishware with colorful or highly decorative, hand-painted designs could potentially have lead paint,” reveals Wright. She also notes that ceramic mixing bowls, pitchers, or mugs with vibrant colors or intricate patterns might also be suspect. 

If you collect and use crystal, it may contain lead if it was produced before 1969, when leaded crystal became a regulated industry. However, the prognosis isn’t all grim where leaching — the process whereby lead seeps — is concerned. “According to the California Department of Public Health, even with the possible traces of lead, the occasional use of antique tableware made of crystal, porcelain, and other materials is considered safe,” says Palermo. 

According to the CDC, factors that impact the amount of toxins that filter into consumable items depend on the amount of lead in the dish, the kind of glazing used, the type of food on the container, and how long the food sits on it. “It is advisable not to store liquids in these items,” adds Palermo. Case in point: A hot mug of coffee could be dangerous.

Kitchen Tools

Thankfully, modern kitchen tools won’t contain lead, but the cute vintage ones your grandmother used may be coated with unhealthy paint. “Cooking tools like cookie cutters or can openers with wooden handles could potentially contain lead,” says Wright. Look for painted handles — especially in red or green — or painted tin, and test accordingly. A positive test doesn’t mean you have to throw them out; just consider lead-containing tools to be for decoration only.


Before you buy that Facebook Marketplace dresser you’re eyeing, consider if it has a coat of lead paint on top or lurking underneath. You’ll need to take precautions, such as wearing a dust mask and eye protection, which are always good ideas when refurbishing furniture. However, Palermo says this won’t be a concern with fine antiques. “Lead was commonly found in hardware, such as pipes and cheaper wooden items, but seldom used in high-quality antiques,” he says. Either way, performing a quick lead test is helpful for peace of mind.