You can't escape dust when sanding drywall, but you can protect yourself by wearing a mask, goggles, old clothing and by choosing a safer sanding method.

No two ways about it -- drywall sanding is dusty business, especially during large-scale construction and remodeling projects, when drywall finishing crews are hurrying to sand down taped joints. The dust, which is actually coming from the dried joint compound and not the drywall itself, contains a variety of industrial minerals, including talc, gypsum and silica, which can trigger health problems if inhaled.

Inhalation Symptoms

Tiny filaments in your nose and bronchial tubes trap some dust particles, but they can’t block all the particulates in clouds of drywall sanding dust. Inhaling any amount of dust isn’t healthy, but the more you inhale, the more likely you are to experience physical symptoms. Symptoms worsen with repeated exposure, if you smoke or if you have other respiratory disorders and include:

Short-term Symptoms

  • coughing
  • sore throat
  • or irritated, watery eyes

Repeated Exposure Symptoms or Conditions

  • chronic cough, with or without phlegm
  • asthma-like symptoms
  • silicosis
  • lung cancer -- if silica is present

Respiratory Protection

Specialized sanding equipment and some sanding methods can reduce the amount of dust in the air, but anytime you dry sand, wear a dust mask. Cheap masks might not adequately filter out dust particles. Look for masks bearing the “N95” label, meaning the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, certifies that the mask will block 95 percent of airborne particulates when used as directed. You’ll get even more protection from a full- or half-face silicone respiratory mask that comes with replaceable filters.

Drywall Sanding Equipment

Hand sanding with a sanding block creates billowing clouds of dust, and if you choose that method, in addition to wearing a mask, put a box fan in an open window to suck out some of the dust. Using alternate sanding equipment can also reduce dust.

  • Vacuum-type drywall sanders, sometimes called “ventilation sanders,” can reduce the exposure risk of airborne dust by 80 to 97 percent, depending on the individual system.
  • Switching from hand sanding to pole sanding can also reduce the concentration of inhalable dust particles. It doesn’t create less dust, but the dust is farther away from your face.

Wet Sanding

One of the best ways to reduce airborne drywall sanding dust is to wet sand 1. By using the coarse side of a damp drywall sponge, you can sand off joint compound ridges without filling the room with dust. It’s a slower process than dry sanding, but much of the dust sticks to the sponge, which requires frequent rinsing. The dust that doesn’t stick to the sponge is slightly damp and falls to the floor.