No, you cannot paint that tortoise's shell -

No! Please Don’t Paint That Tortoise’s Shell!

You may have heard that a tortoise shell is made of keratin, the same material your fingernails are made of. For some reason, many people believe that the similarities between fingernails and tortoise shells means it’s perfectly fine to paint their tortoise’s shell with nail polish or regular household paint.

But can you paint a tortoise shell safely? It is absolutely NOT safe to paint a tortoise shell. Painting a tortoise’s shell poses a lot of dangers and it can even be fatal.

Though made of keratin like human nails, the shell allows chemicals to leech into the tortoise’s body. This can make a tortoise ill or even cause death. Paint prevents tortoises and turtles from absorbing vitamins from the sun. Painting a tortoise shell also destroys their natural camouflage.

It’s shocking to us how many people are painting their tortoises’ shells. Even using supposedly “tortoise-safe” paint is a terrible idea. This article will help shed some light on this cruel and dangerous practice, so hopefully fewer tortoises suffer.

Should I Paint My Tortoise’s Shell?

Absolutely not. When you paint your own nails or your house, you can smell how harsh those chemicals are. While it may not happen immediately, even painting your nails can expose you to all kinds of toxins soaking in through your nails. It’s on such a small scale for you, though, since your nails are such a small part of your body.

That’s not true for tortoises. Their bodies are completely covered with that shell, leaving only their limbs, tail, and head exposed to the air. Imagine 80 or 90% of your body covered in a thick, smelly, harsh chemical that you can’t wash off. That’s not quite as enticing, is it?

Why is it Bad to Paint a Tortoise Shell?

Painting a tortoise shell is akin to slowly poisoning your mute best friend. She can’t tell you if it hurts, smells bad, or is making her sick. Most tortoises won’t show signs of slow poisoning or if something is hurting them until it’s far too late. So why risk it?

Experts agree that painting tortoise shells is detrimental to their health for a variety of reasons. Even so-called turtle-friendly paints are just tortoise-death in a bottle. Here’s why.

Toxic Chemicals

Painting a tortoise or turtle shell will expose the animal to high levels of toxic chemicals. These will leech slowly into the reptile’s body, building up in the bloodstream. This will lead to illness, weakness, and eventually death.

The shell of a tortoise isn’t impervious. It’s designed to let certain things in and out. Under the shell is a complex network of blood vessels, nerve endings, and sensitive tissues that are all susceptible to outside chemicals.

Some paints include chemicals such as formaldehyde, toluene, acetone, and turpentine. These are just the chemicals that most people have probably heard of. The list is enormous, and each chemical comes with its own health hazards to people and pets. Imagine that slathered all over your body.


Tortoises need time in the sun to absorb important vitamins they can’t get otherwise. By painting all or part of a tortoise’s shell, you’re blocking their ability to absorb those vitamins. Essentially, you’ll be causing the tortoise or turtle to slowly die of malnutrition and vitamin deficiency.

Impeding Heat Regulation

A painted tortoise shell is not capable of releasing heat. That means a painted tortoise is likely to overheat very quickly and possibly die. Imagine boiling inside a suit of armor that you can’t escape from. If that’s too hard to imagine, think of how you feel trapped in a car on a hot day. That’s how it is for a painted tortoise, except they can’t simply open a door and step outside.

Respiratory Issues

All those chemicals seeping into their bodies and hovering around their shells can cause major respiratory issues. To put this into perspective, think how it feels to be stuck in a freshly-painted room. You can open a window or step outside, but a tortoise can’t. It must stay there, bathing in those fumes, breathing in that poison just because someone wanted to make them “pretty”.

Shell Deformation

In the wild or in captivity, shell growth can be retarded by painting. Even a small design left on long enough can cause pitting, grooves, pyramiding, and even softening of the shell. All of these issues can lead to internal injuries or illness.

Are Tortoise Shells Porous?

Yes, to an extent. Their not like sponges or anything obviously absorbent. However, they are made of keratin which is naturally porous on a microscopic level. This allows things to absorb into the shell. Things such as nutrients, oxygen, and vitamins. Unfortunately, it also means tortoise shells can and will absorb dangerous substances, too.

Is it Safe to Paint a Tortoise Shell with Nail Polish?

No, this is just as dangerous as using regular house paint. Nail polish is packed with chemicals like acetone, butyl acetate, and camphor, all of which are highly toxic. Since tortoises absorb things through their shells, they will absorb those chemicals, too.

Is it Safe to Use Pens or Sharpies on a Tortoise Shell?

Not really. Even pens and Sharpies contain toxic compounds that will seep into the tortoise’s bloodstream and cause health problems. Though Sharpie ink isn’t as bad as paint when it comes to blocking airflow, it does change the color of the shell, which can affect body temperature regulation as well as sunlight absorption.

Can I Glue Gemstones to My Tortoise?

Please don’t glue anything to your tortoise or turtle. Not only can glue be toxic, but the gems or other decorations can be, too. They can also pose choking hazards if they fall off. Please don’t bedazzle your tortoise.

Is tortoise-friendly paint really tortoise-friendly?

Not even a little bit! Even though the chemical composition of tortoise-friendly paint is less toxic than regular paint or nail polish, it’s still not safe. Remember that tortoises and turtles absorb sunlight, oxygen, and moisture through those shells. If you cover them with paint—even supposedly safe paints—you are reducing the surface area available to absorb the healthy elements they need.

These paints also increase a tortoise’s internal temperature. They do not allow enough heat to escape through the shell, as it naturally would, leading to heat stroke and death.

That said, there is a special paint that marine biologists use to make small marks on tortoises. These paints are expensive and they were never intended to be used as art projects. Scientists are not giving these guys racing stripes and smiley faces. Leave tortoise and turtle marking to the experts!

Alternatives to Painting Tortoise Shells

Though we believe that all tortoises are perfectly beautiful all on their own, some owners want to do something to gussy them up. Since you know that painting is dangerous and even deadly to tortoises, what can you do to play dress up?

Make Clothes

We have to admit that some people have gotten creative enough with their tortoise garb that they make us smile. When done properly and with respect to the tortoise, dressing them in costumes can be a lot of fun.

Use breathable, organic, natural fabrics when you create your tort’s new outfit. Make sure it’s extremely lightweight and loose-fitting so you don’t restrict her movement. Anything suitable for human infants is likely safe for tortoise costumes, so stick with kid-friendly materials.

Be ready to remove the garment at the first sign of distress. Even if your tort doesn’t mind the costume—or at least tolerates it—don’t leave it on for long. Remember that they need to absorb UV light through their shells to stay healthy!

Decorate the Enclosure

Instead of making your tortoise prance about in fancy dresses for your amusement, why not just decorate the enclosure? You can change the decorations all you want without hurting your tort… or embarrassing him!


Nature creates beautiful mosaics on the back of every tortoise and every turtle. These intricate designs are lovely to look at but they also serve important functions to keep the animals healthy. Instead of covering nature’s work and endangering your tortoise, find ways to appreciate her natural beauty. If you’re feeling artistic, skip the shell paint and do some art on paper or on the walls of your tortoise’s enclosure instead.

Related Questions

How can you tell if your tortoise is healthy and happy? There are some tell-tale signs that your tortoise is both healthy and happy. Check out this article to learn what you should look for in your tortoise: “How to tell if your tortoise is happy and healthy”

Do pet tortoises need toys? While they don’t need toys in the same way that dogs and cats do, you can add some ‘enrichment’ items to their environment. These items will be fun and they keep your tortoise curious and active: “Do pet tortoises need toys?”

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