Choosing a Low-Toxic Paint for Your Home

When you think of the worst kind of toxic fumes, paint has to be at the top of the list, right? So if you’re ready to do some remodeling in your house or apartment, are there “greener” options?

Fortunately, the market is putting out some green paints that are supposed to be less toxic in one way or the other. The trouble is that the number of green labels is growing, which can lead to customer confusion. Here are a few guidelines to help you out.

Why Choose “Green” Paints?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air in most houses these days is of worse quality than outdoor air. Paints and finishes can be one of the leading causes of indoor air pollution. Most are made from petrochemical-based solvents, and even after they’re dry, can release low levels of toxins into the air for years. Most of these toxins come from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene and formaldehyde. These compounds are emitted as gases and contain a variety of both natural and man-made chemicals, many of which can be hazardous to human health.

It used to be that VOCs were essential to the performance of indoor paints, but consumer demand for safer options has led to some lower-VOC alternatives. These options can reduce the occurrence of allergies and chemical sensitivities, improve indoor air quality, and lower the risk of other health problems, as well as reduce environmental contaminants. Painted areas can also be occupied sooner, as the telltale paint fumes are much less potent.

Types of Less-Toxic Paints

Though there are low-VOC options, most paints contain at least some VOCs. Even “zero-VOC” formulations contain a small amount of toxins. Three general categories of these safer paints include:

  • Natural Paints: made with natural raw ingredients like water, plant oils and resins, plant dyes and essential oils, natural minerals, bee’s wax, earth and mineral dyes. They give off almost no smell, and are the safest option for human health.
  • Zero-VOC: Any paint with a total amount of 5 grams/liter or less VOCs can be labeled zero-VOC. These are considered to be healthier options to regular paint.
  • Low-VOC: These use water as a carrier instead of petroleum-based solvents, so they create lower levels of harmful emissions than regular paints. They also contain no, or very low levels of formaldehyde and heavy metals. Most of these paints meet the 50 grams/liter VOC threshold.

VOC Labels

In addition to the above categories, many regular paints have various “green” labels that say something about their emissions. Here are a few examples:

  • Asthma & Allergy Friendly: This is a seal put out by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Paints that carry the seal are certified to ensure they do not have properties likely to irritate allergies and asthma. VOCs must not exceed certification thresholds, but I couldn’t track down what those were.
  • Greenguard: This group allows only trace levels of VOCs, including formaldehyde and styrene. The Greenguard Environmental Institute sponsors this seal.
  • Green Seal: This group limits VOCs, bars certain chemicals, and assesses performance.
  • Green Wise: Products with this label have limited VOCs, are certified free of certain toxic chemicals, and have products tested by the Coatings Research Group. This label is not as common as some of the others.
  • Green Sure: Created by Sherwin-Williams, this label covers only their products that have VOCs of 50 grams per liter or less and are free of certain chemicals. There is no third-party confirmation of the results. Consumer Reports says this one didn’t perform as well in tests.
  • Green Promise: Created by Benjamin Moore and covers only their products, which are tested in third-party laboratories to meet the requirements of Greenguard.

Do They Work?

It’s all well and good to get rid of toxins, but then, does the paint work well on the wall? Of course, we care about that too!

The best option here is to do your research before you buy. The New York Times put out a review that acknowledged when low-VOC paints first came out, they didn’t work that well—they went on unevenly and the color choices were limited. Things have changed, however, and now we have options that really do cover nicely. The author named the following six brands as those that performed the best. The good news is that you can get good coverage in nice colors without risking your health.

  • Farrow & Ball
  • Stark
  • Benjamin Moore Natura zero-VOC
  • Safecoat
  • Yolo Colorhouse
  • Mythic zero-VOC paints


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