If there’s one topic everyone asks us about, it’s paint. That’s understandable; paint covers your walls and ceilings, the largest surface areas in a home.
Finding paints for a healthy home can be a challenge. Almost all of them—even ones labeled low- or no-VOC—can emit fumes. Here’s your guide for sourcing healthier paints.
The reality is, most traditional house paints are filled with organic solvents that aid in performance, providing faster drying times, better freeze-thaw resistance, and other features. But these substances can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air, including benzene and formaldehyde, which are harmful to human and animal health.
The Indoor Impact of VOCs
Off-gassing refers to the process by which cleaning products, building materials, and other items inside the home release gases into the air as a byproduct of industrial processing.
According to most research, even a one-time painting project can release high levels of VOCs, and these pollutants are two to five times higher indoors than outdoors, even if you live in a rural area. Even after the initial painting session, paint can continue to off-gas for years, with around half of the VOC content being released during the first few years.
This can ruin indoor air quality and lead to various short- and long-term health problems, including allergen sensitization, skin and eye irritation, nausea, headaches, memory loss, and “sick building syndrome,” which is a broad label given to the various symptoms brought on by an unhealthy indoor environment. Some VOCs have even been linked to cancer.
The Dangers of Modern Paint – VOCs Versus HAPs
So, now you know that “normal” paints are dangerous. But what about all the paints emerging on the market now labeled low- or no-VOC? Surely those must be safe to use, right?
Not always. Labels can be misleading. “Low-VOC” paints typically contain fewer than 50 grams of VOCs per liter, while “zero-VOC” is less than 5 grams per liter. So, they still contain some of these harmful chemicals.
Worse still, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed certain chemicals as VOC exempt. Some are listed instead as hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). Methylene chloride, for example, is not a VOC because it does not produce ozone, meaning manufacturers can add it to paints and still label them “no-VOC” despite methylene chloride being harmful to humans. Acetone and ammonia are also on the exempt list.
You’d be surprised at the number of additives like biocides and antifreeze that majority of paint companies get away with putting in their paints -- and can end up on your walls. To make things even more confusing, harmless chemicals like plant-based vinegar can emit VOCs -- so as you can see, volatile organic compounds are not always the best way to assess the 'healthy-ness' of a product.
This is why looking for a paint that is free of HAPs should be the gold standard when it comes to non toxic paint. More on how to mitigate these issues in a moment...
Oil-Based Paint Versus Water-Based Paint
There’s not much out there on the two main types of house paints available on the market and what they do inside a home, so let’s take a closer look at oil-based and water-based paints.
Paint consists of a pigment and a binder, with oil or water as the carrier. Water-based paint tends to dry quickly and have less of an odor, while oil-based paints tend to produce larger amounts of VOCs. (Keep in mind that an intense odor does not necessarily mean high levels of VOCs and vice versa.) In general, water-based paints are easier to work with and clean up.
Water-based paints typically use acrylic or latex as the binder. Latex is often labeled low-VOC, but it’s harder to apply and has inferior durability, which is largely responsible for why some painters don’t like latex paint and think “healthy” paints mean “lacking in performance.”
What About DIY Paint?
While it may be tempting to try to make paint yourself based on recipes you can find online, we don’t recommend this for a few reasons.
A lot of factors go into formulating a paint that is easy to use and durable.
Important factors include creating a formula that will withstand changes between humid and dry conditions, a formula that’s durable and water resistant, and something that won’t go rancid in the absence of chemical preservatives.
Some homemade paint recipes contain milk, which can sour very quickly. And while we love the idea of food-based colorants, it’s simply not a good idea to put food on your walls for years at a time, which can spoil and cause unpleasant odors.
Worst case scenario, you mix two chemicals that shouldn’t go together and end up creating your own health hazard.
So, Which Non Toxic Zero VOC Paint Should You Choose?
We recommend you look for water-based acrylic paint, which tends to be super durable, environmentally friendly, and easy to work with. Since paint covers the most surface area inside a home, we felt it was important to make our own line of Healthier Homes paints, non toxic primers, and clear coatings, which we use daily out in the field in our construction projects.
These eco friendly interior paints are water-based acrylics that contain zero HAPs and cure zero VOC. It was important to us that our nontoxic interior paints would have the added benefit of acting as sealers to prevent offgassing of chemicals like formaldehyde from below the painted surface – and we're proud to say this makes our paints and non-toxic wood sealer unique.
Bottom line, there's a lot that goes into choosing the best materials for your family's home.
Feeling confident about what goes into your home is absolutely essential. One of the quickest and most efficient ways to make your home healthier is to paint the interior walls, cabinets and ceilings with a zero VOC, zero HAPs paint that seals the surface.
To learn more about how Healthier Homes paints work, click here.