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Choosing Safer Interior Paints for a Healthier Home

One of my favorite ways to redecorate a room is with a fresh coat of color on the walls. When I was growing up, I think my bedroom went through about four different colors from childhood until I left the nest after high school. The first apartment I shared with my husband had a red bedroom, a yellow kitchen, a blue bathroom, and a green living room. I like color!

A few years ago, though, I discovered that each coat of paint I plastered on my walls brought along with it a slew of toxins. These toxins are known as VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, and they are not only released into the air while you are painting the walls, but for many years afterward, as well. Surprised? I was. VOCs are actually found in many household items, including furnishings and rugs – not just paint. But today we’ll focus on interior paints.

The negative effects of VOCs can include respiratory problems, allergies, asthma-like symptoms, impaired memory, and a weakened immune system. Infants and children are especially vulnerable, as are the sick and elderly, but everyone is at risk. Thankfully, there are now a few alternatives to traditional high-VOC paint.

Photo by Ms..G

Natural Paints

Natural paints are not something you will find at your local big-box hardware store.  Made out of materials such as plants, clay, minerals, and milk proteins, these paints are undoubtedly the safest and healthiest choice for your home.

• They are on the pricey side, and the results will often look different than a regular can of paint would produce; for example, depending on the paint, you might see a milky wash, or slight variations of color in one can.
• These can produce gorgeous effects, especially when layered.
• Natural paints will either be odorless or have a slight earthy or citrusy scent, depending on the ingredients.

Zero-VOC Paints

Zero-VOC paints are more mainstream; you will find a zero-VOC option at almost all major paint retailers these days. Technically, most of these paints still contain tiny amounts of VOCs – as long as it is five grams per liter or less, it can still be classified as “zero.”  Zero-VOC paints are often on the pricey side, as well, depending on brand.  These paints will emit very little odor when you’re painting – no need to open up all the windows, unless you want to enjoy the breeze!

Low-VOC Paints

Low-VOC paints can actually have a pretty wide range of VOCs in them – anywhere from six to 200 grams per liter. However, most reputable brands hover around 50 grams per liter. These paints will emit an odor while you’re painting, but it will disappear once the paint is dry. They are often much more inexpensive than the first two options, too, so do your homework to figure out what you can afford and what you will get for your money. If you’re particularly concerned, look for less than 25 grams per liter.

Photo by Rachael E.C. Acklin

A Few Final Tips

• If in doubt, look for brands that are certified by independent organizations: a few good ones are GreenGuard and Green Wise.
• Check out Consumer Reports’ article on Zero- and Low-VOC paints.
• Read ingredients: the solids will range anywhere from 25 – 45%, and the more there are, the less VOCs there are.
• When you add a tint to paint, it will always add a few VOCs – anywhere from 5-10 more grams per liter.
• Different finishes will contain different amounts of VOCs – the glossier the paint, the higher the amount.

If you want to paint your walls anytime soon, make sure to look into these options. We’re planning a living room makeover next month, and we are going to look for a Zero-VOC paint. But what if you already live in a house where the walls are covered in traditional high-VOC paint? Well, be looking for a post next week from Stephanie about a wonderful way to easily clean your indoor air…

Have you heard about VOCs in paint? Have any of you tried the natural paints? I would love to hear about your experience!

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  1. Kara

    I have heard of the VOCs in paint (among other home furnishings) and it’s definitely something I want to look into when I move into a place that allows me to paint my walls. I haven’t heard of the zero VOC variety before, so that’s pretty neat. Thanks for the great information!

    • Katie ~ Simple Organic

      Kara – I have never owned a place, but several places where I’ve lived have allowed me to paint. Sometimes, if you just ask, they will say yes – they will either want to approve the color, or ask you to re-paint back to white when you leave. If you plan to live somewhere for quite awhile, it can be worth it!

      • Kara

        Oh definitely. I’ve asked before, unfortunately my current apartment doesn’t allow it (they barely allow nail holes in the walls too).

  2. Jen

    I’ve also heard of VOCs in paint. It would be nice if the alternatives didn’t have to be so expensive. Once we buy our own house and paint we plan on getting at least a no-VOC paint. Hopefully by then they will be a bit more mainstream and the price won’t be as high.
    .-= Jen’s last blog: Lots of Stuff Going on in the Garden! =-.

  3. Kara

    Katie, this is SO timely for me as I’m having the “paint bug” lately … we’re not ready to paint yet, but I’m glad to read this post and do some research so we can make a good choice when/if we paint. Yes, they are pricier, but if we are going to make changes we might as well save up and make the best changes (a good excuse for me to budget … hmmm, a “paint sinking fund” ….) 🙂 Thank you!

    My sister and her husband recently painted using low-VOC paints and she said just the difference in the smell vs. normal paints was really evident. Definitely makes you think about what is in them!
    .-= Kara’s last blog: Music Review: Dan Zanes Concert DVD and a Surprising New Find =-.

    • Katie ~ Simple Organic

      So glad it was timely for you! 🙂 Yes, we used low-VOC paints when we moved into our place 3.5 yrs ago and there was a definite difference in the smell!

  4. Kika

    Last summer we had difficulty finding no or low VOC options; or rather, we found one brand but were extremely limited in color. My husband would like to paint our living room this summer and I sure hope to have better options to choose from this time around.

    • Katie ~ Simple Organic

      Yes, there can be less color options, so I’ve found that we’ve had to shop lots of brands to find what we want. But that was 3.5 yrs ago for us – so maybe now the selection has expanded! We’ll see!

  5. Kait Palmer

    Our last rental had ugly greyish matte walls, so we got permission from our landlord to repaint and we used Fresh Aire paint in a mellow yellow (Ray of Hope). It was so nice being able to finish a room and not feel like we needed to take breaks from the fumes but just put our furniture back and live in it. And our place didn’t stink for a few days while it dried. I’d definitely recommend that brand!
    .-= Kait Palmer’s last blog: Drinking Wine From a Dixie Cup =-.

  6. Kathryn

    We’ve been using Olympic Premium from Lowe’s for several years, and it’s terrific. It’s zero-VOC, GreenSeal certified, and extremely affordable. It also looks really nice and is very durable. There are two asthmatics in our household, one of whom is extremely sensitive to fumes, and both can be in the house when this paint is going up.
    One drawback to “green” paints is that they often don’t cover as well as standard paints; this is because paint gets most of its opacity from VOCs. Just plan on using an extra coat or two, especially if the new color contrasts strongly with the old one. You can help cut down on coats by using tinted primer–either tint it to match your paint, or use gray primer (which has the added benefit of really making colors pop).

    • Katie ~ Simple Organic

      Great tips, Kathryn! We might have to use that tinted primer trick – we are about to cover sky blue with neutral off-white-ish. 🙂

  7. Jeanne

    This post is very timely for me as well! I just picked up a bunch of color samples in preparation for painting my bathroom. Luckily, the bathroom is very small so I may be able to spring for the more pricey paint option. I did see “zero VOC” paint at the store, and have been meaning to research it. Thanks for reading my mind, Katie!
    .-= Jeanne’s last blog: Sun-Dried Tomato Polenta Cutlets =-.

  8. Sandra Lee

    We recently painted a room with a Zero VOC paint (Green Guard Certified), but it still had an odor for almost a week. If you are very sensitive to chemicals, it’s often recommended to test a small sample first.
    .-= Sandra Lee’s last blog: The power of one =-.

  9. Becky - Clean Mama

    I’ve been using Benjamin Moore’s Zero VOC contractor-grade paint….it’s called Ecover. Everything needed 2 coats, but it is beautiful and smooth and rich in color. My kids slept in their rooms the night we painted because there was absolutely no smell. The good thing about the contractor grade is that it’s much cheaper (about $20/gallon) than other paints and it is mixed on the Aura palette (the Ben. Moore paint that’s over $50/gallon). It’s a great way to get a bargain on no VOC paint.
    .-= Becky – Clean Mama’s last blog: How to Teach a Preschooler With a Toddler in Tow =-.

  10. Tammi

    After we bought our house last summer I knew I would only use low/zero VOC paints. And I did. Olympic’s Zero VOC paint was $10 more per gallon than the regular paint but so worth it. I didn’t have the smell, I didn’t have to worry about my kids taking in that smell/chemicals. I got great color now and no worries. 🙂
    .-= Tammi’s last blog: Catch y’all on the flip side =-.

  11. Todd

    Almost perfect timing on this post for me!

    I have been wanting to buy my first home for the past 2 years now and it simply has not worked out. But, things are looking great right now to where I will be able to make that purchase this summer. Will I be doing any painting? I am not sure, but understanding the harmful effects of paint and knowing what types to buy will certainly motivate me to paint something! 🙂
    .-= Todd’s last blog: 5 More Reasons to Avoid Sugar for Glowing Skin =-.

  12. Rachel

    I just started painting my son’s room on Saturday and besides the fact that I just wanted a healthier paint I am also painting 6 months pregnant so I knew that having no to low VOC was a must. I used Olympic’s Zero VOC paint from Lowes and it was only about $13 dollars a gallon. I didn’t think that was too bad. I would love to experiment with the natural paints some time. But now is just not the stage in life where we have either the time, or more importantly, the money to go that route. But it was great to learn they are out there. Thanks!

  13. ayati

    I am very concern about VOC’s paint because my family have asthma recorded. So, I always choose zero VOC’s paints for my home. Although they are often on the pricey side but when you face about health issue, you must remove price from your consideration.

  14. BertaMarquez30

    Do you understand that it is the best time to get the loans, which will realize your dreams.

  15. Healthyman

    Thanks for all the practical and important information that I will put to good use. Now, I am really interested in any tips with painting over existing latex/acrylic painted walls using natural paints or zero-voc.

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