Low VOC Interior Paint and Other Safe Alternatives

  • 01 of 08


    Zero VOC Paint
    YOLO zero VOC paint. © YOLO Colorhouse LTD


    Do you know what one of the top five leading US health risks are, according to the EPA? Try indoor air. That's right, the air in your house. And some of the leading contaminants of indoor air are the paints, varnishes and solvents we use containing VOCs. VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound, and VOCs are key components of oil-based paints. They can be a problem even in some traditional latex-based paints.​

    Exposure to VOC's in paint can trigger asthma attacks, eye irritation,respiratory problems, nausea and dizziness,  among other symptoms. Prolonged exposure has been linked to kidney and liver disease and even cancer.

    Given the health concerns of consumers and new government regulations, alternative paints have been coming into the market over the past few years and now offer well-rounded, economical choices over VOC-intensive paints. Voluntary standards for VOC content in alternative paint products have been established by Green Seal®, an independent non-profit that sets standards for environmentally responsible or "green" products. The Green Seal certification for Standard GS-11 is based on VOC content, the absence of chemicals, durability and performance, among other criteria.​

    The different types of healthy alternative paints include:

    • Low-odor or low-VOC paint.
    • Zero-VOC paint.
    • Non-toxic or natural paint.
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  • 02 of 08

    Green Seal Standard GS-11 for Low Odor or Low VOC Paint

    low voc paint green seal logo
    Green Seal logo. © Green Seal

    Green Seal Standard GS-11 for Low-Odor or Low-VOC Paint:

    The Green Seal organization sets much more stringent standards than the EPA for acceptable VOC levels in paint. For interior flat paint, the EPA allows levels of 250 grams per liter (g/L) while Green Seal allows only 50 g/L.

    Green Seal also prevents the use of the following nasty chemicals in the production of the paint:

    • Halomethanes (methylene chloride).
    • Chlorinated ethanes (1,1,1-trichloroethane).
    • Aromatic solvents (benzene, toluene (methylbenzene), ethylbenzene).
    • Chlorinated ethylenes (vinyl chloride).
    • Polynuclear aromatics (naphthalene).
    • Chlorobenzenes (1,2-dichlorobenzene).
    • Phthalate esters (di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, butyl benzyl phthalate, di-n-butyl phthalate, di-n-octyl phthalate, diethyl phthalate, dimethyl phthalate).
    • Miscellaneous semi-volatile organics (isophorone).
    • Heavy metals and their compounds (antimony, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury).
    • Preservatives (formaldehyde).
    • Ketones (methyl ethyl ketone, methyl isobutyl ketone).
    • Miscellaneous volatile organics (acrolein, acrylonitrile).

    You'll want to make sure that whatever paint you buy has the Green Seal "mark of environmental responsibility" or states that it meets Green Seal Standard GS-11.

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  • 03 of 08

    How Long Does VOC Off-Gassing Continue?

    Green Seal's April 2006 "Proposed Environmental Standard and Environmental Evaluation of Recycled Content Latex Paint" states the following related to the continued release of VOC's from latex paints:

    • "Although many of the toxic materials found in paints have been reduced in recent years due to legislation, especially among latex paints, some may still be released as the paint dries and the compounds volatilize, while others continue to be released into the ambient environment after the paint dries when there is no detectable odor. . . Paint emissions can continue for extended periods of time after application and Sparks et al. (1999) estimated that less than 50% of the VOC's in latex paint (applied to a surface) are emitted in the first year. Compounds studied include ethylene glycol, propylene glycol, Texanol®, and butoxyethanol."

    So, the bottom line is that VOC's continue to be released well after paint has dried.

    Now that we have a good understanding of what VOCs are and the health risks posed by standard paint, especially  to young children and people with asthma, let's review each type of alternative paint and see what they are made from and how they differ.

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  • 04 of 08

    Low-Odor or Low-VOC Paint

    First of all, there is no clear mandatory standard for what constitutes a Low-VOC paint or a Zero-VOC paint. Even the voluntary standards that do exist do not include the VOCs that may be in the pigment added at the paint store at purchase time. And just like a lot of other "organic" marketing of our milk and foods, some companies use Low-VOC or No-VOC paint as a marketing term. Further, because these terms are confusing, a lot of store clerks may not know the actual VOC status of a paint. It is ultimately up to you to read the labels to see if paint at least meets the Green Seal GS-11 Standard or better.

    Low-Odor or Low-VOC Paint are terms used to describe VOC content that meets the less stringent EPA standard of 250 g/L for latex paints or 380 g/L for oil-based paint. But here's where it gets confusing. A paint may be labeled Low VOC and be significantly BETTER than these standards. For example, if you buy a Green Seal certified paint, the maximum VOC content will be 50 g/L for flat paint or 150 g/L for other paint—not 250 g/L ,as per the EPA standard.

    So, Low-Odor or Low-VOC paints are generally marketed by reputable paint manufacturers as at least meeting the 50 g/L VOC threshold, with many paints doing better than this. You should look for a VOC range of 10 to 25 g/L.

    An example of a paint line that meets this spec is  EcoSpec line by Benjamin Moore & Co.

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  • 05 of 08

    Zero or No VOC Paint

    Zero VOC or NO VOC paint is a misnomer, since still contains very, very low levels of VOC. Usually, paints marketed with these titles will have VOC levels under 5 g/L. Even when adding in pigment at the paint store, which can add 2 to 5 g/L of VOC, the total VOC content for the mixed paint should be under 10 g/L—which is excellent.

    This is as low as it gets for VOC content in paints offered by the larger paint companies. An example of a paint that meets this spec is Harmony® Paint by Sherwin-Williams.

    To get lower VOC content than this you'll need to use more expensive and less readily available Non-Toxic or Natural Paint.

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  • 06 of 08

    Non-Toxic or Natural Paint

    Non-toxic or natural paints are mostly manufactured by alternative paint companies. These paints will be harder to find, and you may have to order them on line. They are made from natural ingredients, and although they are environmentally friendly and healthy, you may experience some performance difference in the way the paint covers (or doesn't) and flows off the brush. Just be aware that these paints don't all act like the mass-produced paints to which we've become accustomed.

    That being said, non-toxic or natural paints are as safe as paint gets. Their raw ingredients are all natural and include things like:

    • Water.
    • Plant oils (like citrus).
    • Plant dyes.
    • Natural minerals, such as clay.
    • Milk protein.
    • Natural latex.
    • Bees' wax.
    • Earth and mineral dyes and other ingredients.

    Although these paints may have small amounts of ingredients such as latex milk protein, allergic reactions are very uncommon. These paints are the safest you can use.

    Some natural paint manufacturers include:

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  • 07 of 08

    Green Seal Certified Paint Manufacturers

    For reference, Green Seal has certified the following companies as having met at least the GS-11 Standard for Low VOC content. There are many others that also meet the standard but these are the ones that have had Green Seal certify their product and can display the Green Seal mark:

    • Al-Jazeera Factory for Paints, Inc. 
    • Asian Paints Limited
    • B.B.C. Paints
    • G.J.Nikols & Co. Inc.
    • Kore-Kote, Inc.
    • Master Paints and Chemical Corporation.
    • PPG Architectural Coatings Canada, Inc.
    • Rust-Oleum Corporation.
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  • 08 of 08

    The New Alternative—Ceramic Paint

    ceramic paint
    Ceramic paint by O'Leary Paint. © O'Leary Paint

    The New Alternative—Ceramic Paint:

    The next generation in Low-VOC paints has arrived with the advent of ceramic paint. No, it's not for use on ceramics, but is a standard house paint that uses microscopic ceramic beads as a key component of the paint film.

    To learn more about this great product, refer to this tutorial, Low-VOC Ceramic Wall Paint.