VOC Paint vs No-VOC Paint Comparison Guide

Learn the key differences

Second coat of paint rolled on still wet painted wall

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

As the planet shifts to more environmentally friendly products, paint companies follow suit by offering paint labeled "low VOC" or "no VOC." VOCs are volatile organic compounds or chemicals found in many building materials that give off gasses that can build up and harm people and the environment. When you smell that "new paint smell," those are VOCs. The government regulates them in some household items as part of the Clean Air Act.

VOCs are commonly found in paints as the medium that helps the paint glide onto a surface. Since every room in a house and the exterior are usually painted, VOCs are already everywhere. Paint can off-gas fumes for weeks, months, or years after initial application.

VOCs can build up in the home. Besides paints and varnishes, they're also in caulk, air fresheners, cleaning products, smoking, carpet, vinyl and composite flooring, dry cleaning, photocopiers, petroleum products, natural gas, upholstery, foam, and wood-burning. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "Studies have found that levels of several organics average two to five times higher indoors than outdoors."

When inhaled, VOCs can contribute to several health problems, including irritation to your airways, headaches, nausea, and even damage to the liver, kidneys, or central nervous system.

"No VOC" and "low VOC" may undoubtedly sound better, and in many cases, they are better, but read on to find out what they imply for you and your household and how these products may influence your paint purchase decision.

What Is No vs. Low-VOC Paint?

Low-VOC paint means that the paint contains less than 50 grams per liter of volatile organic compounds. No-VOC or zero-VOC paint can still have some VOCs, but it must have less than 5 grams per liter. Even if they have no or low VOC, these paints may still contain other harmful chemicals. And, if you are mixing in color, the process often adds VOCs.

VOC vs. No VOC or Low VOC: Major Differences

As the name describes, "no VOC" and "low VOC" paints sound like they are better than "VOC" paints; however, the Environmental Protection Agency states it can only regulate VOC-containing paints if they are photochemically reactive, meaning when they enter the atmosphere, they turn into ozone, which causes smog.

"Some products that are labeled as "no VOC" or "low VOC" can contain volatile organic chemicals that are toxic, sometimes at high levels," according to the EPA. "While it is probably prudent to use products with lower VOC levels, it does not assure that the products are any better (and they may even be worse) than products with higher VOC levels."

The bottom line is the EPA can regulate or ban VOC paints that contribute to photochemical smog, but other paints labeled as no-VOC or low-VOC remain on the market and may contain toxic elements. So, if toxicity is your most significant concern, instead of looking at VOC contents, look for paints labeled "non-toxic" or "natural paint." These specialty paints can be harder to find, and you may have to order them online from alternative paint companies.

Standard VOC Paint No or Low VOC-Containing Paint
VOC Content 250 grams/liter (matte/flat)
380 grams/liter (glossy)
5 grams/liter or less (No-VOC)
50 grams/liter or less (Low-VOC)
Appearance Smoother, more even Streakier, needs more coats
Durability Most durable Can be as durable (if has Green Seal)
Color Colorants add VOCs If adding tint to no/low VOC, it may add VOCs
Cost Cheaper More expensive
Odor High odor Hardly detectable odor
Health Concerns VOCs can contribute to health issues Fewer VOCs are good, but other toxic ingredients may be just as problematic
Environmental Impact Worse for the environment Likely better for the environment, depending on the other ingredients
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Watch Now: Low VOC Paint vs. No VOC Paint

Appearance

Standard VOC Paint

Many traditional paints are formulated to make your painting task easy—one or two coats may be all you need. The formula goes on smoothly, and evenly, and that's big thanks to VOCs making that coverage easy.

No or Low-VOC Paint

Paint formulations have come a long way. No and low-VOC paints have been tweaking their ingredients to get smooth paints, even with lower VOC contents. However, you will need an extra layer or two to get the paint to look as even and not streaky.

Best for Appearance: Standard VOC Paint

VOCs are used in paint because of how easy they make the task of painting. Paint that glides on smoothly and evenly and looks great with minimal effort will always win over a thinner, streakier formula, especially if time and costs are a factor.

Durability

Standard VOC Paint

Standard VOC paints tend to be the most durable regarding washability, opacity, and scuff resistance.

No or Low-VOC Paint

No and low-VOC paints have been formulated to be as durable as standard VOC paints. If a no or low-VOC paint has the "Green Seal," it meets paint durability standards.

Best for Durability: Tie

As long as a low or no VOC paint has the "Green Seal" on it, it has been tested to meet durability factors such as adhesion, applicability, scrubbability, and washability.

Color

Standard VOC Paint

The richest colors have more VOCs. The addition of colorants raises the VOC content of the paint.

No or Low-VOC Paint

Paints that have no color have fewer VOCs. However, if you are embarking on a painting project, such as a nursery, with hopes of keeping VOCs as low as possible, getting a no or low-VOC paint that has colorant mixed in brings up the VOC content.

Best for Color: Standard VOC Paint

Colorants usually equal VOCs. The upside is your VOCs are reduced if you use a no or low-VOC paint can to start with and only have standard VOC colorant mixed in. Some paint manufacturers offer zero-VOC colorants, although they're less common and much more expensive.

Cost

Standard VOC Paint

Standard VOC paints are usually the cheapest option available. An ordinary gallon of paint can cost, on average, $20 to $30. Also, you may need fewer coats of traditional VOC paint than a no or low-VOC paint.

No or Low-VOC Paint

No or low VOC paints cost more than standard VOC paints. Low-VOC paints can cost about $40 to $50 per gallon. Meanwhile, no-VOC paints cost about $50 to $60 per gallon.

Best for Cost: Standard VOC Paint

The least expensive paints are usually the paints that contain the most VOCs.

Odor

Standard VOC Paint

If you’re sensitive to odor, standard VOC paints are known for their distinctive chemical smell. You can mitigate the smell by putting a HEPA-filtered air purifier in the room after painting. Other ways to get rid of VOCs or fumes that are off-gassing are to use a dehumidifier, open windows, and turn on fans to ventilate the area.

No or Low-VOC Paint

One of the biggest benefits to getting no or low-VOC paint is they have very low odor.

Best for Odor: No or Low-VOC Paint

If you want a freshly painted room and no odor, opt for no or low-VOC paints.

Warning

Even with low VOC or no VOC paint, proper ventilation while painting interior spaces is highly recommended. Proper ventilation allows for safer breathing and helps the paint dry.

Health Concerns

Standard VOC Paint

Standard VOC paints have high levels of VOCs and other toxic ingredients.

No or Low VOC Paint

No or low-VOC paint have fewer VOCs but may still contain toxic ingredients.

Best for Health Concerns: No or Low VOC Paint

No or low-VOC paint may be better for people with health concerns since they have fewer VOCs, but they still contain toxic ingredients. A better alternative for those with health concerns is paint labeled "non-toxic" or "natural."

Environmental Impact

Standard VOC Paint

VOCs are harmful to the environment, so it stands to reason that higher VOC paints are likely worse than those with fewer VOCs. However, other ingredients in the paint can tip the balance.

No or Low VOC Paint

No and low-VOC paints may have fewer VOCs, but they are not entirely harmless. VOCs are only one of several toxic compounds in paints. The other components can be just as bad, if not worse.

Best for Environmental Impact: No or Low VOC-Paint

VOCs increase air pollution and can enter groundwater, which affects plants and wildlife. No or low-VOC paints have fewer VOCs, so they are likely better than standard or high-VOC paints. Although, if the other ingredients are just as toxic, it's a wash.

Lifespan

Standard VOC Paint

Standard VOC paints seem to last longer than no or low-VOC paint.

No or Low VOC Paint

If you use no or low-VOC paint, you may need to reapply a coat to your walls sooner than if you used standard VOC paint.

Best for Lifespan: Standard VOC Paint

Standard VOC paint lasts longer between reapplications, requires fewer coats, and goes on smoother than lower VOC alternatives.

The Verdict

If you're trying to save money and want paint that goes on smoothest, easiest, and lasts longer, go the route of standard VOC paint.

However, you will likely be happier with no or low-VOC paints if you're concerned about the environment and are sensitive to odor and potential health concerns. Although, if health and the environment are your most significant considerations, then opt for "non-toxic" or "natural" paint instead. Read the label to ensure they contain no extra solvents or additives, and check for a VOC level of 5 grams per liter or less.

Top Brands

  • Benjamin Moore Eco Spec: This Benjamin Moore paint is their “greenest” interior premium acrylic paint that comes in a flat, eggshell, and semi-gloss finish and all colors, using their Gennex zero-VOC colorant system. 
  • Sherwin Williams Harmony: This acrylic latex paint features an anti-microbial ingredient to reduce the growth of mold and mildew. This ingredient makes it a great option to use in kitchens, bathrooms, and other rooms with excess moisture.
  • ECOS: For more than 30 years, ECOS Paint has been producing paint for people with sensitivities. Their paint is water-based, zero-VOC, low-odor, manufactured in the United States, and includes a complete ingredient list and VOC test data.
  • Behr Premium Plus Low Odor: Since 2012, Behr has offered an affordable zero-VOC, low-odor paint. The big plus with this option is this paint is an all-in-one primer and paint combo. It has a mildew-resistant finish, is 100% acrylic, and dries fast. It’s Greenguard Gold Certified, meeting standards for low chemical emissions. 
  • Farrow & Ball: Their richly pigmented paints are classified as minimal or low-VOC, water-based paints, and low-odor.
Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Healthy Indoor Painting Practices. Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxins, EPA.

  5. Volatile Organic Compounds. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.