Indoor air is three times more polluted than outdoor air, and according to the EPA, is considered one of the top five hazards to human health. Paints and finishes are among the leading causes.
Paints and finishes release low level toxic emissions into the air for years after application. The source of these toxins is a variety of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which, until recently, were essential to the performance of the paint.
New environmental regulations and consumer demand have led to the development of low-VOC and zero-VOC paints and finishes. Most paint manufacturers now produce one or more non-VOC variety of paint. These new paints are durable, cost-effective and less harmful to human and environmental health.
- Health: Reduced toxins benefit everyone, including those with allergies and chemical sensitivities.
- Environment: Reduces landfill, groundwater and ozone depleting contaminants.
- Effective: Low-VOC products perform well in terms of coverage, scrubbability and hideability (covering flaws on previous coats).
- Water-Based: Easy cleanup with soap and warm water.
- Little or No Hazardous Fume: Low odor during application; no odor once cured. No off-gassing. Painted areas can be occupied sooner, with no odor complaints.
- Not Deemed Hazardous Waste: Cleanup and disposal greatly simplified.
Types of Non-Toxic Paints and Finishes
The term “non-toxic” is used here in its broadest sense. With paints and finishes, it’s more a matter of degree. Even Zero-VOC formulations contain some small amounts of toxins. Here are three general categories of non-toxic (or low-toxic) paints: Natural Paints, Zero VOC, and Low VOC.
Natural Paints and Finishes
These are paints made from natural raw ingredients such as water, plant oils and resins, plant dyes, and essential oils; natural minerals such as clay, chalk, and talcum; and milk casein, natural latex, beeswax, earth, and mineral dyes. Water-based natural paints give off almost no smell. The oil-based natural paints usually have a pleasant fragrance of citrus or essential oils. Allergies and sensitivities to these paints is uncommon. These paints are the safest for your health and for the environment.
Livos: Organic paint, stains, oils and waxes made using all natural ingredients. Coatings are linseed oil and citrus oil based, non toxic, low VOC and are designed primarily for wood. www.livos.us
Auro: Solvent-free, water-based natural paints and primers, finishes, stains and adhesives. Ships to US and Canada. www.aurousa.com
EcoDesign’s BioShield: Line of natural paints and finishes. www.bioshieldpaint.com
Weather-Bos: Line of natural stains, finishes and paints. Blends of natural oils and resins designed to adhere to the wood, forming a monolithic bond. www.weatherbos.com
Silacote: Made from natural mineral compounds, for use on masonry, concrete and wallboard; interior/exterior. www.silacote.com
Anna Sova: Natural paints from milk casein, titanium dioxide and food-grade ingredients. www.annasova.com
Green Planet Paints: High performance natural paints for interiors based on plants and minerals. www.greenplanetpaints.com
The Real Milk Paint Company: Non-toxic paint made with milk protein, lime, clay and earth pigments. www.realmilkpaint.com
Master’s Blend: Natural wood finishes based on tung nut oil, for woodwork, furniture, carvings, cutting boards, brick and concrete. www.mastersblendfinish.com
Any paint with VOC’s in the range of 5 grams/litre or less can be called “Zero VOC”, according to the EPA Reference Test Method 24. Some manufacturers may claim “Zero-VOC’s”, but these paints may still use colorants, biocides and fungicides with some VOC’s. Adding a color tint usually brings the VOC level up to 10 grams/liter, which is still quite low.
Earthpaint: Nontoxic paint, wood finish, floor finish, deck stain. www.earthpaint.net
ECOS Paints: Zero-VOC and zero ethylene glycol paints, varnishes and wood stains. All odorless, organic, non-toxic and non-allergenic. Also specialty VOC absorbing paints. www.ecospaints.net
AFM Safecoat: Flat interior latex; semi-gloss interior enamel. www.afmsafecoat.com
ICI Lifemaster 2000: Flat, Eggshell, semi-gloss interior; primer.(800 984-5444)
ICI Decra-Shield: Exterior zero-VOC paints. (800 984-5444)
Kelly-Moore Enviro-Cote: ENVIRO-COTE line of paints are zero-VOC. (916 921-0165)
Devoe Wonder Pure: Odor-free interior acrylic latex paints. www.devoepaint.com
Enso: Ultra low odor, zero-VOC, ethylene glycol-free interior paints. Primer, flat, eggshell, and semi-gloss. Manufactured by Dunn-Edwards. www.dunnedwards.com
American Pride: Zero-VOC interior latex and acrylic enamel paints. www.americanpridepaint.com
Sherwin Williams: New HARMONY line of zero-VOC low-odor latex interior paints. Flat, eggshell, semi-gloss and primer. www.sherwin.com
Frazee Paint EnviroKote: Line of interior zero-VOC paints: semi-gloss, flat, and primer.
Allied PhotoChemical: Supplies zero-VOC, UV-curable paints, inks and coatings to manufacturers. www.alliedphotochemical.com
Olympic Paint and Stain: Zero-VOC Olympic Premium interior line.
Yolo Colorhouse: Zero-VOC, low-odor, premium interior paint. www.yolocolorhouse.com
Green Planet Paints: Zero-VOC, clay-based interior paints. greenplanetpaints.com
Benjamin Moore Natura: Zero-VOC, under 1 gram/liter. Flat, eggshell, semi-gloss finishes and a primer.
PPG Architectural Finishes: Pittsburgh Paints Pure Performance line
Homestead Paints: Zero-VOC, flat and low-sheen interior paints. homesteadhouse.ca
Vista Paint: Zero-VOC low-odor Carefree Earth Coat line
EarthSafePaints: Zero- and Low-VOC line of craft paints and finishes, marine finishes, home decor paints. earthsafefinishes.com
Low VOC paints, stains, and varnishes use water as a carrier instead of petroleum-based solvents. As such, the levels of harmful emissions are lower than solvent-borne surface coatings. These certified coatings also contain no, or very low levels, of heavy metals and formaldehyde. The amount of VOC’s varies among different “low-VOC” products, and is listed on the paint can or MSDS.
Paints and stains, to meet EPA standards must not contain VOCs in excess of 200 grams per litre. Varnishes must not contain VOCs in excess of 300 grams per liter.As a general rule, low VOC paints marketed by reputable paint manufacturers usually meet the 50 g/L VOC threshold. Paints with the Green Seal Standard (GS-11) mark are certified lower than 50 g/L (for flat sheen) or 150 g/L (for non-flat sheen).
Low VOC paints will still emit an odor until dry. If you are particularly sensitive, make sure the paint you buy contains fewer than 25 grams/liter of VOC’s.
Benjamin Moore Aura: Low VOC, covers most surfaces in a single coat, durable, scrubbable.
Benjamin Moore Saman: Water-based wood stains
Cloverdale Horizon: Ultra low VOC. Flat, Eggshell, Semi-Gloss interior enamels
Cloverdale EcoLogic: Ultra low VOC, under 10 grams/liter. Flat, Eggshell, Semi-Gloss interior.
Miller Paint: Acro solvent-free interior acrylic line
Timber Ox Green: Vegetable oil based, low voc wood stain and preservatives. www.timberoxinfo.com
VOC Absorbing Paints
These specialty paints contain an active ingredient that absorbs VOCs like formaldehyde. They remain trapped (cannot be removed) within the product indefinitely. They are:
- Atmosphere Purifying Wallpaint (APP): A matt/flat finish wallpaint designed to absorb from underlying surfaces and also from the atmosphere in the painted room.
- MDF Passivating Primer (MDFP): A base-coat/primer for man-made or remanufactured timer type products (like MDF and ply) which typically off-gas formaldehyde in particular.
- Anti-Formaldehyde Radiator (AFR) Paint: New hot water radiators can off-gas formaldehyde for many months (sometimes as long as two years). AFR traps this before it can enter the atmosphere.
MDFP and AFR are remedial solutions for particular situations. APP is very commonly used over existing paints, or in spaces with new carpets or furnishings that are off-gassing. It is frequently applied to a ceiling (being a matt finish it looks like any other wall/ceiling paint) in cases where other items in the room are the cause of the problem.
Non-Toxic Wood Treatment
Exterior wood surfaces like decks, railings, raised garden beds, fences and outdoor structures can be protected against water and fungal-borne decay. New mineral-based treatments penetrate the outer layers of wood and form a barrier which serves as an effective wood preservative. For more information see Eco Wood Treatment.
Non-Toxic Paint Strippers
Most paint strippers are caustic – they work by melting the paint. The active ingredient, methylene chloride, is a potential carcinogen. A new generation of biodegradable paint strippers is now entering the market. They are water-soluble and non-caustic. Some examples are:
- CitriStrip: From Specialty Environmental Technologies, in Auburn Hills, MI.
- Woodfinisher’s Pride: From W.M.Barr & Co, in Memphis, TN.
- Ameristrip: From Safe Alternatives Corp, in Ridgefield, CT.
- Peel Away: From Dumond Chemicals, in New York. (212-869-6350)
- RemovAll and Bio-Wash: From Napier Environmental Technologies in Vancouver BC.
Consumers can help speed the development and lower the cost of non-toxic paints by choosing products which contain fewer hazardous ingredients.
The active ingredient in these products is N-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP), an organic solvent. Rather than burning or melting, the compound chemically changes the paint itself, softening it for easier removal. While considered an organic solvent, NMP is still has potential health hazards. While the toxic effects of MNP on humans have not been well studied, MNP is toxic to the reproductive systems of male and female test animals. Based on the animal tests, you should treat NMP as a potential human reproductive hazard. Pregnant women especially should use extreme care or avoid using paint strippers entirely.
These new strippers are more expensive than their traditional counterparts, and they take longer to work.
PLEASE NOTE: Every attempt has been made to ensure accuracy of the data listed on this page. However, a listing on this page should not be construed as a recommendation or endorsement by Eartheasy.com.
Bird-Safe Painting Tips
Pet birds can be hard on cages – often chewing, scratching or wearing the paint. They can ingest flakes of paint which can be harmful to their health, or can be sensitive to fumes from new paint. If you’re planning on re-painting a bird cage, check out our page on Bird-Safe Paints for some helpful tips.
Tips for Less Toxic, More Efficient Painting
Read the label and product literature. Besides general information, look for:
- VOC Content: Usually listed in grams per liter, this can range from 5 to 200. Using a product with the lowest VOC content will yield the lowest overall health risk.
- Solids Content: Solids, or pigments, can range in concentration from 25% to 45% by volume. The higher the percent solids, the less volatiles in the paint.
- EPA, OSHA, DOT Registrations: When a product has an EPA, OHSA or DOT registration number, this means that it contains toxic ingredients which must be monitored. One way to ensure that you are using a product that is safe both for the environment and the applicator is to seek out products which are not registered with these agencies.
Buy the Right Amount of Paint for the Job
Before you begin a painting project, measure the area first. Calculate the area to be painted (height x width = total square feet). One gallon covers about 400 square feet.
Re-Use Turpentine and Paint Thinners
Simply allow used thinner or turpentine to stand in a closed, labeled container until paint or dirt particles settle to the bottom. Pour off the clear liquid and reuse.
Choosing to use non toxic, environmentally safe paints and stains can also greatly reduce the amount of toxins in the air, water and earth.
Avoid Cleaning Brushes and Rollers
Paint brushes and rollers used for an ongoing project can be saved overnight, or even up to a week, without cleaning at all. Simply wrap the brush or roller snugly in a plastic bag, such as a bread or produce bag. Squeeze out air pockets and store away from light. The paint won’t dry because air can’t get to it. Simply unwrap the brush or roller the next day and continue with the job. (This works for water and oil-based paints and stains. It does not work for varnishes or lacquers).
When you do finally wash your brushes or rollers, wash them in a bucket of water than than in the sink. Pour the used paint-laden water in a sealed container and bring to your local waste depot along with your empty paint cans.
Use Natural Brush Cleaner
Turpentine, made from the resin of coniferous trees, is an environmentally-friendly solvent. It is excellent for cleaning brushes used with oil-based paints, and for cleaning up small drips. Use a short glass jar, filled no higher than the bristles. Add a few drops of dishwashing liquid. After cleaning the brush, rinse with water.
To reduce the impact of indoor air pollutants, circulate fresh air through your house as often as possible. Avoid the use of spray paints altogether. When painting ceilings, especially, be sure to provide cross-ventilation to remove paint fumes. Fumes rise as paint dries, and so with ceilings the fumes dissipate more slowly since there’s no air above the paint. You can reduce fresh paint odors by placing a small dish of white vinegar in the room.
Beware Old Lead Paint
If your home was built before 1978, there is a good chance it has lead-based paint. In 1978, the federal government banned consumer uses of lead-containing paint, but some states banned it even earlier. Lead from paint, including lead-contaminated dust, is one of the most common causes of lead poisoning.
Lead paint is still present in millions of homes, sometimes under layers of newer paint. If the paint is in good shape, the lead paint is usually not a problem. Deteriorating lead-based paint (peeling, chipping, chalking, cracking, damaged, or damp) is a hazard and needs immediate attention.
EPA’s Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule (RRP Rule) requires that firms performing renovation, repair, and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in homes, child care facilities and pre-schools built before 1978 have their firm certified by EPA (or an EPA authorized state), use certified renovators who are trained by EPA-approved training providers and follow lead-safe work practices.
Store Partially Full Cans Upside Down
Leftover paint can be saved for months if stored properly. Make sure the lids are well sealed, then store the cans upside down. This prevents air from getting inside the can and causing the paint to thicken and dry.
Solidify Old Paint
Leftover paint should not be poured down the drain because groundwater supplies may be affected. By removing the lid, the remaining unwanted paint will solidify and then can be treated as solid waste.
Remember the BUD Rule
BUY no more product than you need. Ask your retailer for help in assessing the quantity you need. USE up all the product you buy. Give leftovers to a neighbor or community organization. DISPOSE of leftovers in a safe, responsible manner.