We have all experienced that “new paint” smell when painting a room. But most of us are unaware of what causes this smell. As conventional paint dries, chemicals like VOCs that keep it in its liquid form, start to evaporate, releasing that distinct smell alongside dozens of harmful toxins. The US Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that levels of VOCs are 2-5 times higher indoors than outdoors due to products like paint and cleaning supplies. Since VOCs are linked to a variety of serious health concerns, it is best to seek out VOC-free paints for your home.
This article will cover:
- What are VOCs?
- What are the health concerns with VOCs?
- What is the difference between low VOC and zero VOC paint?
- 10 Best Low/Zero VOC paints
What are VOCs?
VOC is an acronym for volatile organic compounds. The EPA defines VOCs as any compound of carbon, excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, and metallic carbides or carbonates, which participate in atmospheric photochemical reactions. In other words, VOCs are a class of carbon compounds whose composition makes them evaporate under normal indoor air and pressure conditions. Examples of VOCs include Formaldehyde, d-Limonene, toluene, acetone, benzene, ethanol, and more. These are the invisible chemicals that we smell when bringing new paint, building supplies, even furniture into our homes. In terms of paint, VOCs can be present in both the base paint and the colorants. VOCs are added to paint for better open time and freeze-thaw resistance. But their composition makes them dangerous. VOCs emit as gasses as the paint dries. This evaporation is referred to as off-gassing and can be persistent even after the “new paint smell” is gone. Off-gassing reduces after several days but paint can still emit chemicals for months even years after introduction to the space. The amount of ventilation in a room plays a major role in VOC concentration but people can’t typically leave a room unoccupied for months while they wait for it to air out.
What are the health concerns with VOCs?
The off gassing from VOCs is linked to both short and long-term health concerns. Immediate symptoms include eye and respiratory irritation, headaches, dizziness, and memory impairment. Long-term concerns include liver and kidney damage, central nervous system issues, and even certain forms of cancer. Recent studies have found up to 300 known carcinogens and 150 mutagens, capable of causing birth defects, in certain paints. For example, benzene, a common chemical in paint, is a known carcinogen. It is highly concerning that concentrations of VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to 10 times higher!), than outdoors. And during certain activities like painting, levels can be 1000 times background outdoor levels! The toxic off-gassing leaves residue in the air creating a phenomenon known as “sick building syndrome.” Choosing low or non-VOC paint may seem like the obvious and easy solution, but it’s not that clear-cut. US government regulation of VOCs is not very stringent and is not concerned with toxicity or health concerns. The regulation of terms like zero VOC and low VOC is lax, resulting in it being even more difficult to eliminate VOC exposure. Zero VOC does not necessarily mean zero emissions or even zero VOC. Any VOC that doesn’t cause smog doesn’t count as a VOC and is allowed to be in products marketed as Zero. This means even zero VOC paint could contain formaldehyde, ammonia, acetone, odor masking agents, and other harmful chemicals. Regardless of how a product is marketed, you should always check the ingredient lists for harmful chemicals when purchasing paint.
What is the difference between low-VOC and zero-VOC paint?
Terms like low-VOC and zero-VOC are growing in popularity and becoming increasingly used as a marketing tool for claims to non-toxic paint. But there is an overall lack of standardization of what these terms really mean. The US government hasn’t established any consistent testing methods for VOCs in paint. Different standards in states and regions across the US make these regulations even harder to navigate. The government currently only regulates VOCs that contribute to the formation of ground ozone and smog but does not regulate to reduce chemical exposure for building occupants. The EPA does regulate VOCs in some household products under the Clean Air Act but allows for some toxic chemicals that are considered not to be photochemically reactive. As per EPA Test Method 24, paint can be classified as Zero VOC if it contains less than 5g/L of VOC content. Zero VOC paint is supposed to mean that there is no added VOC to the mixture, and only trace amounts if any. Zero VOC paint should not contain VOCs in the tinting process either. The use of the word zero doesn’t necessarily mean the government-established minimum standards. This means that zero VOC paint can still contain VOCs and other potentially harmful compounds. Zero VOC paint is still a far safer alternative to conventional paint. Low VOC is less strictly regulated but is generally accepted as paints that have less than 250g/L of VOC content, although most low VOC manufacturers limit it to 50g/L. Recent studies have shown that some low VOC paints have been found to emit more VOC emissions. This is concerning because it means there is no direct correlation between VOC content levels and emissions levels. Something to take note of is that paints may be low VOC, but coloring agents might not be. Always look for low or zero VOC colorant and base combinations. Another thing to note is that darker colors tend to have higher VOC levels. If you are looking for a dark color, Zero VOC paint should always be your first pick.
10 Best VOC Free Paints
Since regulation of VOC levels and marketing for paint is insufficient, it is important to do your own research by checking a product’s material safety data sheet, or MSDS, for a list of ingredients and chemicals used. Look for companies that meet zero-VOC emissions standards, contain 5g/L of VOCs, and are transparent about test results. EPA approved and Greenguard Gold are good certifications to look for that ensure a product has been tested for VOC levels. Along with buying less toxic paint, you should always aim to increase ventilation when using products that may emit VOCs to avoid potential health risks. To further avoid VOCs, you should never store opened containers of unused paint, throw away partially used containers safely, and buy paint in quantities you will use soon. If you don’t have time to do your own research, don’t worry- we have done it for you. Explore OSCEA’s list of the 10 Best VOC Free paints below. Options 1 through 5 are truly non-toxic VOC-free paints but they are harder to find, and you must order them online. Whereas options 6 through 10 are still safe options but they come from companies that are still making terrible paints. The later options are good for if you need to pick up paint quickly from the store or need something more affordable.
Founded in 1985, ECOS was changing the paint industry long before consumers were concerned with chemical exposure. The brand was created for consumers suffering from chemical sensitivities. ECOS offers water-based, zero VOC, odor-free paints, primers, stains, and varnishes. They provide a comprehensive list of ingredients and detailed VOC test data with every product. ECOS paints are even EN-71 certified for use on children’s toys which could be placed in a child’s mouth. Their paints are made-to-order and handcrafted in their facility in South Carolina. They even offer free color matching where they will color match other brands’ paint colors. ECOS paint is praised for its incredible coverage- it can cover up to 260 sq ft per gallon! As their website states, ECOS is truly “paint you can feel good about!”
The Real Milk Paint is about the safest, most eco-friendly paint there is on the market. Before commercially prepared paint was available, paint was made from home-based formulas. Milk paint was commonly made from old, curdled milk or cottage cheese. Real Milk Paint has a similar formula to these old-school paint techniques. Their paint is made from 100% organic ingredients including purified casein, lime, and natural pigments. Unlike conventional paint, this milk paint comes in a powdered form. For use, simply measure the desired amount of powder, add equal parts water, shake, and let sit for 10 to 20 minutes to let the powder fully dissolve. This powder form allows for the natural ingredients to stay fresh without the use of preservatives. It also increased the shelf life, decreased weight for shopping, and reduced potential waste and carbon footprints. Milk paint is Zero VOC, safe for kids and pets, and non-toxic. It is even biodegradable so you can simply dispose of it in your compost bin. The only downside to Milk Paint is that it can be extremely thin, requiring more coats than conventional paints so it might not be the best choice for painting your whole house. The founder of the company originally used it to match antique paints. People praise Milk Paint for use in DIY projects and creating a rustic farmhouse finish on wood pieces.
AFM SafeCoat was created in 1983 in collaboration with physicians to create healthy eco-friendly paint for use in labs, hospitals, and schools, for more than 40 years, they have offered 100% toxicity-free paint. In fact, SafeCoat is one of the only true registered zero VOC paints on the market. The brand designed a membrane barrier that seals in chemical leakage and off-gassing, ensuring VOC emissions are kept to a minimum. They offer a variety of non-toxic paints, primers, stains, finishes, and even personal care products. Designed for areas where health of occupants is a concern, you can be confident that SafeCoat is truly safe for your family.
Bioshield is a great option if you are looking for zero VOC clay-based paint. Bioshield is a well-recognized company that has been around since the early 1980s. Their formula is made of natural ingredients like clay, citrus extracts, essential oils, beeswax, and tree resins. Their colors have a rich earthy aesthetic. The only downside of clay-based paints is that they are not well suited for high traffic areas, frequent cleaning, or water contact. Bioshield also offers solvent-free paint and chalk-based paints.
Another great VOC-free paint is Clare Paint. These products are not only free of VOC but also free of other toxic air contaminants and hazardous pollutants. Their formula contains no EPA chemicals of concern and zero VOC colorants. They limit their maximum VOC content levels to 2g/L. Claire paint offers a range of carefully curated water-based acrylic paint colors. Self-priming, highly durable, mildew resistant, washable, and low odor, Clare Paint offers the ultimate non-toxic product. Their paint is Greenguard Gold certified and compliant with LEED regulations, ensuring it is third-party certified to be safe for your home. Clare Paint goes the extra mile by creating their paint containers, trays, liners, and packaging from recycled materials. Clare paint offers fewer paint colors than their competitors, but the quality is truly unmatched.
Sherwin Williams now offers a zero VOC formula called Harmony. This product is Greenguard Gold certified, odor eliminating, and has formaldehyde reducing technology that even reduces VOCs already present in a room. Harmony’s formula also has antimicrobial agents that inhibit the growth of mold or mildew on paints and extends the life of the coating. No VOCs are added to this product when tinting. Sherwin Williams Harmony provides better air quality and a durable finish. The downside of this product is that reviewers say it needs a lot of coats and doesn’t adhere easily. Sherwin Williams also offers another Zero VOC option called Ecoselect that is also Greenguard Gold certified. If you are looking for accessible and more affordable nontoxic paint, Harmony might be a good choice for you.
Another affordable and accessible option is Behr Pro i300, which is available at Home Depot. This specific Behr product is low VOC and low Odor. The water-based formula offers a durable finish and smooth coverage, at an affordable price. Behr Pro i300 is Greenguard Gold certified, ensuring it has been tested against rigorous safety standards. A bonus is that the formula is anti-microbial, protecting your paint from mold and mildew.
Benjamin Moore created Eco Spec, a zero VOC and zero-emissions paint, for those suffering from allergies and asthma. Eco Spec is water-based, 100% acrylic, and self-priming. If you already use Benjamin Moore Paint, switching to their Eco Spec line would be simple. They offer Eco-Spec paint in any Benjamin Moore color. This line is also Green Seal certified. For their Eco Spec Line, Benjamin Moore created a Gennex water-based colorant. They were the first company in the US to introduce a zero-VOC waterborne tinting system. Gennex allows their VOC-free paint to remain VOC-free after being colored.
Valspar Reserve offers zero VOC paint with professional-grade performance and adorable prices. Available at Lowes, this product is super accessible. In fact, Valspar is the most widely distributed paint brand in the US. It has been a recent initiative for them to formulate high-performing zero-VOC products. Each new VOC-free product they are releasing, including the Reserve line, is Greenguard certified, validating that they meet rigorous standards. Reserve is a consistent standout in the non-toxic paint market. This product is an all-in-one paint and primer that only requires a single coat application. This paint is a safe and effective time saver for our busy lifestyles.
Backdrop is a new company that entered the market with a bang, becoming the first climate-neutral paint company in 2020. They offer 50 paint colors that are Low VOCs and low odor. They partner with small designers and artists for color collaborations. Bonus that their stainless-steel recyclable packaging is super cute. Backdrop paints are Green Wise certified, proving they meet high levels of performance and environmental standards. Backdrop is partnered with a non-profit organization, The International Rescue Committee, which helps families recovering from conflict and disaster. When you buy Backdrop paint, it gives back to families that have been displaced from their homes. Backdrop is a fun new brand just entering the non-toxic paint market.