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!