Many of us strive to curb the toxins in our homes. As we’ve discussed, fragrances, décor, and materials within your home can give off VOCs or volatile organic compounds (more on why those are so dangerous, coming up).
But paint is a crucial part of your home’s design. After all, most of us need at least some type of wallcovering—we can’t leave our homes bare with brick, wood, and plaster. Nontoxic wallpaper and natural finishes provide some wall cover options, but the go-to wall covering is paint for most of us.
Here’s what you need to know about keeping your walls clean. Choosing less toxic, low-VOC, and VOC-free paint will keep your walls looking beautiful and you and your family safe. If you’re ready to color your walls, here’s how to choose wisely.
Photography: Caroline Sharpnack
What are VOCs?
VOC stands for volatile organic compounds. It sounds scary, but it's important to note that many products contain VOCs, making them ubiquitous in our daily lives. These organic chemicals evaporate slowly, giving off a smell—that new carpet or fresh paint smell, for example.
With new furniture, new paint, carpet, or other materials, these organic compounds are released over time in a process called "off-gassing." Most of the off-gassing takes place right away, meaning older items are typically a safer choice. But of course, with materials like paint, “new” is the only choice.
VOCs include an array of chemicals like acetone, ethanol, formaldehyde, toluene, and plenty more. Some people experience short and even long-term health effects due to exposure to these chemicals. A few of the effects include headaches, endocrine disruptions, nervous system issues, respiratory problems, and even cancers.
While the EPA regulates some chemicals, many are still found throughout our furnishings and home décor. Many are perfectly legal and even claim benefits like fire-retardance, mold and mildew resistance, and stain resistance. It's easy to get lured in by these assertions. We may believe that since it's approved for household use, it must be safe. But it's also important to be aware that many VOCs are already regulated or outlawed in other countries like Canada and throughout the European Union. So it's important not to assume that because it's on the shelf, it must be safe for home use.
The regulations on VOCs are constantly changing across the United States and even amongst individual states and regions. So you may see low-VOC paint available at a store, thinking that it means it’s safe, but even low-VOC paint will still contain some of these chemical hazards.
Understanding VOCs in Paint—What’s the Difference Between Low-VOC and Zero-VOC?
Paint may cover almost every wall of your home. So when you select a paint type, it's critical to research the information thoroughly so you know exactly what you're buying. Zero-VOC paints contain 5g/L or less, whereas low-VOC paints still contain higher traceable levels of VOCs (albeit less than standard paint). “Low” isn’t regulated by the EPA, so any paint can make the claim.
To get the VOC certification, paint manufacturers cannot add VOCs to the paint during creation. They should include test results or provide proof of their claims as well. Some paint brands don't contain VOCs in the base color, but the pigments used to color the paint still contain these compounds. Be sure you inquire about the tints when you select a paint (but even if the tint contains some VOCs, the chances are that it will be a safer option).
Design + Image: Wilfred House
Look for paints labeled "natural" or "nontoxic" and then read the can carefully or request details of the contents. Solvents and other additives can increase the incidence of VOCs. You can find the contents by looking for the MSDS (material safety data sheet), listing the ingredients and chemicals. You may find natural paint options that include "milk paint," plant-based paint, or "mineral paint." These are usually low-to-no VOC choices. Look for EPA certifications indicating the paint was emission tested or look for a label like "Greenguard” or “Greenguard Gold Certification," a reliable third-party emissions tester.
When you work with low-VOC paint or zero-VOC paint, the first thing you’ll notice is that there’s almost no smell. When the paints were first on the market, they had poor coverage and were often thin, slow-to-dry, and hard to work with. Manufacturers have resolved many of these issues, so most low or no VOC paints are really easy to use and offer similar options to traditional paint (finishes, drying time, and coverage).
Despite being safer, you'll still want to use precautions when you work with any paint. If you're doing the painting, be sure that you have plenty of ventilation in the room. Before spending time in the room, allow the paint to dry for a few days. That will enable many of the VOCs to release. Follow your nose, as well—if you can smell the paint, you may want to give it more time.
Photography: Jennifer Lavelle
Explore These No-VOC Paint Brands
There are several “no-VOC” paint brands on the market. If you're painting yourself, you may want to try several samples to look for a consistency and coverage type that you would like to work with. There are plenty of options, and the market is growing, especially as consumer demand grows for cleaner, safer paint choices.
Here are 12 great less-toxic paint choices to explore.
1. SafeCoat from AFM
SafeCoat zero-VOC paint was developed for use in healthcare, making it an excellent choice for those who are sensitive to chemicals in traditional paint. Their formula dries quickly to seal in the VOC release and protect users from off-gassing.
2. ECOS Paint
ECOS is a water-based paint with zero-VOCs and a very low odor. It was initially created for people who were sensitive to chemical compounds. ECOS offers color matching as well, so if you find a different brand's color, reach out to see if they will recreate the option.
3. Natura from Benjamin Moore
A big name in paint, Benjamin Moore has created the Natura line. This zero-VOC paint is water-based with a built-in primer. It was created specifically for those who have allergies and asthma, making it an excellent choice for anyone with a sensitive respiratory system. It's important to note that Natura is a thick paint, which can be challenging for beginners.
4. Aura from Benjamin Moore
Aura is another zero-VOC paint option from Benjamin Moore. It is nontoxic and low order, with rich color options available. Some users prefer Aura because it's a little thinner than Natura and easier to work with. It also dries very quickly.
5. Simplicity from Valspar
Another famous name in paint is Valspar, and their Simplicity line includes primer in the paint. This acrylic paint is both zero-VOC and Greenguard certified. Better still, it’s high-coverage and very durable, making it a great choice for entryways, kitchens, and other high-traffic spots in your home.
6. Sherwin-Williams Harmony
Sherwin-Williams is one of the most famous names in paint, and they’ve been around for many years. Their Harmony acrylic latex paint is zero-VOC, Greenguard certified, and available in a wide range of designer colors. Harmony paint is designed to absorb and reduce other indoor pollutants like smoke and formaldehyde.
7. Behr Premium Plus
Behr is a favorite paint of DIY-ers because it's easy to find and great to work with. Their Premium Plus line offers mildew resistance and easy-to-clean formulas without the addition of VOCs. The Greenguard Certified paint comes in a standard white shade that can be safely tinted to any color you like.
8. Homestead House Paint Company
Homestead House Paint Company features acrylic zero-VOC paint options in many unique colors and tones. They base their paint palettes on different decorating styles such as Gothic & Italianate or Early Victorian. They also offer custom matching, so you can get the exact color you like without any worry about toxic VOCs.
9. Clare Paint
Clare is another excellent brand of zero-VOC paint. They have a Greenguard certification. The Clare company also offers an array of eco-friendly paint materials, including recycled paint trays, liners, and kits. Clare is a new company on the paint scene, but they're living up to their reputation of being a natural, earth-friendly choice that's great for paint newbies.
Image via Clare Paint
10. The Real Milk Paint Company
A DIY favorite, milk paint has a beautiful finish and a fantastic texture. This zero-VOC paint is compostable and biodegradable. Bloggers and designers sing its praises because of the excellent coverage it provides. It's easy to work with and features natural, organic ingredients.
Image via The Real Milk Paint Co.
11. Green Planet Paints
Another eco-friendly option, Green Planet Paints, derives its paint from plant and mineral sources. They use no VOCs in their colors and tint, but instead, they use all-natural pigments. Green Planet Paints are zero-VOC.
Bioshield is a zero-VOC paint manufacturer that uses natural materials to get unique colors and textures. Their paint is clay-based and nontoxic, containing extracts, essential oils, tree resins, and other natural ingredients to get an interesting array of natural colors and options.
13. Rose Uniacke Paint
Healthy, virtually odorless, sustainable and durable, micro-plastic, VOC and preservative free—designer Rose Uniacke has partnered with Graphenstone to develop a range of 100% natural chemical-free paints in 14 perfect neutrals in different finishes. GrafClean is perfect for busy homes, suitable for interior and exterior applications, and made from vegetable resins and ecological minerals with a flat matte finish (also available in an eggshell finish). Ecosphere is pure Lime paint for interior use and their most sustainable option—absorbing and capturing CO2 as it cures. These beautiful hues are currently available exclusively in the U.K.
Image via Rose Uniacke
Getting the Healthy Wall Design You Love
There are many ways to get the wall design you want without using paint. You could use natural, nontoxic wallpaper, add a living wall (with plenty of beautiful plants), or leave a raw brick, stone, or plaster wall in its natural beauty.
For most of us, though, paint will play at least some role in our home décor. So when you choose to paint, be sure to select something nontoxic so you feel safer and breathe easier. With so many excellent VOC-free paint choices out there, there's something for almost any room or color palette.
Natural paint has come a long way in the past few decades. It’s no longer sticky, thick, difficult to work with, or slow drying. There’s an array of color options to match any style or finish preference too. I hope you explore zero-VOC paints for your next home project. Let me know the results in the comments! I’d love to hear all about it.