Can you purchase exterior low-VOC paint?

Woman holding paintbrush and can
Green Living Image Gallery Green is more than just a color -- using low-VOC paints for your home's exterior is an eco- and health-conscious choice. See more green living pictures.

The air inside your home can be as much as three times more polluted than the air outside, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), those toxins are among the top five health hazards we face each day [source: Eartheasy]. Most of the materials used to build even brand-new homes could still be giving off toxins years after installation.

Among the worst culprits are paints, varnishes and finishes, which contain a specific variety of toxin called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which for a long time were believed essential to the performance of the paints themselves. But because of new environmental regulations and an expanding awareness of these chemicals, the house paint industry has provided us with a set of alternatives.


Low-VOC, zero-VOC and natural paints have been a buzzed-about innovation in home improvement and green building for about a decade. The more we learn, the more changes have been demanded, and now most manufacturers are creating lines to meet the demand.

The greatly reduced poison content of paint means less chemical sensitivity and fewer allergy attacks for those who are prone, as well as reduced contaminants in landfills, the atmosphere and our groundwater. These paints are water-based, so they're easier to clean up than solvent-based paints, but they're still durable and cost-effective. They give off fewer (sometimes zero) hazardous fumes. That means that it's safer and more pleasant to paint a room, and you can move back into it faster than with conventional paints.

Whether you're building a home or repainting a recent purchase, you've probably heard a great deal about these strides in environmentally and health-conscious building materials. Which may lead you to wonder: Are there low- or no-VOC exterior paint and finish alternatives that work just as well as conventional options?


The Basics of VOCs

The good news is that there are now low-VOC products available for a surprising number of building and remodeling uses. The bad news is, they are still few and far between, even if they're gaining in number and variety every year.

For example, sealers and coatings for indoor/outdoor uses -- wood, stone and even carpet -- can be found in a variety of low-VOC, nontoxic formulations. This is a perfect solution if you already have, or are using, natural materials, since you're not adding toxins. But another important purpose of sealants is to prevent off-gassing, or chemical evaporation, from the things they're sealing and protecting.


Many of today's building materials are full of gross chemicals. Plywood, particle board and other not-quite-wood products are full of acetone and formaldehyde. While acetone is not technically a VOC, it's a serious toxin. Most polyurethane wood finishes have another toxin that slowly builds up inside your body, and much new carpeting even contains a number of narcotics. By applying a bio-safe sealant to these materials, you're not only protecting them, but also yourself: It's not just the paint or sealant you use, but what you're applying it to.

Now, even coatings labeled "environmentally friendly" or "zero-VOC" can still contain toxic ingredients, just not those that are prohibited by government regulations. You shouldn't go pouring house paint on your morning cereal just yet. When searching for the most eco-mindful paint, indoor or outdoor, check those cans and labels.

Next up, we'll look at a few more rules of thumb for choosing eco-friendly paint.


New Developments

Stack of plywood
One of the latest green products is an eco-friendly base coat for plywood that emits dangerous toxins.
Thinkstock/Comstock Images/Getty Images

Zero-VOC paints are those that contain 5 grams (or less) of volatile organic compounds per liter. (EPA standards are sort of like FDA standards for food contaminants, in that zero percent usually doesn't mean what you think.) And even zero-VOC paints can still use ingredients with extra VOCs; for example, tinting a low-VOC paint with colorant can double that level to 10 grams per liter (which, as we'll see, is still very low) [source: Eartheasy].

Low-VOC paints are water based and contain low amounts of heavy metals and formaldehyde, or none at all. The EPA standard here is less than 200 grams per liter for paint (300 for varnishes), but most manufacturers stay at or below 50 grams per liter. If you see the "Green Seal" on a given paint, that means it meets a standard of lower than 50 grams per liter for flat-sheen paint and 150 grams per liter for higher-grade paint [source: Eartheasy].


But one of the most interesting recent trends is a new class of VOC-conscious paints that contain an ingredient that actually absorbs and traps VOCs. They're pretty specific in application so far, but they're an exciting development nonetheless.

MDF-passivating primer is a fairly new type of base coat used for plywood and MDF (medium-density fiberboard) products that off-gas formaldehyde and other non-VOC and VOC toxins. There's even a special paint used for radiators, which can off-gas formaldehyde sometimes for up to two years. Most exciting of all, a product called atmosphere-purifying paint is designed to suck the VOCs out of previous coats of paint and even from the atmosphere of a finished room. It's now used pretty commonly when other furnishings, equipment or carpeting are known to be off-gassing their own deadly chemicals.

While you may still have to go looking for a sensible low-VOC exterior solution, it's comforting to know that it's out there. And now that the paint industry has a reason to develop newer and better products to meet our consumer needs, these and other innovative new ideas mean that environmentally and health-conscious paints and finishes will continue to be refined, invented and developed. And that's good news for everyone!

For more information on paint, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Berthold-Bond, Annie and Tracy Fernandez Rysavy. "Eco Friendly Paints And Stains." Coop America. Jan. 30, 2007. (Feb. 22, 2011)
  • Green Building Supply. "Healthy Low VOC Interior and Exterior Sealers." 2010. (Feb. 22, 2011)
  • "Non-Toxic Paints." (Feb. 22, 2011)
  • Williams, Christopher. "Go Green With Interior Paint -- The Advantages of Choosing Low VOC paints." Feb. 24, 2011. (Feb. 25, 2011)