Prev NEXT  


How Low-VOC Paint Works

Low-VOC Paint, VOC-free Paint and Other Alternatives

By this time, you're probably wondering what qualifies paint as low-VOC. According to the U.S. EPA, the numbers break down like this:

 Latex and Flat-
finish Paints
 Oil-based and All
Other Paints
 Low-VOC Paint < 250 g/L < 380 g/L

VOC-free Paint

  < 5 g/L

       ­              [source: Chadderdon, MacIntosh]

Most low-VOC paints sold by reputable dealers, though, tend to have levels of 50 g/L or below. Keep in mind that the numbers cited on the paint can are measurements taken before the paint's pigment or any additives are added, both of which can contribute more VOCs. Pigments, for example, can add roughly 10 g/L [source: Eartheasy].

As you learned on the previous page, just because companies cut back on VOCs doesn't mean these paints are free of toxins. If you're worried about those as well, you still have options. Paints that carry the Green Seal, for example, are guaranteed to meet precise environmental standards. Paints with this designation must have VOC contents below 100g/L for a non-flat finish and 50 g/L for a flat finish. The Green Seal VOC limit for primers and floor paints is also 100 g/L, while reflective wall coatings can't exceed the 50 g/L mark [source: Green Seal].

green seal
Photo courtesy Green Seal
Paint that carries the Green Seal is guaranteed to meet high environmental standards.

In addition to the lower VOC levels, Green Seal paints are forbidden from using a long list of toxic chemical compounds including carcinogens, reproductive toxins, hazardous air pollutants, heavy metals and formaldehyde-donors to name just a few. As an added draw, paints qualifying for the Green Seal also must meet certain performance requirements such as abrasion resistance, hiding power and washability. Green Seal also offers instruction on how to handle and dispose of paint properly [source: Green Seal].

Beyond low and no-VOC paints, there are also natural paints, which are made primarily of naturally occurring materials like clay, lime, linseed oil and chalk. Since they don't use any synthetic oil products, natural paints are "naturally" low in the VOCs regulated by the EPA for air quality. However, they may contain significant levels of unregulated VOCs from things like citrus oils and terpenes, which can aggravate chemically sensitive people. So just because a paint is labeled natural doesn't mean it's better for your health. Cadmium, for instance, a metal used in some yellow pigments, is highly toxic. Therefore, it's best to always check the ingredients on the label.

Some people seeking low-VOC and otherwise health friendly paints decide to make their own. Milk-based paint is made from a readily available milk protein and contains few, if any, harmful ingredients [source: Pennock]. If you're Martha Stewart, you can also make your own healthy paint out of things like eggs, flour, linseed oil or chalk.

While most low-VOC paints and other earth-friendly paint alternatives perform on-par with regular paints, not all of them do. Depending on what they use as solvent, they may not do as good a job at thinning out the paint, thus making them more difficult to apply. Some alternate solvents also take longer to dry (since they're not so "volatile"), so you'll have to wait longer between applying coats. Another drawback is that there are fewer color options because many of the darker pigments use VOCs. Finally, while low-VOC paints usually cost the same as other paints, many natural paints may cost 20 to 80 percent more [source: Pennock].

Beyond considering levels of VOCs and other toxins when you purchase paint, another good piece of advice is to look for one that contains at least 30 percent solids. That way, maybe you won't have to apply that third coat after all. This information is usually found on the paint's label or Technical Data Sheet.

To brush up on paint and pollution, immerse yourself in the links on the following page.


Related HowStuffWorks Articles


More Great Links



  • Arellano, Joel. "Ford paints the town green." Autoblog. Dec. 15, 2005. (June 23, 2008)
  • Chadderdon, Lisa J. "Do you know what's in that paint you put on your walls?" Greenfeet. 2007. (June 24, 2008)
  • Dunn, Collin. "Green Basics: Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)." Treehugger. March 13, 2008. (June 23, 2008) compounds-vocs.php
  • Eartheasy. "Non-Toxic Paints." 2008. (June 23, 2008)
  • Grafman, Lonny. "Natural Paint Basics." April 14, 2008. (July 2, 2008).
  • Graham, Christi. "Non Toxic Paint." Green home. 2007. (June 24, 2008).
  • Green Building Supply. "What are non-toxic finishes? Beyond Low VOC paint." 2008. (June 23, 2008).
  • Green Seal. "Green Seal Environmental Standard for Paints and Coatings." May 12, 2008). (June 26, 2008)
  • Green Seal. "Proposed Environmental Standard and Environmental Evaluation of Recycled Content Latex Paint." April 14, 2006. (June 26, 2008)
  • International Programme on Chemical Safety. "Environmental Health Criteria 187: White Spirit." 1996. (June 24, 2008).
  • Johansen, Tony. "Solvents: The volatile essential." 2008. (June 23, 2008).
  • MacIntosh, Helen Suh. "Ask TreeHugger: Household Green Paint Alternatives." Treehugger. April 17, 2007. (June 23, 2008)
  • Pennock, Alex. "Selecting Healthy and Environmentally Sound Paints." GreenHomeGuide. Aug. 9, 2005. (June 24, 2008)
  • Richard, Michael Graham. "Toyota, Ford, Mazda, GM: Using Water-Borne Car Paint." Treehugger. April 9, 2006. (June 23, 2008)
  • Sissons Paint. "The Composition of Paint." 2006. (June 24, 2008)