The walls and ceilings in our spaces greatly contribute to the surface area of our indoor environments. That means the wall assembly and finish are incredibly important to the quality of the air you are breathing in. This is why selecting healthy paint should be at the top of your list of things to improve the overall health of your home.
How Can You Determine If a Paint Brand is “Healthy”?
Selecting a healthy paint can be confusing because there are so many manufacturers out there claiming to be low VOC, Zero-VOC, Natural, and “Green.” At first glance, these all seem like they would be a “healthy” option to go with, but it’s important to understand the laws regarding what these terms actually mean in order to be an informed consumer.
On top of this, many of the individuals we work with at Awakening Spaces are chemically sensitive. As a result, we look at paint options through an incredibly narrow lens to make sure we are able to support those who need to go above and beyond the industry standard for creating a healthy living space.
That being said, let’s dive in!
What is a VOC?
“VOC” stands for “Volatile Organic Compound.” VOCs are carbon-based chemicals that are emitted as gasses from a solid or liquid and can be created from a wide variety of materials. These compounds have a very low boiling point so the gasses are released at room temperature, which is an effect called “off-gassing” or “out-gassing”.
The EPA’s “TEAM Study” shows that indoor levels of VOCs are 2-5 times higher than outdoor air levels in a large, polluted city. It also concluded that people can be exposed to VOCs long after the activity that released them in the first place is completed. In this case, this is after the paint has cured.
Although it’s hard to determine exactly which long-term effects these chemicals can cause, we do know that exposure to these toxins is just another thing filling our toxic bucket, increasing our chances for serious and/or chronic health issues to develop.
It’s hard to determine the long-term effects of VOC exposure. Chronic illness is usually caused by low-level exposures compounded over a long period of time. And to make it more difficult, most of us don’t know we are being exposed to these gasses since they are colorless and oftentimes odorless.
Chemically sensitive individuals have an advantage in this sense, as they are able to detect these health hazards and remove themselves from the harmful environment. The problem lies in the fact that the majority of environments we’re creating are using toxic chemicals in the first place, making it difficult for the chemically sensitive to find a place that feels safe for them.
The Issue with Paint Labeling
The terms “low-VOC” and “zero-VOC” were coined by the EPA to define a class of VOCs that are volatile or “reactive” when they come in contact with sunlight or other chemicals. The EPA recognized that these reactive chemicals were contributing to ground-level ozone pollution in our environment, which is why the permissible levels of these VOCs were lowered as a standard in building products.
The problem with this is that the only VOCs that are regulated and fall under the “Low-VOC” and “Zero-VOC” categories are those that the EPA deems negatively reactive and ozone-producing. In short, the EPA has defined VOC in terms of the pollution it creates rather than the toxicity level it poses.
According to the EPA’s website, “Some products that are labeled as “no VOC” or “low VOC” under the Clean Air Act can actually contain volatile organic chemicals that are sometimes toxic at high levels.” They also state that “NO” and “ZERO” VOC do not ensure that it’s a safer product and that they might even be more toxic than products with a higher VOC level.
This can be very confusing for consumers. Many chemicals not regulated under the term VOC can have negative health consequences and pollute our indoor air, even though they aren’t necessarily contributing to ground-level ozone pollution (the haze we see sitting above a large city).
Additionally, just because a paint brand has fewer VOCs contained in the product does not mean it will have fewer VOC emissions in the air. So you might find that a product claiming to be “Zero VOC” actually emits a stronger odor and raises the “Total VOC” level on an indoor air quality sensor.
This does NOT mean that the paint contains zero VOCs. In actuality, it means that the paint falls below the government’s permissible VOC levels. Paint can be labeled as Zero VOC if it contains <5 grams of VOC per liter.
Low VOC can still contain up to 50 grams of VOC per liter or less. It can contain more with the addition of colorant, which also contains VOCs.
This push toward healthier paint is a great start. However, it’s important to use critical thinking when selecting a truly healthy paint. Always make sure to note that a label stating “Zero-VOC” does not mean that it is completely non-toxic or “healthy.”
Other Chemicals Not Regulated Under the Zero-VOC Label
As mentioned above, conventional paint can include other chemicals that aren’t classified under the label “Zero-VOC”. This is why any consumer should complete additional screenings of colorants, solvents, and additives.
A quick tip on being your own detective is to consider whether the product label says “hazardous” or if you’re advised to wear “Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)” while handling the materials. That’s a good indicator that the paint is not completely safe. You should be wary about coating the walls in the home you live in with this type of material.
Here are a few fast facts about paint components that you should consider.
Solvents, Additives, and Surfactants
Solvents allow the pigment to spread and the liquid in the paint to emulsify. For this reason, water-based coatings are generally safer than oil-based coatings. Additives might be included to help the paint dry, but they may be filled with noxious chemicals. Surfactants make applying acrylic paint possible, but there are some that can be very dangerous to our health.
A few examples include:
- Benzene, Xylene, and Toluene are all solvents that are endocrine disruptors and can cause reproductive harm.
- Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) are a class of surfactants that can disrupt the hormone system and cause reproductive harm.
MILDEWCIDES and PRESERVATIVES
These are included in many paints to prevent mildew and mold and lengthen the shelf life of the product. There is no evidence that shows if these are healthier. It’s much more important to design a mold-preventative wall assembly and manage your moisture than to try and stop mold using a paint coating, this won’t work.
Mildewcides are named as such because they’re toxic to biological contaminants like mold. The problem is that we humans are also biological beings, so these things are also toxic to us. Choosing healthy options that support your awakened home means avoiding paint with these toxins.
A few negative health effects include:
- Triclosan (“MicroBan”) – Can cause harmful effects to the reproductive system.
- Isothiazolinones – These can cause skin reactions
Lastly, the paint might have one level of VOC within the product, but when a colored tint is added, it introduces levels of VOC that aren’t accounted for in the total VOC level. Keep in mind that darker tints have a higher level of VOC than lighter tints.
Adding color to paint can increase the level of VOC to about 10 grams of VOC per liter.
HOW TO SELECT A HEALTHIER PAINT?
We list a few of our favorite paints below, but we also want to give you some tips for making informed decisions on your own.
Start by seeing if the paint already has any certifications labeling it as a healthier option. Below are a few to start with. There are limitations to many of these certifications, so the best practice is to find something as close to natural as possible and to make sure to test samples of any product before purchasing.
Green Guard + Green Guard Gold
This UL certification uses a chamber test to see how many chemical emissions come off of a certain product.
- The GreenGuard Certification allows 500 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter of air) total VOCs.
- The GreenGuard Gold limit of only 220 μg/m3 total VOCs.
- The Gold standard even checks for additional chemicals.
Opt for the GreenGuard Gold Certification if you are looking for something that will be low odor.
The Declare Label is essentially a nutrition label for building products.
It lets you know whether a product is red list-free (contains no red list chemicals), Living Building Challenge Compliant, or “Declared,” which means all of the ingredients are listed.
This helps consumers to know the level at which chemicals are hazardous within products.
TOP 8 PAINT BRANDS WE LIKE
Ecos paints are water-based, eco-friendly, and uniquely formulated without harsh chemicals. They’re non-toxic, free of VOCs, have no odor, and are made with renewable, plant-based ingredients.
AFM Safecoat Zero VOC Paint
This non-toxic paint uses no formaldehyde, ammonia, crystalline silica, alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) or ethylene glycol. It’s also eco-friendly with zero VOC paint and pigments and claims to improve indoor air quality by limiting off-gassing.
Bioshield Clay Paint
These paints are made with all-natural ingredients including water, clay, porcelain clay, chalk, alcohol ester, cellulose, pigments, and preservatives. It’s also zero VOC, no odor, compliant with CARB 2 regulations, and meets or exceeds European standards and qualifies for LEED points.
Earthpaint Clear Skies
This paint line does not use Vinyl, Acrylic Copolymers (usually mixed with cheap vinyl), or toxic petrochemical solvents. Instead, it is made with pure non-toxic acrylic resin, making it a non-toxic option. The brand is focused on sustainability and their paint line is safe for both interior and exterior walls.
Clare’s paint options are low-odor, have near-zero VOCs and colorants, and are Greenguard Gold certified. The paints also do not contain lead, is Eco-friendly, and have no EPA chemicals of concern.
Green Planet Paints
This brand’s paint utilizes plant- and mineral-based formulas, making them non-toxic. They also do not use colorants that have VOCs, making it a near-zero VOC product. Instead, they use mineral pigments and plant oils, and as an added bonus, the paints have no emissions and use natural resins.
Atelier Lime Paint
This paint brand is manufactured in the USA with the highest quality natural ingredients and non-toxic formula. Lime’s high pH makes it a mold and mildew resistant finish making it hypoallergenic and it is LEED point qualified. It has zero VOCs, near-odorless and is free of solvents, and toxic chemicals.
BENJAMIN MOORE ECO SPEC
This paint brand has zero VOCs, zero emissions, and low odor, but still contains petroleum distillates which will take longer to offgas than the brands above. Eco Spec is also Green Seal-certified and certified as asthma and allergy-friendly by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
- Soni, V., Singh, P., Shree, V., & Goel, V. (2018). Effects of VOCs on human health. In Air pollution and control (pp. 119-142). Springer, Singapore.
- Bolden, A.L., Schultz, K., Pelch, K.E. et al. Exploring the endocrine activity of air pollutants associated with unconventional oil and gas extraction. Environ Health 17, 26 (2018).
- Kovarova, Jana & Blahová, Jana & Divisova, Lenka & Svobodova, Z. (2013). Alkylphenol ethoxylates and alkylphenols – update information on occurrence, fate and toxicity in aquatic environment. Polish journal of veterinary sciences. 16. 763-72. 10.2478/pjvs-2013-0111.
- Weatherly LM, Gosse JA. Triclosan exposure, transformation, and human health effects. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2017;20(8):447-469. doi: 10.1080/10937404.2017.1399306. PMID: 29182464; PMCID: PMC6126357.
- Reeder M, Atwater AR. Methylisothiazolinone and isothiazolinone allergy. Cutis. 2019 Aug;104(2):94-96. PMID: 31603959.
- Izzo, Francesca Caterina; Balliana, Eleonora; Pinton, Federica; Zendri, Elisabetta (2014-12-20). “A preliminary study of the composition of commercial oil, acrylic and vinyl paints and their behaviour after accelerated ageing conditions”. Conservation Science in Cultural Heritage. 14: 353–369 Paginazione. doi:10.6092/ISSN.1973-9494/4753.
Ashley · @AwakeningSpaces
Awakening Spaces is a full service interior design and consulting firm that support health conscious individuals and those who have been impacted by mold, chemicals, and EMFs create safe nurturing spaces.
Whether you’re renovating, building new, or looking to improve your existing space, we’re here to help you navigate the massive project you’re taking on by looking at your environment holistically and outlining the steps you need to take so that you can feel confident that your home is supporting your health and you can get back to your life.