New baby on the way? Looking to spruce up your home? If you're a holistic-minded parent, you are likely looking out for low- or zero-VOC paint to start your project. But buyer beware: like so many other products in the "natural" marketplace, paint brands have taken to confusing labeling practices to attract the green consumer even when their products don't actually meet the desired goals. So let's talk about greenwashing interior paints.
Volatile Organic Compound (VOCs) are chemical compounds and solvents used in paints, including formaldehyde and benzene. Pigments used to color paints can also contain additional chemicals, such as lead and cadmium. When applied to your walls and left at room temperature, these chemicals "off-gas" and release into your indoor air. VOC exposure can trigger asthma attacks, respiratory issues, eye or skin irritation, dizziness, and nausea, while high levels of exposure may be linked to liver and kidney disease and cancer. VOCs are present in conventional paints at very high rates and may release into the air for more than a year after application.
Changing standards in the industry have created many low- or zero-VOC brands which will provide a less toxic option. However, there is a considerable degree of variation among brands and many confusing labeling practices. Water-based paints will contain fewer VOCs than oil-based paints, but beyond this there are many opinions about what low-VOC actually means. Low odor or low-VOC paints will have lower VOC levels than conventional counterparts, but whether this is assessed from the base or after adding the pigment is tricky. Larger paint brands may label low-VOC paints as such but consumers should ask if these include the addition of pigment.
Zero- or No-VOC paints will contain even fewer VOCs, but there is some question about whether VOC content and VOC emissions are clearly linked. Because VOCs combine with other particles in the air and form different compounds, even zero- or no-VOC paints may release more VOCs into the air than anticipated.
The most natural, least toxic paints you will find are non-toxic or natural paints formulated by a select number of alternative paint companies. These are derived from more natural raw ingredients and will provide the best option for green consumers. Old fashioned milk paints are free of VOCs and are a great option for people with chemical sensitivities, as are the few non-toxic paint brands.