Lead paint might have been made illegal in 1978, but just because people aren’t smothering their walls in lead doesn’t mean most modern paints are healthy. In truth, many of the chemicals in interior paint are extremely toxic; many volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are known carcinogens, and VOCs like benzene and methylene chloride remain in dry paint for decades, releasing toxins that put your family at risk of diseases like asthma or allergies. It should come as no surprise that pregnant women are severely discouraged from even being near an open can of paint or that many people experience crippling headaches when trying to paint even a small room in their homes.
Even worse, paint is devastating on the environment. As you might expect, chemicals that are bad for us are bad for other animals, too. When paint gets into the water or air, it can cause all sorts or organisms to get sick, damaging the ecosystem and causing the environment to suffer. What’s more, paints often require special materials, like heavy metals or pigments, that must be mined or farmed, which has a devastating environmental impact.
Fortunately, you don’t have to give up interior paint — but you do need to know what to look for in health- and eco-safe paints. Here’s a guide to help.
Low- or No-VOC Isn’t Good Enough
As more people search for eco-friendly, “natural,” and health-positive home products, major paint brands are taking steps to market their offerings as safe. Thus, you can easily find affordable paint marked as low-VOC or no-VOC — and this might seem like a viable option, considering that VOCs are the primary reason that interior paint remains so dangerous. However, in general, these labels mean close to nothing.
Just as the word “natural” doesn’t have much bearing on food items, “low-VOC” and “no-VOC” don’t necessarily tell the truth about what the paint contains. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), paint manufacturers can label their wares as no-VOC if it contains 5 or fewer grams of VOCs per liter, and they can use “low-VOC” if there are 250 or fewer grams of VOCs per liter. This means there are still VOCs in the paint, which can and do seep into your environment and impact your health. Worse, many paints labeled low- and no-VOC are untested, meaning manufacturers could be using these labels but adding as many VOCs as regular paint.
If you do opt for low- or no-VOC paint, you must look for certifications, which demonstrate that the paint has been third-party tested and verified to include the regulated amount of VOCs. Perhaps the best cert is GREENGUARD, but Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), Green Seal and Master Painters Institute (MPI) are also advantageous to no certification at all. If you are hiring local painters to paint your home, you should verify that they are using certified paints.
There Are Many Eco-friendly Solutions
Typical low- and no-VOC paints are not necessarily eco-friendly; they tend to have similar manufacturing processes to normal paint, and they include ingredients that can harm the environment. Fortunately, if you want to commit to sustainable painting, you have a few alternative options to consider. These include:
Perhaps the best of eco-friendly paints, milk paint is made from sustainable, natural ingredients like milk protein (which is how it gets its name), clay, lime and pigment. Milk paint is water-based, unlike regular paint which tends to be oil-based, and it is non-toxic and biodegradable. Perhaps best of all, milk paint dries in under 30 minutes, meaning it is faster and easier to apply a few coats of milk paint than it is to wait days on end for normal paint to set. While you can find milk paint pre-mixed in quarts and gallons, it is cost-effective to pick up milk paint in powdered form and mix it yourself, with water, at home.
Another safe alternative is using mineral and plant-based pigments to mix your own non-toxic, earth-safe paints. While this process can be labor-intensive, it gives you complete control over the contents of your paint as well as the final color that you produce. You can find raw pigments online, from stores like Earth Pigments. You will need to acquire other ingredients, like silicon carbide and water, as well as tools like a dust mask, gloves, glass jars and the like. Using pigments can also be costly, but it isn’t nearly as expensive as gambling your health against VOCs.
Paint seems innocuous — everyone paints! But, if you look even slightly into the components of average paint, it’s easy to become dissatisfied. Eco-friendly paint options do exist, and the more demand there is for them, the cheaper and easier to find they will become.