Understanding the Function of Low-VOC Paint

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Home renovation is undoubtedly an exciting experience. However, the sharp smell of paint can be a turnoff for some. While some people find the smell of paint refreshing, it can be harmful to health. In fact, most household paints contain up to 10,000 chemicals, with 150 of them linked to cancer. One of the most hazardous chemicals found in paint is volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When released into the air, VOCs react with other elements to produce ozone, leading to breathing problems, headaches, watery eyes, and even nausea. VOCs also have been linked to cancer and damage to the liver and kidney. As paint dries, these harmful VOCs are released into the air at high levels. Indoor VOC levels are usually 10 times higher than outdoor levels, and up to 1,000 times higher immediately after painting. VOCs continue to seep out for several years, with only 50 percent being released in the first year. Paint-related products are the second largest source of VOC emissions into the atmosphere, responsible for roughly 11 billion pounds every year. Painters who are regularly exposed to paint vapors have a higher incidence of several types of cancers, impaired brain function, renal dysfunction, and other health problems.

However, with the demand for safer alternatives, low-VOC and no-VOC paints, which are now widely available and sold by most major paint manufacturers, have been introduced. The composition of paint previously included VOCs that were considered essential to the paint’s performance. To find out more about the makeup of paint, read on.

The three main components of paint are pigment, binders and solvents. Pigment gives the paint its color, while binders help the pigment stick to the surface. Solvents, also known as carrier or thinner, keep the paint in liquid form and make it easier to apply. However, solvents contribute the most to the paint’s level of VOCs, which are harmful chemicals that evaporate quickly into the air and contribute to ozone pollution and health problems. Paints with higher percentages of solids typically require fewer applications as they leave more pigment behind. Solvents can be oil-based (high VOC content) or water-based (low or no VOC content). Latex paint, which is more environmentally friendly, uses water-based solvents. Oil-based solvents such as white spirit, formaldehyde and toluene are being phased out due to environmental and health concerns. The pigments and binders may also contain VOCs and other toxins, such as dangerous metals like cadmium and chromium. To reduce the amount of VOCs, some automakers now use water-borne paints instead of solvent paints. Low-VOC paint has a VOC content of less than 250 g/L for latex and flat-finish paints, and less than 380 g/L for oil-based and all other paints. VOC-free paint contains no VOCs.

The majority of low-VOC paints sold by reliable dealers have levels of 50 g/L or less. However, it’s important to note that the numbers displayed on the paint can are measured before the addition of pigments and other additives, which can add more VOCs. For instance, pigments can contribute around 10 g/L. Despite the reduction of VOCs, it doesn’t necessarily signify that the paint is free of toxins. For individuals who are concerned about toxins, there are options such as paints marked with the Green Seal, which guarantees that they meet precise environmental standards. The Green Seal VOC limit for flat finishes is 50 g/L, while non-flat finishes shouldn’t exceed 100g/L. Primers and floor paints also have a VOC limit of 100 g/L, whereas reflective wall coatings must not go beyond 50 g/L. Green Seal paints are prohibited from using toxic chemical compounds that include carcinogens, hazardous air pollutants, heavy metals, and formaldehyde-donors. In addition to low and no-VOC paints, natural paints made of naturally occurring materials such as lime, clay, linseed oil, and chalk are also available. However, it’s crucial to note that they may contain significant levels of unregulated VOCs that can harm chemically sensitive people. Therefore, it’s essential to check the label for ingredients. Some individuals prefer to make their own health-friendly paint using milk protein, eggs, flour, linseed oil, or chalk. While environmentally friendly paints generally cost the same as regular paint, some natural paints may cost up to 80% more. Additionally, some alternative solvents may not perform as well as regular solvents, making them difficult to apply and resulting in fewer color options.

When purchasing paint, it’s important to consider the levels of VOCs and other toxins, but it’s also a good idea to choose a paint that contains at least 30 percent solids. This can help you avoid having to apply a third coat. The solid content information is typically available on the label or Technical Data Sheet of the paint. For more information on paint and pollution, check out the links on the page. The “Lots More Information” section contains related articles from HowStuffWorks, while the “More Great Links” section offers additional resources, including information on making your own non-toxic paint. Finally, the “Sources” section provides a list of references for further reading.


1. What are VOCs and why are they harmful?

VOC stands for volatile organic compounds, which are chemicals that can evaporate at room temperature and react with other air pollutants to form harmful ground-level ozone or smog. VOCs can cause a variety of health problems, including eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system. They can also contribute to global climate change by releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

2. How does low-VOC paint differ from traditional paint?

Low-VOC paint contains fewer VOCs than traditional paint, which can have up to 10 times the amount of VOCs. Low-VOC paint uses water as a carrier instead of petroleum-based solvents, which helps reduce the amount of VOCs released into the air during application and drying. Low-VOC paint is also less likely to emit unpleasant odors and harmful fumes.

3. What are the benefits of using low-VOC paint?

Using low-VOC paint can have several benefits. First and foremost, it can improve indoor air quality by reducing the amount of VOCs released into the air. This is especially important for people with respiratory problems, allergies, or chemical sensitivities. Low-VOC paint can also be easier to clean up, as it can often be cleaned with soap and water instead of harsh chemicals. Additionally, low-VOC paint is often more durable and longer-lasting than traditional paint, which can save money in the long run.

4. Can low-VOC paint be used for all types of surfaces?

Low-VOC paint can be used for most types of surfaces, including walls, ceilings, trim, and furniture. However, it may not be suitable for certain surfaces that require a higher level of durability or resistance to moisture, such as bathrooms or kitchens. In these cases, it is important to choose a low-VOC paint that is specifically designed for these types of surfaces.

5. Is low-VOC paint more expensive than traditional paint?

Low-VOC paint can be slightly more expensive than traditional paint, but the price difference is usually minimal. In some cases, low-VOC paint can even be cheaper than traditional paint, as it may require fewer coats and be more durable. Additionally, the long-term benefits of using low-VOC paint, such as improved indoor air quality and reduced health risks, can outweigh the initial cost.

6. Where can I find low-VOC paint?

Low-VOC paint is becoming more widely available and can be found at most home improvement stores, paint stores, and online retailers. Many major paint brands now offer a line of low-VOC paints, and there are also specialty brands that focus exclusively on low-VOC and eco-friendly paints. When shopping for low-VOC paint, look for products that are labeled as “low-VOC” or “zero-VOC” and check the product label for specific information about the product’s VOC content and ingredients.

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