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Avoid toxins with sustainable and eco friendly paints

Last Updated Mar 6, 2017 · Written by Rob Schneider

We don't often think about it, but many of the paints we use have toxic chemicals in them. To compound the problem, solvents may be toxic as well. We do have choices, though. We can choose low VOC (volatile organic compounds) or no VOC paints. Many painters are offering clients these types of paints as demand for more eco-friendly paints increases.

What are sustainable and eco-friendly paints? Here's what you need to know:

  1. What are Volatile Organic Compounds? 

  2. What are Eco-Friendly Paints?

  3. Choosing Sustainable and Eco-Friendly Paints

  4. Why You Should Use Water Based Paints


What are Volatile Organic Compounds?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are released as gases from certain liquid and solid materials. They are present in a number of types of paint. VOCs can have short or long term health effects.

We can smell VOCs when we open a can of paint and many types of paint solvents. What we don't notice is that they continue to be released in the atmosphere even after the paints have dried. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), organic pollutants are found in concentrations two to five times higher indoors than outdoors, whether in the city or a rural property.  

Paints, paint strippers and solvents are just one source of VOCs in the home. Some of the negative health effects of VOCs include:

  • Eye, nose and throat irritations

  • Headaches, loss of coordination and nausea

  • Damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system

  • Some can cause cancer in animals and humans

Some of us are more prone to the immediate effects of VOCs than others, but most of us know that a room that has recently been painted should be well-ventilated before we use it. We also know that the fumes have an unpleasant smell and often produce headaches or a general feeling of discomfort.


Because VOCs are so prevalent in homes, no one is sure what their long term effects may be, but there is increasing concern that they may be doing more damage than we realise. The World Health Organisation has noted that professional decorators, who are often exposed to wet paint, are 40 percent more likely than the general public to get lung cancer. The culprit may be benzene, which is a known carcinogen and is found in paint as well as cigarette smoke.

VOCs can continue polluting the atmosphere inside the home for five years after they have been applied. Just as importantly, for every ton of paint produced, up to 30 tons of harmful chemicals are used in their production.

What are Eco-Friendly Paints?

Eco-friendly paints come in two forms. Some are low VOC paints and others have no VOCs. Those that have no VOCs are made from 100 percent natural products. Their colours are derived from clays or plant materials. These are the oldest paints known to man. They were used thousands of years ago, before the advent of chemical-based paints.

The word "organic" in volatile organic compounds is misleading. Many of the compounds are chemical compounds, usually petrochemical compounds. These include the solvents and other materials in the paints. Low VOC paints have fewer chemicals in them than standard paints, but do contain some chemicals.

The best way to choose paints is to study their ingredients. According to Ethical Consumer, the "green paint" movement began in Germany in the late 20th century. Some ingredients to look for in eco-friendly paints include:

  • Linseed oil

  • Lime

  • Turpentine

  • D-limonene (derived from citrus fruits)

  • Natural earth and mineral pigments

  • Chalk

  • Casein (derived from milk)

  • Borax

Many of these ingredients have been used for centuries. Turpentine and linseed oil were used until modern paints with chemical additives replaced them. They were effective solvents for both indoor and outdoor use.

Choosing Sustainable and Eco-Friendly Paints

Paints that contain petrochemicals were invented for a reason. Many of them are easy to clean and last longer than paints made from natural materials. The vast range of colours available today is partially due to the introduction of synthetic colours, too.


While there may be some benefits to high VOC paints, the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. You don't have to take an all-or-nothing approach to choosing sustainable paints. While paints that have no VOCs in them are ideal, you can also use low VOC paints and minimise your exposure to harmful petrochemicals.

Don't overlook no VOC paints. They may not come in the full colour spectrum, but they have natural colours that can be perfect for a modern interior. You may be surprised by how many colours are available. Aside from earth tones, no VOC paints come in a range of other colours. They are often matte colours, but if they use turpentine or linseed oil as solvents, they can also have a high level of gloss.

You can achieve a number of striking effects using no VOC paints. For example, you can achieve a rustic appearance that might be perfect for a feature wall or even a whole room. Matte finishes have a soft appearance that can be pleasing in any room.


No VOC paints are ideal for use on walls and children's furniture. Many paints contain lead as well as harmful VOCs. Children have a way of "tasting" their furniture and paints containing lead and petrochemicals can be harmful to them. Chalk paint can be ideal for painting any kind of furniture. What is Chalk Paint? goes into the many uses of chalk paint. While chalk paint alone has a matte finish, you can apply an environmentally friendly wax to give furniture a sheen.

Surprisingly, you can also find some brands of no VOC paints that have a gloss finish. While colours are limited, some no VOC paint companies offer over a hundred colours and you can always mix colours to achieve the look you want.

Why You Should Use Water Based Paints

Paint manufacturers have come out with wide ranges of water based paints. Water based paints can be just as durable as chemical-based paints and are becoming increasingly popular. While they do contain some VOCs, they are safer to use than many high VOC paints.


You can apply water based paints to walls without having to smell the fumes of potentially toxic chemicals. While you should still ventilate the room, the fumes won't be overpowering. Water based paints take about six hours to dry, but don't release VOCs while they're drying or after they have dried. When you use water based paints, you don't have to use harmful solvents when you clean your brushes. This reduces your exposure to potentially harmful petrochemicals.

Water based paints are formulated for both indoor and outdoor applications. They are available from paint suppliers and painters often recommend them to clients. If you have children, you don't want them to be exposed to harmful chemicals. Instead of vacating a room until the paint fumes dissipate, you can wait until the paint dries and use the room on the day or the following morning.

While paints with no VOCs are preferable in many instances, low VOC water based paints are a step up from high VOC paints. Have a look at both types of paint and choose the one that works best for your needs. There really is no need to risk your family's health when viable alternatives to petrochemical based paints are available.


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