VOC Paint: what is it?

VOC paint contains volatile organic compounds, which are released into the air in your home while the paint dries, not what you want in a family home. VOCs cause issues for anyone with asthma and have side effects. 

Manufacturers have started to make low VOC paint and zero VOC paint to meet demand from consumers for non-toxic and breathable paints. But, many paint products are still not labeled with their VOC content. Although any solvents are listed in the ingredients and statutory warnings should be on the tin. 

Table of Contents

What are Volatile Organic Compounds? 

What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and why should we avoid them?  Volatile organic compounds are chemicals with a high vapor pressure and low water solubility (Environmental Protection Agency). They are often man made chemicals and are typically solvents, because of their ability to dissolve. They are included in many household items like paint, pharmaceuticals and refrigerants. 

The problem is that VOCs give off gasses and when they are used in enclosed spaces, like indoors in a room in a home, they can affect us. VOCs can cause breathing problems, dizziness and headaches, irritation to eyes, nose and throat, skin problems and in the longer term are known to cause cancer (Indoor Air Quality Scientific Findings Resource Bank). 

Solvents to look out for: formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, and glycol ethers in solvent paints. 

How to paint safely indoors

The Environmental Protection Agency offers a series of guidelines on how to paint safely indoors. Good ventilation is key and windows and doors should be left open during painting and ideally for several days after the painting work is completed. Take regular breaks away from painting in the room. 

Placing a box fan in the window pointing out of the window will push air out of the room. Make sure you secure the fan so that it can’t fall in or out of the window. Air conditioning, bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans are not suitable for this purpose. Keep the temperature and humidity as low as possible as solvents off-gas more at higher temperatures (Minnesota Department of Health). 

Read all the instructions provided on the paint can and follow them closely. Use any health & safety protection they recommend, including goggles, gloves, etc. The instructions should also include emergency information on what to do if overexposed.

Buy only the amount of paint that you need and safely dispose of any leftover paint after use. This will be different in different regions of the country. Look for local paint recycling options. Do not throw leftover paint and cans into the garbage. 

Clean brushes and trays. Some paints can be cleaned off with soap and water. Others require specialist cleaners that can be hazardous in themselves. 

EPA makes some suggestions when looking for more sustainable paints. They recommend

  • Avoid toxins like ammonia, formaldehyde, odor masking agents, fungicides and volatile organic compounds
  • Look for recycled content, paints that can be remixed to another color and take back or recycling options
  • Think about alternative paints like lime, milk protein, clay and earth-based paints like chalk paint

Choose water based paints over oil based paints and never use external paints indoors. Oil based paints produce higher exposure to solvents. 

Low VOC paint

A low VOC paint should contain less than 50g of VOCs per liter of paint, according to Ecos Paints. This is the Green Seal standard for flat paint or matte paint (Montgomery County).  Unfortunately, no federally enforceable standards have been set for VOCs in domestic homes. 

Seals and standards recommended by EPA are Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Product Standard, Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) Paints & Coatings Ecolabel, Green Seal™ 11 Standard for Paints, Coatings, Stains, and Sealers and Master Painters Institute (MPI®) Extreme Green™ (other options are on the list). 

In the UK, The Volatile Organic Compounds in Paints, Varnishes and Vehicle Refinishing Products Regulations 2012 defines the low VOC category as VOC content between 0.3% and 7.99%. The maximum VOC content for interior matt walls and ceilings paints is 30g per liter of ready to use product. 

Zero VOC paint, VOC free or no VOC paint

It is important to note that a zero VOC paint or no VOC paint can still contain some VOCs. Paints that are labeled zero VOC or no VOC should contain less than 5g of VOCs per liter of paint. The UK regulations categorize minimal VOC as between 0% & 0.29%. 

Low odor paint

Note that a ‘low odor paint’, which are often water based paints, is not necessarily a low VOC paint and you need to check the VOC levels before purchasing them.  

Sherwin Williams zero VOC paint

Sherwin Williams Zero VOC paints are only available in store or online from their store. The Promar Zero VOC range is Greenguard Gold certified as having low chemical emissions. The ProMar 200 Zero VOC Interior Latex Flat is also LEED certified (US Green Building Council). 

King of Paints low VOC

King of Paints makes a non solvent, low VOC range of paints. Colors like this baby blue paint and a very pretty blush pink paint would be perfect for the nursery and they have been independently certified as baby safe.

Graphenstone zero VOC paint

Graphenstone makes natural zero VOC paint with lime and graphene technology. Their low VOC products contain less than 1g/l of paint.  The paints absorb co2 and are breathable. They are also naturally resistant to mold and bacteria. Available in white or colors. 

Ecos Paints VOC free paint

Ecos Paints make water based, non-toxic and VOC free paints. The matte and eggshell paints meet CDPH 01350 requirements for use in classrooms and offices and ASTM-D4236 so any hazardous substances have been clearly labeled. Ecos Paints make a truly vast range of colors. 

Clare zero VOC paint

Clare Zero VOC paint is Greenguard Gold certified with ultra low odor, no toxic air contaminants (TACs), hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), and no EPA chemicals of concern. They are also made in an energy efficient factory with recycled materials in the tins and trays and recycled packaging. Clare Zero VOC paint is compliant with LEED regulations for green building (US Green Building Council). 

Edward Bulmer low VOC paint

Edward Bulmer makes natural paint that is water based and plant based. Their color range is perfect for the period home or the modern home. Their products are low VOC paints that have less than 0.2% VOC content. 

Low VOC and Zero VOC paints

Low VOC and Zero VOC paints are good for both your family and the environment. They exclude all the VOCs that emit gasses and are harmful to breathe, so why wouldn’t you want to keep yourself and your family safe if you can. 

Look out for low VOC paints that are made from natural ingredients like lime, clay and chalk. Always check the labels to see the level of VOC content and you want this to be very low <10g/l. If you can find a paint that has been independently tested and has a seal like Greenguard Gold, that is a bonus. Remember that just because a paint is labeled as low VOC or Zero VOC doesn’t mean that it has no VOCs at all. 

Whatever paint you decide to use, remember to always paint in a room that has been well ventilated and keep it ventilated for as long as possible after painting.