How to Buy Eco Friendly Paint

Eco-Friendly Paints
CC flickr photo courtesy of ewan and donabel

Painting the interior of your home should be a wonderful experience. It makes everything look new again, brightens up a room, and helps you create the ambiance you envision. Common commercial paints can do all that, but at the same time cause dangerous problems from fumes that can harm both you and the environment.

What Is Eco-Friendly Paint?

Eco-friendly paints are specifically designed to do everything those other paints do, but without the toxic fumes. The most common fumes, known as VOCs (volatile organic compounds), are not only present while the paint is drying, but can last long after the paint is applied. In fact, paints that contain VOCs can release those toxins into the air for years after application.

See our previous post about our own use of no VOC paint in a construction project.

In addition to VOCs, there are other ingredients to be wary of as well. Ammonia, acetone and formaldehyde are often used in paint products and are toxic, but are not covered under the EPA’s VOC rating. Read your labels carefully when choosing your home’s paint. Check the ingredients that are used to extend the shelf life of most commercial paints. Mold-inhibitors, biocides and fungicides can also off-gas chemicals for years. These chemicals can impact your air quality and can contribute to breathing problems.

The Dangers of VOCs

VOCs are dangerous in both indoor and outdoor paint, but cause the most problems indoors where the restricted airflow of the average home increases their potency. The EPA attributes the following health problems to high levels of VOCs in buildings and homes:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Dizziness

As a result of a 2002 study conducted by the National Cancer Institute, it was determined that people regularly working with paints had a significantly higher risk of developing cancer.

A VOC called ethylene glycol, a common solvent in commercial interior paints, is a hazardous chemical that is harmful to people. It produces noxious fumes that can cause skin, eye, nose and throat irritation just from mild exposure. Overexposure can even cause respiratory failure and coma, as well as vomiting, nausea and drowsiness.

You can combat the problem of paint emissions by using eco-friendly paints created with safe ingredients. Commercial paint companies have responded to consumer demands and pressures from the EPA to create many types of paints that are much safer for both people and the environment.

How Eco-Friendly Paints are Made

Most commercial eco-friendly paints are created by substituting water for petroleum products that liquefy the paint. The EPA determines paints in the “safe” zone if it emits no more than 200 grams of VOCs per liter. It can then be labeled “low-VOC.”

There are some paints that are ultra-low or zero-VOC. They are often very expensive compared to the low-VOC types, and can be harder to find. Any paint with less than 5 grams of VOC per liter is considered by the EPA to be “low-VOC.”

Many companies with a strong environmental commitment go beyond just VOCs and avoid other toxic chemicals as well.

Types of Eco-Friendly Paint

Commercial: In the past, eco-friendly paints have come under fire because they were available in very few colors. Times have changed and most major paint brands have low-VOC, natural paint lines. If you have a favorite paint brand, check their website to see if they offer eco-friendly versions of their interior and exterior paints. Some are more eco-friendly than others though, so do your research. AFM Safecoat and Auro are two of the leaders in nontoxic paints.

Natural Paint: These are made with products such as milk, balsam, minerals or citrus. They are completely petroleum-free, but may contain natural terpenes, which are VOCs in and of themselves, and come from the plant material used to create the paints. These paints, however, do not contain any biocides and fungicides. The drawback to natural paints is that the consumer often has to mix them prior to use. Because they use no preservatives, they are usually packaged in a powder form requiring the proper measurements of paint to water.

Milk paint is made from the protein casein found in milk, and mixed with lime. The Real Milk Paint Company is just one of many companies that make commercially available milk paint. While it is good for walls, it is especially good for woodwork because it acts like a stain that allows the grain to show through for a beautiful wood effect.

There are even recipes you can find online or in books that show you how to make your own natural paints. Old-fashioned white wash still works today, and paint made with powdered clay, flour and water is a great option if you want total control and complete eco-friendly results that you can do yourself.

Keep in mind that everyone reacts to chemicals differently. If you have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) be sure to ask around before trying any “eco” paint. A good resource for MCS product reviews is Debra Dadd’s Green Living Q&A.