Fresh paint

VOC-free paints offer a healthier alternative to offgassing varieties

Billy Wolford at Reno Paint Mart showcases the store’s supply of Benjamin Moore’s Natura paint, a VOC-free alternative.

Billy Wolford at Reno Paint Mart showcases the store’s supply of Benjamin Moore’s Natura paint, a VOC-free alternative.

Photo By lauren randolph

Two major life changes have piqued my interest in VOC-free paints: the purchase of my first house—nearly every room of which needs to be repainted—and a baby on the way.

“We have a lot of pregnant women coming in and asking for this, or just people with small children,” says Billy Wolford, counter manager at Reno Paint Mart.

But you don’t need to be pregnant or have children to want to reduce the toxins you breathe in your house (though it helps). Studies have found that the level of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) indoors is about two to five times higher than the level found outdoors. Low-VOC or VOC-free paint is one way to decrease those levels.

VOCs are found in conventional paints, as well as products like paint thinners, vinyl floors, air fresheners and wood preservatives. They’re used in paint to keep things like coloring, binders and resins in the liquid to make the paint stick but then evaporate, or “offgas,” while the paint dries. That offgassing can last for months after the smell has gone. It’s been linked to short-term effects like eye irritation, headaches and respiratory problems, and long-term problems like damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system and increased risk of cancer.

So while VOCs serve a purpose in conventional paints, water-based alternatives without all the toxins have developed—and steadily improved in quality, according to Wolford. With increased demand for them, they’re easily found nearly everywhere paint is sold, with the FreshAire brand at Home Depot, Benjamin Moore’s Natura and Eco-Spec at Reno Paint Mart, and Lowe’s carries a paint by Olympic that’s VOC-free when left untinted.

“When left untinted” is an important distinction. Low- or no-VOC paints aren’t perfect. Aside from costing more than regular paint (often $30-$40 per gallon) a number of VOC-free paints only live up to their names if they’re white, as colorant typically adds VOCs not accounted for in the levels listed on the base paint’s label. In recent tests by Consumer Reports, VOCs were detected in every paint, even those labeled VOC-free, though they were at much lower levels than conventional paints.

However, some paints, such as the odorless Natura, now offer a water-based, VOC-free colorant, so consumers can have their color without the toxins. Wolford says he thinks the water-based colorant actually makes for higher quality paint because the tint blends better with the paint.

“It’s getting to the point where people are really worried about it being no VOC, and it can’t be zero if you go with traditional colorant,” says Wolford.

So when shopping for low- or no-VOC paint, be sure to ask if the colorant is also VOC-free. Also, check the paint can’s label for levels of VOC.

“If they’re seeking VOC-free, it says it right on the can,” says Wolford.

What’s considered a low level of VOC depends on whom you ask. The nonprofit Green Seal group defines low-VOC as ranging from 50 grams per liter for a flat topcoat or reflective wall coating to 250 g/L for anti-corrosive coating. Federal VOC limits are at 250 g/L for flat paints and 380 g/L for others. California is even stricter: 150 g/L for nonflat and 100g/L for flat.