Guide to Low VOC Paints

Choose Eco-Friendly and Non-Toxic Paints

You’ve been dreaming of turning that spare room into an apple-green office, and it’s finally time to bring some paint chips home to finalize the color. But when you get to the home improvement store, you find there are too many choices – you want to choose low VOC paints, but you’re not sure which option is best! We hope that this guide to buying low VOC paint will provide you with the tools you need to make the best purchasing decision.


Low VOC paint and why it’s important for you and the planet

What exactly are VOCs? They’re volatile organic compounds which are substances that, when released from consumer products like paint, carpeting, furniture, and scented air fresheners, contribute to ozone and smog formation. These breathable gases are released from paint as it dries (sometimes for months) and include harmful chemicals like toluene, benzene, vinyl chloride, mercury, ethylene glycol, cadmium, chromium, and formaldehyde.

Because of these harmful chemicals, VOCs in paint are related to many health problems, including:

  • Allergic skin reaction
  • Cancer
  • Conjunctival irritation
  • Dizziness
  • Dyspnea
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nausea
  • Noise and throat discomfort
  • Nosebleeds
  • Vomiting


What is low VOC paint and how is it measured?

In the US, the federal government has standards for VOC limits in low VOC paint products and is measured in grams per liter (g/l), though some states have set even lower levels for products sold in their individual states. The following is a breakdown of the standards used to measure VOC in the two most common types of low VOC paints:

  • Flat paints: Federal standard = 250 g/l; California state standard = 100 g/l
  • Nonflat paints: Federal standard = 380 g/l; California state standard = 150 g/l

With the exception of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) around Los Angeles which has even stricter standards for all finishes (50 g/l), you can see that manufacturers are permitted to allow higher levels of VOCs in glossy paints, which is something you may wish to keep in mind as you determine the finish for your paint selection.

But there’s a problem with these measuring systems: they all apply to the base only, and not to the tint. So even if you purchase a low VOC base paint, you could be adding significant VOCs to your paint if you select a high-VOC tint. So keep in mind that usually the darker the paint tint, the higher the VOC levels.


Choosing the best low VOC paint

Navigating the low VOC paint isle can be a bit daunting if you’re not equipped with some basic non-toxic paint shopping principles. Here’s a quick run-down of how to go about buying low VOC paint:

  • Go for paints with a low VOC certification
  • Choose paints made from natural ingredients
  • Look for paints with the lowest VOC content (something below 50 g/l ideally)
  • Check the label for solids content (between 25% and 45%), the higher the better
  • Also check labels for VOC levels in tints

To start, one of the easiest ways to determine which “green” paints live up to the name is to look for a third-party verification or certification. The following are the recognized standards for eco-friendly paints:

  • Green Seal: They measure VOCs along with other environmental metrics like raw materials used and performance. Find their approved, low VOC paints in their database.
  • GreenGuard: This is an indoor quality certification that measures off-gassing from drying paint. They also have a product database for approved GreenGuard options.
  • Scientific Certification Systems: This organization certifies products on a variety of eco-friendly paint criteria, including indoor air quality. You can find their certified non-toxic, low VOC paints in their product database.


Natural paints - Non-toxic and eco-friendly paints

In addition to looking for paints that come with a seal of approval for indoor air quality, you may also wish to look into natural paints made from biodegradable and plant-based ingredients rather than harmful chemicals. These non-toxic paint options often include ingredients like plant pigments, clay, milk, minerals, and other natural ingredients.

Of course, paint performance is another important factor when purchasing paint. If you have a membership, you may wish to check out their ratings to see which low VOC paint they recommend for performance.


Low VOC, eco-friendly paint strippers

If your home renovation project involves stripping paint from a room (this is especially important for lead-based paints which are harmful to your health), then you’ll want to select a low VOC paint stripper for the job. Conventional paint strippers work by melting the paint, using active ingredients like methylene chloride (a carcinogen). A more natural paint stripper option will be made of water-soluble, non-toxic ingredients such as the organic solvent N-Methylpyrrolidone.

Although these eco-friendly paint strippers require a little more work and time to get the job done, you’ll be rewarded with a less polluted home and a headache-free result. Here are a few options you can try:


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