Brushing Up on Low-VOC Paint

These eco-friendly enamels have some drawbacks, but we explain why it may be worthwhile to embrace green paints anyway.

Posted by Caryn Colgan | Jan 13, 2010
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Homeowners who want to use eco-friendly paint may insist on using low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint. Not only are low-VOC paints more earth-friendly, they are often a good choice for people who want to improve air quality in their homes. VOCs have been implicated in health issues ranging from respiratory ailments and kidney disease to memory impairment and much more.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, concentrations of VOCs can be up to 10 times higher indoors than outdoors. Immediately after painting, the VOC concentration can soar to 1,000 times its concentration outdoors. Because of this, adequate ventilation or protective breathing gear is critical.

VOCs are used in paints, aerosols, carpets and many other products. The federal limits on VOCs are 250 grams per liter for flat paints and 380 grams for all others. Because VOCs contribute to ozone depletion and have other harmful environmental problems, many environmentally conscious consumers are turning to low- or no-VOC paints.

The following are a few low- or no-VOC alternatives and ways to overcome any disadvantages they may pose.

Milk Paint

Milk Paint was originally made from all-organic raw materials: curdled milk, lime and pigment - coal, charcoal, crushed brick and rock were added to blend colors.

According to The Real Milk Paint Company, Inc., milk paint has been used for hundreds of years. Milk paint can be mixed with coloring pigments to create the color you want. "Our pigments today are harvested in the traditional manner and are completely safe, eco-friendly, non-toxic, lead-free and not radioactive. Real Milk Paint is an all-natural paint finish made from purified milk protein, lime, natural fillers and pigment."

To maintain the beauty and increase longevity of the paint, the company recommends a sealer, no matter which brand of milk paint you use.

Clay Paint

Clay paint is another non-toxic paint alternative. It is, as its name implies, partially made of clay. Because it is porous, it helps balance humidity levels indoors.

Bio Shield Healthy Living Paint offers a range of natural interior decorating products, including clay paint. "Clay paint can be applied to most interior surfaces including previously painted surfaces in sound condition, gypsum board (drywall), various plasters and masonry," according to the company.

One disadvantage to clay paint is that it is highly absorbent and prone to stain. The company recommends its product for low-impact areas only. Wash painted surfaces gently with a non-abrasive cleanser.

Low-VOC Paints by Large Manufacturers

Even the large paint manufacturers have joined the green paint movement with their own low-VOC paints. Consumer Reports tested many of these and gave its highest overall ratings for durability, coverage, surface smoothness, mildew and fade resistance and hiding performance to Behr Premium Plus Enamel, Benjamin Moore Regal and Aura and Kilz Casual Colors for the low-luster paints. For the flat paints, Behr Premium Plus Enamel, Valspar Signature Colors and Olympic Premium scored the highest. With regards to testing the low-VOC claims, the Consumer Reports article admits that current regulations and testing protocols "make it hard to determine which paints contain the least VOCs."

While it may be easier for consumers to purchase paint the old-fashioned paint in a store, researching some of the alternatives may yield the lowest VOC options. Milk and clay paint are only a couple of the natural options available. While they may be more delicate and require more attention, the health and environmental benefits may make them worth the trouble.

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