Most conventional paint products and coatings emit dangerous VOCs that are used to enhance product performance and shelf life. Bowing to consumer pressure, the industry has made a significant shift to water-based paints that are lower in VOCs than solvent-based paints. Today, many low-toxicity, and low-VOC paint alternatives are available.
What are low-VOC paints?
These paints are now generally accepted to mean a paint with a VOC content less than 100 mg/L. While a variety of low-VOC and zero-VOC paints are now available they still vary in toxicity and performance. Thus, a paint selection should consider VOC content and overall toxicity (or eco-friendliness) in addition to performance and durability.
Why be cautious towards water-based paints labeled as “low-VOC”?
There are many reasons to be wary of the water-based colors. Although they are often provided with various labels such as “low-VOC” or “zero-VOC”, they are under considerable criticism since they still contain a variety of additives and toxic ingredients including fungicides, bactericides, crystalline silica, preservatives, plastics, ammonia, formaldehyde, odor masking agents, and many other dangerous ingredients. Plastic-based and latex-based paints, for example, emit harmful substances into indoor air for a long time. They have, in fact, a more negative impact on indoor air quality than the old solvent-based colors had when they were stable and when the solvents were well vaporized. Another disadvantage of plastic-based colors is that they are static and thus attract dirt and dust.
Besides the above-mentioned indoor health hazards, many ingredients from paint pose hazards to the environment both during the manufacture and after disposal. Moreover, the consumers may be utterly overwhelmed with ambivalent messages from paint manufacturers as there is no single, officially adopted label for “zero-VOC” or “low-VOC,” paints and coatings.
Greener paint and coating choices
Natural and eco-friendly paints are generally safer to handle, contain no petroleum-based solvents that are hazardous to the environment, human and pet health. Petroleum is a non-renewable energy resource—its extraction and refining are known to generate air and water pollutants.
A virtue of natural paints is that they contain no harmful chemicals (preservatives and surfactants) that contribute to long-term unhealthy indoor environment. Instead, they are based on natural ingredients and often on ancient formulas that people have used successfully for a long time.
Earth-friendly paints contain extracts from plant sources and minimally processed minerals, such as chalk and iron oxides. They may contain other natural ingredients such as natural oils, natural waxes, earth or plant pigments. Citrus oils may be used as solvents. As thickening agents and adhesives acacia gum may be chosen. Candelilla wax may be used to render surfaces water repellent. Castor oil and soy lecithin can be added to lower the oil’s surface tension. Flax seed oil is usually an important ingredient of eco-friendly paints. Another reliable oil is tung oil (known also as china wood oil). Tung oil is a 100% natural finish produced by pressing the tung nut (Vernicia fordii). Importantly, natural paints allow the air to circulate and create no problems of trapped moisture like plastic-based colors do.
Luckily, the greener choices are available and there are many eco-friendly paints to choose from, all of which are kind to the environment and human health. Typical examples include resin paints, lime paints and milk-based paints. Naturally, besides environmental considerations, the right paint is selected based on what works well, in terms of style and function.