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Everything You Need to Know About Low VOC Paint

In the past several decades, the painting industry has been making leaps and bounds to be more eco-friendly. Traditionally, paint and paint products contained many volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs.

However, thanks to research and new developments in the industry, you now have the option of eco-friendly low VOC paint.

If you’re wondering if low-VOC paint is a good option, you’ve come to the right place! We’ll examine what exactly low VOC paint is, as well as its pros and cons, and compare it to its competitors.

Cans of paint in various colors. Low VOC paint selections offer as many color options as traditional paints.

What is a VOC?

VOCs are volatile organic compound and refers to the chemicals and additives that are often used in paint, paint thinner, and other painting products. They contribute in large part to the strong smell that paint has when you first expose it to the atmosphere.

Over time, the smell goes away, but the VOCs never completely do.

While VOCs have long been a crucial ingredient in most types of paint, they’ve been proven to have many downsides. For example, VOCs have gases within them that get released into the atmosphere when you use paint that contains VOCs. These gases are lighter than the air, which means they’ll rise into the atmosphere and have a negative impact on the ozone.

Additionally, VOC gases are terrible for your health when you inhale them, which is seemingly inevitable if you paint your house with them. VOCs can cause lung and heart issues and will compound existing health problems.

It’s also worth noting that the effects of these gases get amplified when they’re used indoors in an enclosed space.

What is Low VOC Paint?

Man pouring paint into a painter's tray.

Because of the harsh criticism that often gets directed toward traditional paint, producers have come up with low VOC paint.

Low VOC paint still contains VOCs, but smaller amounts of it than that of traditional paint. However, it’s worth noting that there’s no true standard for how few VOCs paint has to have to be considered low VOC paint. Instead, it’s subject to interpretation from distributor to distributor.

In general, though, low VOC paint will have fewer volatile organic compounds than other types of paint. As a result, they give off fewer gas emissions and aren’t as bad for the environment or for your health as medium or high VOC paint.

As a rule of thumb, paint characterized as low VOC typically has less than 50 grams of VOCs for every liter of paint, or between 130 and 145 grams per gallon of paint.

What Kind of VOCs are in Paint?

There are several different compounds that get used in paint that qualify as VOCs. The three most commonly used ones are formaldehyde, benzene, and methylene chloride. While they improve the end quality of a paint job, each of these chemicals has the potential to release harmful gases into the atmosphere.

A beaker of formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde, in particular, is the most common VOC and the most damaging. The purpose of using formaldehyde in paint is to reduce the risks of bacteria and keep fungus from growing.

However, studies have shown a correlation between people with asthma or another lung condition and living in a home with paint containing formaldehyde.

Why Are There VOCs in Paint?

It’s important to note that people don’t put VOCs in paint just for the fun of it. VOCs definitely serve a purpose, but there are many questions about whether or not the good outweighs the bad.

Using a paint roller to roll paint onto a wall.

Here are some of the main reasons that paint contains VOCs.

  1. VOCs help with the flow and composition of the paint and help it transition from being in a can to sticking to a wall or other surface.
  2. They also act as a preservative for paint by keeping it from spoiling and helping it last longer than it otherwise would.
  3. They help in outdoor applications by preventing rust from setting in.
  4. VOCs also help prevent mold, mildew, fungus, and bacteria from growing.

As you can see, these are all good things and help make paint the valuable commodity that it is. However, because of the damage that VOCs can do, it’s important to pursue alternatives if one is available.

How Does Low VOC Paint Compare to Other Options

Speaking of alternatives, let’s look at a few of them now.

No VOC Paint

No VOC paint is one of the best alternatives to low VOC paint if you are overly concerned about organic compounds. These types of paint contain little to no volatile organic compounds and zero VOC additives.

The only possible way for VOCs to make it into the paint is during the tinting process, when certain VOC by-products can find their way into the paint.

Because the tinting process can inadvertently add VOCs, you should be aware that even if a paint label says “no VOC,” there’s still a chance that trace amounts have managed to get into the pain. However, these trace amounts rarely exceed five grams per liter, which means there are roughly ten times more VOCs in low VOC paint than there are in no VOC paint.

High VOC Paint

High VOC paint is on the other end of the spectrum in comparison to no VOC paint. High VOC paint contains anywhere between 50 grams and 250 grams of VOCs for every liter of paint.

While these types of paint add the benefits that VOCs afford, they’re much worse for the environment and your health.

What Additives Get Used in Place of VOCs?

Closeup of open can of yellow paint.

If you come across a paint that’s labeled as low or no VOC, it’s important to do some investigating.

First, you should check the label to see exactly how many grams of VOCs there are for every liter or gallon of paint. Secondly, you should look at what ingredients get used in place of the VOCs. As we just covered, VOCs might be bad for the environment, but they serve an important purpose in painting.

If the paint you choose doesn’t use VOCs, they probably use some of the following natural ingredients.

  • Water
  • Beeswax
  • Milk protein
  • Plant dyes
  • Plant oils
  • Latex
  • Clay or other natural minerals
  • Mineral or earth dyes

Most of the alternatives to VOCs are animal and plant by-products. They fulfill the same purpose as VOCs but don’t have any of the negative side effects.

Ceramic Paint

Another common alternative to painting that contains VOCs is ceramic paint. Ceramic paint contains tiny beads of ceramic that perform all the jobs and duties of VOCs but don’t have any bad side effects. These beads make the paint more durable, easier to clean and apply and make the end product look much nicer.

The only downside is that they also tend to be more expensive than traditional paints.

Are VOCs Bad for Your Health?

While we’ve discussed that volatile organic compounds are bad for your health, let’s delve deeper into this subject.

How VOCs Affect Your Eyes

One of the quickest ways to tell if your paint has VOCs is by how your eyes react to it when you open a fresh can.

If you open the can of paint and your eyes start to water, turn red, and get itchy, there’s a good chance that your paint has medium to high amounts of VOCs.

How VOCs Affect Your Lungs

The most significant hazard that VOCs present is to your lungs.

A man using a paint sprayer and a face mask.

Because VOCs get released into the air, they float about and wait for you or someone else to inhale them. Once they enter your lungs, VOCs can cause irritation, asthma, other breathing conditions, and a reduced lung capacity.

How VOCs Affect Your Overall Health

At a minimum, VOCs tend to cause headaches, irritation to the eyes, a foul odor, and nausea. If you’re around a high amount of VOCs for long enough, however, they can cause life-threatening health conditions.

VOCs tend to attack your vital organs and central nervous system, causing irritation and damaging them. Some VOCs have even been linked to certain types of cancer.

Who Sells the Best Low VOC Paint?

If you’re worried about the ill effects that volatile organic compounds have but still want some of the benefits they have, it might be a good idea to start looking for low VOC paint.

Most major paint brands sell high-quality, low VOC paint, including Behr, Sherwin Williams, Benjamin Moore, and others. These products get sold at paint stores, local hardware stores, online, and at bigger box stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Just remember that low VOC paint simply means it contains fewer VOCs than other types of paint. However, it can still have up to 50 grams of VOCs for every liter of paint.

Stay Healthier With Low VOC Paints

A man rolling blue paint onto a wall.

Whether you’re a professional painter or want to tackle a home improvement project that involves paint, it’s important to know your options.

Although low VOC paint is often open to interpretation and might contain more organic compounds than you’d like, it’s a good alternative to high VOC paint. Low VOC paint also tends to be more affordable than no VOC paint, which makes it a great option if you’re on a budget.

Painting is just one aspect of interior projects for your home. For more information, visit the Interior Painting page on our website for more blog posts and helpful guides.