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Low VOC & Eco-friendly Paint: It Also Comes In Green!

written by: MiAGon•edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 6/28/2010

Not many people look at paint the same way. Getting past the texture and the color, there is more to paint than meets the eye. And to stay true to being "green" it is important to know the contents of your common household paint. What lurks inside that can, besides your favorite color?

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    What is Low VOC Paint?

    Many people speculate that paint is just paint. But the fact is further from such a belief simply because paint comes in a variety of formulations designed for specific needs and uses. For example, exterior house paint must withstand environmental conditions that are not encountered indoors, therefore resulting in a much more durable finish.

    Common household paint, the kind you find at your local home improvement or paint store, contain large amounts of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC). While this might sound frightening, it is factual and part of the formulation of most common paints. The level of VOC in your paint is determined by its chemical composition, which may include: formaldehyde (a potentially toxic, allergenic and carcinogenic compound), benzene (a known carcinogen), toluene (a toxin), and xylene (a derivative of benzene with neurological side effects), just to name a few.

    While the levels of VOCs in paint are monitored through guidelines by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), newer and greener alternatives of paint are quickly emerging. In support of such eco-friendly formulations of paint, the EPA has established additional VOC levels for paint that can be identify a paint as "Low-VOC" or even "zero-VOC".

    Common oil-based paints can contain as much as 50% petroleum based by-products, resulting in well over 400 parts of VOCs per gallon. Your common water-based paints can contain as much as 15% petroleum based by-products by weight, still resulting in high VOC levels, despite the large reduction when compared to oil-based paints. Another fact to consider when painting, is the level of VOCs that accumulate in the air surrounding the painted area. Because of poor or restricted ventilation, VOC levels indoors are hundreds of times higher than those outdoors. This is why proper ventilation is essential when painting, with any paint.

    In order to be labeled a "Low-VOC" paint, it must have no more than 100 parts per gallon. And "zero-VOC" paints, although labeled as such, will still contain a minute amount of chemicals. But their low levels allow them to brand it as such, making them the safest of all available paints.

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    Natural Alternatives

    Nothing says greener than the word "natural". And an increasing number of manufacturers are making natural paint alternatives available to consumers. Natural paints are formulated without petroleum based by-products. But despite this fact, they may still contain naturally occurring VOCs from their natural ingredients. Instead of using man-made chemicals in their formulations, these paints employ the use of oils, solvents and resins from trees, plants and/or fruits. These all natural ingredients are prone to expelling low levels of VOCs that may still cause irritations to more sensitive individuals. But, overall, they are the safest of all paints because there are no harsh chemical compounds. Their low to zero emission of VOCs make them ideal for indoor use because it decreases the build-up of VOCs into the air of the area being painted.

    Paints can even be formulated from milk proteins, earth compounds such as clay, and lime, just to name a few. These are, by far, the cleanest and safest alternatives to common household paints with very low to no toxicity. But, the lower the VOC levels and the more natural the paint, the fewer the options of texture, finish, color and durability. The dangerous petroleum-based chemicals that emit the high levels of VOCs in paints is what creates the bright colors and high-gloss finishes.

    Natural paints are an excellent alternative. While they are not able to endure the harshness of the natural outdoor elements such as rain, freezing temperatures and extreme sun, they are exceptional for indoor use. In a household with small children and pets, natural paints are ideal because of their low toxicity levels.

    Safer For The Environment

    The ingredients in natural paints make them worry-free during the final stages of painting. Brushes and rollers, as well as other painting tools, can be cleaned easily with soap and water with no impact to the environment. Always make sure to store natural paints in cool areas, and keep the lids tightly sealed to avoid evaporation, as they are mostly water based and are prone to evaporation.