What is Low Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Paint

On “Happy Eco New Year” post, one of the eco-resolutions I suggested was using low VOC paint for your next painting project.  Some of you were probably thinking “What the heck is low VOC paint and why should I use it?”  I’m going to answer those questions now.

VOC is short for Volatile Organic Compounds.  The word, ‘organic’ means the compound contains carbon molecules.  Formaldehyde is a VOC.    Breathing VOC fumes has been linked to respiratory illnesses, dizziness, headaches, nausea, memory loss.  Research is being conducted to determine whether or not VOC is carcinogenic.

Paint is composed of three elements: pigment, a binding agent, and solvents.  Pigment is the color.  A binding agent is added to help paint adhere to surfaces.  Solvents keep the paint liquid until it is exposed to air. Solvents emit VOC gasses.

Consumersearch has a guide to some terminology:

  • VOC: Volatile organic compounds are the organic solvents found in commercial paint, which evaporate during the paint curing process. These compounds are the carrier responsible for the paint being able to spread on a surface. The odor during the paint curing process comes from the evaporation of these compounds. The federal government limits VOCs to 250 grams per liter for flat paint and 380 grams per liter for other finishes, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) might reduce that to 100 grams per liter for flat and 150 grams per liter for other finishes.
  • Nontoxic: This type of interior paint is also referred to as natural. These products are no-VOC and nonhazardous. Natural materials like plant dyes, linseed oil and milk protein are used instead of chemical components. Nontoxic does not necessarily mean low-odor, however.
  • No-VOC: This type of paint has no VOCs at all. However, chemically sensitive people may still be sensitive to other paint components, which can also give off an odor. Not all zero-VOC paints are odor-free.
  • Low-VOC: ConsumerReports.org and other reputable sources consider 50 grams of VOCs per liter or less to be low-VOC, and well-known manufacturers stick to that definition. Low-VOC paint may not be low-odor. Benjamin Moore Aura (*Est. $55 per gallon), covered in our Top Rated Interior Paints section, is a low-VOC paint.

What is Low-Voc paint in a nutshell?  Paint that is  estimated to release an average of 500% less toxins when used.  Better for the environment, better for you and yours.

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  1. When we moved in to our house, I begged my husband to try painting the front room with milk paint. It was tricky, but he did it and it turned out beautiful. It comes in a powder and has a matte look to it. Thanks for the info. Love this blog.
    Take care,

  2. Thanks so much for your article. I have some house painting to do in the Spring and this article is very timely. I would like to recommend a book which I purchased because my Kootsac bags are mentioned in it and I have found it very useful for so much green advice.
    “The Ecoholic Home” by Adria Vasil. She has a section on home renovating and we have recently purchased a new mattress using info from this book.
    Thanks again:)

  3. Yep, I was a faux-painter for years in the days before you could really even GET low VOC paint. Before I had to quit entirely, I’d concocted my own mix of powder pigment in a secret base, but it didn’t work for every technique.
    These days I can’t be around anything, even “no VOC” paint, for long. That stuff messes you up, and it is permanent. I am really happy that there is more awareness of these chemicals and their harmful qualities, AND that there are options out there that are easy to find.

  4. A fantastic article and one that resides very close to my own heart (and lungs!) as a professional faux finisher.

    I started writing a comment but it was getting to be so long I decided to just write post! The bottom line of what I was saying is that No/Low VOC doesn’t always mean no odor (as the bullet points indicate in your post that is very important to remember that they are not the same thing!) and also No-VOC doesn’t always mean No-VOC — its all in the tint used to turn it the color you like. Feel free to come over & read my additional thoughts on the subject if you like: http://chuckastone.blogspot.com

    Thanks for this very informative article & the inspiration!