Ask Annie: What is the Safest Paint?

When spring is in the air there is a home-owner instinct to dust off the ol’ paint brushes, buy some paint, and brighten the walls. It is also the time of year I am most frequently asked questions about which paints I think are the safest. Here are my answers, and I hope you enjoy healthy painting. I think I might do some myself!

The Safest Natural Paint
The safest paint of all is milk paint or whitewash. The ingredients in milk paint are the milk protein casein and lime, and in whitewash the ingredients are lime and water (and sometimes casein). Natural earth pigments are used for coloring.

Besides the lack of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), milk paint and white wash are free of biocides and fungicides for killing mold. Both of the paints allow the material being painted to breathe, thereby reducing the growth of mold and mildew.

A good source of milk paint is the Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company.

Plant-Based Paints
Plant-oil paints are very high in plant terpene VOCs such as balsam and citrus, and can be very problematic for those sensitive or who have asthma. It can take months if not years for the smell to lift.

The Safest Latex/Enamel Synthetic Paints
The safest synthetic paint is zero VOC with no vinyl, fungicides and biocides. The term “latex” for paint does not mean the latex from the rubber tree. For paint it means water-based and a number of different synthetic polymers including acrylic, vinyl acrylic, and vinyl styrene. Vinyl is very important to avoid, it is a powerful endocrine disrupter and suspected carcinogen.

The higher the acrylic content the less acrylic vinyl and vinyl styrene. Look for 100% acrylic binders. As a rule, the higher the acrylic binder content the more expensive. Vinyl paints are known to be less expensive.

Caution is warranted when buying latex/acrylic paint. Just asking for “latex” paint won’t necessarily protect you! I saw a “latex” paint for sale the other day , an acrylic latex enamel, that included the warning label “This product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and reproductive harm.” (The product contained ethylene glycol and crystaline silica. Ethylene glycol is an alcohol and commonly known as antifreeze. Vinyl is a derivative of ethylene.)

The key words to use when buying are “zero VOC.”

The Safest Fungicides and Biocides
Look for paints that are made with zinc oxide as the fungicide.

The Best Compromise If In a Rush
Often we decide to buy paint and start painting on the same day, and unless one lives in a big metropolitan area where specialty eco-friendly paints are readily available, one needs to go with what is available. In these circumstances buy zero VOC paint.

Recycled Paints
I don’t recommend recycled paints because old paints can be high in VOCs and even contain heavy metals.

Paints to Avoid
Avoid oil-based paints and aerosol spray paints; they are very high in VOCs, and the odors can linger for months.

By Annie B. Bond

20 comments

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola4 years ago

Thank you for posting!

Jennifer C.
Past Member 4 years ago

Thanks.

K s Goh
KS Goh5 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Amber L.
Amber L.6 years ago

I love using Genuine Old Fashioned Milk Paint. It has a wonderful texture and feel and can be mixed to any consistency depending on your desired look. *Tip* you can find it at www.mistermilkpaint.com at discounted prices. I was able to experiment with it on numerous wood projects and was always pleased with the results.

Natalia F.
Natalia Flechas6 years ago

gd to know

Dwayne S.
Dwayne S.7 years ago

There is another milk paint company www.realmilkpaint.com They have over 27 ready made colors . The beauty of their paint is that it will last several weeks after it is mixed , just like milk in your fridg. The color are very fresco both vibrant and reflective . They also offer a host of other natural products . Pure Tung Oil , Citrus Solvent , SoapStone Sealer and Wood Wax . Some Great stuff from a small company and super fast shipping . They may also have a distributor in your area . Check their site .

Trish L.
T Lindsey8 years ago

Natural Clay Paints are wonderfull..try them at greenplanetpaints.com

Paul F.
Paul F.8 years ago

What about colour TINTING?
My understanding is that paint labeled as zero VOC may not be zero VOC anymore after we add manual tinting in the store.

Penny Prudence
Becky Pru8 years ago

Sherwin Williams has a zero VOC paint called Harmony. WE did out bathroom with it and it didn't give me a headache. Although I didn't the acrylic/vinyl content, I was just pleased to find a zero VOC paint in my town, with many color choices.