Paints and Finishes Part I

Paints and other finishes (like stains and varnishes) are some of the most notorious violators of indoor air quality in our homes. One reason for their bad reputation is that paints, stains, and other finishes often release (outgas) substantial quantities of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). Because of out-gassing, the early months of inhabitation can be taxing, indeed even harmful, to one’s health. For people who are chemically sensitive, the effect can be devastating.

To minimize, or better yet, eliminate the outgassing problem, a number of companies are producing low- and no-VOC finishing products. Virtually any commercial product that is stocked on the shelf of local paint stores-even varnishes and stains-can now be replaced by a low-impact, people-friendly alternative. In addition, most alternative paints and finishes are water soluble, which makes for easy cleaning.

To protect yourself and your workers, the very least you can do is to purchase a low- or no-VOC latex paint. Glidden’s Spred 2000 is a low-VOC paint. It is readily available in the U.S. and other countries. I’ve seen it in large homebuilding outlets including Home Base and Home Depot, independent paint stores, and many of the large discount stores such as Kmart-and at fairly decent prices. Another paint to look for is Benjamin Moore’s no-VOC paint, Pristine.

Low- and no-VOC paints are great, but many of them still contain mercury or lead. To address this drawback, manufacturers such as Wellborn Paint in Denver and Miller Paint Company in Portland, Oregon, produce low or no-VOC paints made without lead or mercury.

Unbeknownst to many, paints contain chemicals to extend their shelf life. Many paints also contain small amounts of chemical fungicides and mildewcides. Although the concentrations of these chemicals are relatively small and are believed to pose no health risk, you may want to order biocide-free paints, especially if you are chemically sensitive. Check out the SafeCoat paints and stains produced by AFM Enterprises in San Diego. The company sells a complete line of people-friendly paints, stains, and finishes, as well as sealers, cleaners, and adhesives. Their products contain no formaldehyde, fungicide, or mildewcide, and meet the strictest VOC emissions standards currently in place. Although they cost more, they may be worth the extra expense. Be sure to check out Miller Paint and BioShield paints, too. They contain no formaldehyde, heavy metals, or biocides.

For those who want to use all-natural products, the Old-fashioned Milk Paint Company in Groton, Massachusetts, is a family-run company that produces paints from milk protein (casein). Their products contain no biocides, are popular among chemically sensitive individuals, and are available in sixteen colors.

Another line of products worth strong consideration are the oil-based paints made by Livos. Don’t be alarmed. I did say oil-based, but what I meant was oil from orange peels. Livos manufactures a complete line of paints from undercoat or primer to wall paint for interior and exterior use. The company even sells a natural organic paint stripper.

Adapted from The Natural House, A Complete Guide to Healthy, energy-Efficient, Environmental Homes, by Daniel D. Chiras. Copyright (c) 2000, by Daniel D. Chiras. Reprinted by permission of Chelsea Green Publishing Company.
Adapted from The Natural House, by Daniel D. Chriras.


Michele Wilkinson

Thank you

Julie Du Brow
Julie D6 years ago

And if you truly want zero VOCs and the most healthy and safe wall covering, check out American Clay earth plaster wall finish (replaces paint, resists mold, sound attenuating, zero waste, textures only limited by your imagination, 100s of matchable colors, beautiful).

Jessica Arellano
Jessica Arellano9 years ago

Baby Safe Finishes makes a great Zero VOC, low odor paint. We used it in our entire house! Really high quality paint! Their website is

Kimberly A.
Kimberly A9 years ago

our local garbage dump has a recycling program that accepts those items. maybe yours does too?? :)

Rosemary Hoffmann

I'm too late for no-VOC paints. I just used an oil-based primer on my deck. I used mineral spirits to clean up with. Where should I throw out the mineral spirits?