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Zero-VOC Paint Means Less Off-Gassing in Your Home

Jan 05, 2018

by Angela Cummings and Sophia Ruan Gushée


Zero- and low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) labels are popping up on paint cans throughout the U.S. in response to growing consumer demand for paints with minimal toxic chemicals.

Standard wall paints can contain VOCs that may be causing short- and long- term health problems ranging from dizziness to central nervous system damage. (1)  About 40 to 65 percent of paint, or coating, is made up of VOCs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as cited in the A to Z of D-Toxing. (2)

Whew! 40-65%! No wonder the freshly-painted smell lingers for a while.

"Nontoxic" interior paint can contain fewer VOCs than standard paints, making them less toxic for our health and better for our indoor air quality. However, consumers should not blindly trust product labels. So read below for tips on how to select the best "nontoxic" paint for you.

What type of nontoxic paint should I use?

There is no standard definition for the word "nontoxic," so manufacturers use the term at their discretion. Among all "nontoxic" paints, the definition of nontoxic varies. So consider the following eight traits that help determine how safe the paint is.

1. Water-Based or Latex Paints

Paints come in oil-based and latex (which is water-based) varieties. In short, latex paints emit fewer VOCs than oil-based paints. (3) This is not to be confused with low-VOC paints, which are labeled as such.

2. Natural Paints

Natural products are made from things such as plants, animals, and minerals. For example, paint ingredients—such as water, dyes, resins, and oils—that are made from clay, chalk, talcum, milk casein, natural latex, beeswax and mineral dyes can signal a natural paint.(4)

3. Flat Finish Paints

The amount of VOCs per liter of paint is printed right on the paint can, as required by Federal law. This makes it easy for consumers to know just how many VOCs are in the paint product. Generally speaking, paints with a flat finish have fewer VOCs than paints with a non-flat finish.(5)

4. Low-VOC Paints

The low-VOC label means that less VOCs are in the paint product and thereby less VOCs will emit into the air (vs. standard paint). Be aware that low-VOC products can still off-gas VOCs.

5. Certified Paints

The Green Seal certification indicates that the VOC levels for flat paints are below 50 grams per liter and non-flat paints are below 150 grams per liter.  Read more about Green Seal at http://www.greenseal.org/.

6. Zero-VOC Paints

Zero-VOC products are not necessarily completely free of VOCs but oh-so-much less than standard paints. Up to 5 grams per liter of VOCs can be present in zero-VOC paints. Low- or Zero- VOC paints may still contain colorants, biocides and fungicides as well. (6) Be sure to read the FTC Settlement with Paint Companies section of this article.

7. Colored & Tinted Paints

Paint color, or tint, can contain VOCs as well. The VOCs in colors or tints are typically not included in the VOC amounts listed on paint cans. When paints are colored, a tint (color) is added to the base (uncolored paint). Colors and tints typically contain about 5 grams per liter of VOCs.(7)

To calculate the total amount of VOCs in a paint product, add the base paint VOCs to the color or tint VOCs. For example, if base paint is 5 grams per liter of VOC and tint is 3 grams per liter of VOC, there is a total of 8 grams per liter in the colored paint product that you will put on your walls.

8. Interior Paints

Leave the exterior for the outdoors. Manufacturers differentiate between indoor paints and outdoor paints for the benefit of us, the consumer. Heed their advice and only use indoor paint when painting indoor surfaces.

FTC Settlement with Paint Companies

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigated four well known paint companies for falsely labeling products, and settled charges with each. The settlement (8) states that the companies were making “unqualified safety claims regarding babies, children, pregnant women, and other sensitive populations.” The settlement requires that the paint companies do the following:

1. state paints are emission-free and VOC-free only if they are actually zero VOC or the emission levels are at trace levels (as defined in the settlement) during application and thereafter;

2. make claims about VOC emission, VOC levels, odor, and other environmental or health benefits only if they are true based on reliable scientific evidence and that claims cannot be misleading; 

3.  take actions to correct unsubstantiated claims; 

4. do not help third-parties make false claims. 

In addition, two of the four paint companies have two additional requirements:

5. companies can’t misrepresent third-party certifications; and 

6. they must adequately disclose a material connection with an endorser.

In Summary

We have more options than ever for safer paints. But we must assess our options critically as marketing claims are not always substantiated. The eight traits above outline the key things you should know when assessing the best paint for you. In summary:

  1. Opt for zero- or low-VOC paints whenever painting the interior of your home. If possible, choose zero-VOC paints that have been certified by a reputable independent 3rd party organization, and contain the least amount of chemicals as possible.
  2. Watch for FTC consumer alerts that call out companies that are misleading consumers.
  3. Ask questions about VOC levels and certifications, and critically think about the answers to best determine if the evidence supports the VOC claims. The fewer VOCs in the paint, the fewer VOCs can off-gas into your home.

Enroll in the D-Tox Academy to detox your home and life at a pace that’s comfortable for you.

The D-Tox Academy gives subscribers access to specific brands of products, and tips for how to use and maintain products.  The academy includes short videos and check lists that are helpful when making healthier changes.


(1) (3) (5) (7) A to Z of D-Toxing, Works Cited Part 2 

(2) (4) (6) A to Z of D-Toxing, Works Cited Part 3 and 4 

(8) Federal Trade Commission 



Let your senses and symptoms guide your detox journey.

Each month, we will "meditate" on a body part or system. The goal is to connect with our body, senses, and symptoms to rely on this curiosity and "listening" as guidance for a gentle, detox journey.



This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. Views expressed in this article by an expert are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Nontoxic Living or Ruan Living.

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