How to Choose Eco Paint

What to look for when selecting green paint alternatives

By Jan Soults Walker

More than just a great color to paint rooms, furnishings, and more, "green" also expresses an eco-conscious lifestyle. Now you can refresh your interiors with eco-minded paint that is formulated to be as much a friend to the earth as it is to you. Here are some pointers for picking paint that's good for your health and for Mother Nature.

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Say goodbye to VOCs

The hot topic about paint is its potential effect on indoor air quality. In the past, paint commonly emitted volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, containing a number of fairly ominous chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde. VOCs vaporize into the air as paint is applied and while it dries; and surprisingly, they can even continue to off-gas for years to come.

VOCs have been linked to a variety of health issues including dizziness, headaches, breathing problems, eye irritation, and irregular heartbeat. There's also strong evidence that a number of the chemicals in VOCs are carcinogenic. VOCs may also contribute to ozone depletion.

The good news is that paints with low or no VOCs are now readily available and are formulated to be as durable and vibrant as their VOC-laden predecessors. Look for brands that promise that both the paint base and colorants contain low or no VOCs.

Go natural

Just because a paint label proclaims "low or no VOCs," it's not necessarily free of toxic chemicals. If you want your paint sans chemicals, read the label on the paint can and look for terms that indicate it's an all-natural, non-toxic product. You'll find a number of interior paints composed of organic ingredients such as plant oils, tree resins, chalk, yogurt, marble, citrus extracts, and beeswax.

Consider water- vs. oil-based paint

Prized for its durability and smooth, washable finish, oil-based paint was once the gold standard for finishing cabinets and woodwork. Unfortunately, oil-based paint can emit unpleasant odors and high levels of VOCs, while requiring days to dry and smelly solvents for cleaning brushes and rollers.  In addition, white and pastel oil-based paints tend to yellow over time. When disposing of oil-based paint and the used solvents, you'll need to follow local guidelines for hazardous waste.

Alternatively, water-based latex paints are low odor, available with low or no VOCs, dry quickly so you can apply another coat sooner, and clean up with soap and water. These paints will raise the grain on wood, however, so you may need to sand furniture and woodwork between coats for a smooth finish.

Today, at least one paint manufacturer (Sherwin Williams) has combined the better qualities of water- and oil-based paints, creating a water-based, acrylic-alkyd enamel formula. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, acrylic-alkyd paint cleans up with water and is made from recycled soda bottle plastic (PET), acrylics, and soybean oil—resulting in the performance benefits of alkyds and the low VOC content of acrylics.

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