VOCs are volatile organic compounds that cause health concerns.
VOCs can linger in the air and affect indoor air quality.
Low-VOC paints still have small amounts of VOCs.
No-VOC paints are the safest option but are duller in color and harder to apply.
Unlike that new-car smell, the smell of a fresh paint job isn’t exactly an enjoyable sensory experience. What you’re smelling are volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs, which are chemicals that get released into the air as the paint dries. Along with the unpleasant hit to the nostrils, VOCs can have a negative impact on human health as well as the environment.
Low-VOC and no-VOC (or zero-VOC) paints contain lower levels of these harmful chemicals than traditional paints, but the benefits don’t end there. Here are the top advantages of using no-VOC and low-VOC paints.
What Are Low-VOC and No-VOC Paints?
Whether you’re a seasoned painter or just learning how to paint walls, you may have heard the terms low-VOC or no-VOC paint. So, what are volatile organic compounds, and why should you avoid them?
VOCs are toxic chemicals that vaporize at room temperature through a process known as outgassing. As paints outgas these compounds, it creates that powerful “new paint” smell that can really aggravate the senses. What’s more, these VOCs also negatively impact indoor air quality and can lead to a number of health conditions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), health concerns include:
Stinging or watery eyes
Aggravated asthma symptoms
While these toxic emissions were more prominent in previous decades, increased awareness of their harmful effects has led many manufacturers to improve the formulas of their paints for lower VOC content. Even still, it’s important to read labels on products before you commit.
Comparing No-VOC vs. Low-VOC Paint
Both low-VOC and zero-VOC paints are designed to reduce the levels of harmful chemicals that get released into the air after a fresh coat of paint. Low-VOC paints contain lower levels of these chemicals, while no-VOC paints have none at all, opting for natural alternatives such as clay and chalk. Here’s how these two types of paint compare.
Low-VOC paint still contains some VOCs, though these are at much lower levels than traditional paint. While these low levels of VOCs are generally considered safe, they can still cause some health problems in sensitive individuals, especially if the paint is applied in a poorly ventilated space. Since No-VOC paints are completely free of these chemicals, they’re the safest option for human health.
According to the EPA, when people use products containing harmful organic chemicals, elevated concentrations of pollutants in the air can linger in the air long after the project is completed. While low-VOC paints have far fewer harmful emissions than traditional paints, they still contain a small amount that gets outgassed into the air during the paint job. With that in mind, no-VOC paints are the more eco-friendly choice between the two.
While they’re easier on the nose, no-VOC paints are generally more challenging to work with than low-VOC paints. This is because they’re usually more difficult to spread into a smooth, even layer. In general, it’s best to hire an experienced local painter to handle jobs with low- or no-VOC paints.
A key tradeoff between low-VOC paint and no-VOC paint is appearance. Low-VOC paints will have brighter, richer hues than no-VOC paints. Since no-VOC paints are limited in the ingredients they can contain, colors typically aren’t as vibrant as their low-VOC counterparts.
Both low-VOC and no-VOC paints offer a much lower odor output than traditional paints. Since no-VOC paints have no volatile organic compounds, they have even less of an odor than low-VOC paint. No matter which product you choose, though, it’s still important to open windows and use fans for optimal ventilation while you paint.
If you’re budgeting for the cost to paint the interior of a house, you’ll need to put extra aside if you’re opting for low-VOC or no-VOC paints. While both varieties tend to be more expensive than traditional paint, no-VOC paints are typically pricier than low-VOC paints.
Low-VOC paint is known for its long-lasting color. Traditional paint can fade over time, especially if it is exposed to direct sunlight. Low-VOC paint, on the other hand, is designed to maintain its color for longer periods of time.
When shopping for paint, it’s easy to get lost pondering questions like: “What color should I choose?” and “How much paint do I need?” While so many options can make for a difficult decision, this doesn’t mean that variety is unwelcome.
Luckily, many of the best paint brands are starting to carry low-VOC and no-VOC varieties of paint, with greater transparency on the VOC content of their products. You’ll likely find more options for low-VOC paints, but the selection is growing either way.
Allie Ogletree contributed to this piece.
Frequently Asked Questions
In many cases, you can sleep in a room painted with low-VOC paint on the same day you painted it. You’ll want to give it at least 10 hours to allow any lingering chemicals to dissipate. However, it can still have an odor for about a day after painting, so you may want to add extra ventilation or adjust your sleeping arrangements if you’re particularly sensitive.
No-VOC paint is generally odorless and won’t emit toxic chemicals, so it’s even safer and more comfortable to sleep near after a fresh paint job.
Yes, it’s still important to wear a mask when working with low-VOC paint, as it still releases a small amount of volatile organic compounds. Don’t forget to also add additional ventilation by opening windows and setting up fans. This will help take care of odors and dissipate them quicker as the paint dries.
While no-VOC paints don’t contain the chemical compounds that are toxic when they’re outgassed, they can still have an odor. This is because odors can come from other chemicals in the paint that aren’t classified as VOCs. Again, ventilation is key, especially if you plan to sleep in the room on the same day as you paint.