What are the Benefits of Low-VOC Paint?

Allie Ogletree
Written by Allie Ogletree
Updated October 6, 2021
A woman pouring white paint into tray
Charday Penn/E+ via Getty Images

Low-VOC paint delivers a fresh look and better indoor air quality than traditional paint

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Unlike that new car smell, most homeowners don’t want to walk into their newly painted home only to breathe in the smell of a new coat on the walls. There’s a reason why paint isn’t the most inviting smell, and it all comes down to the chemicals inside paint known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Before you choose the next color to adorn your walls, here’s what you need to know about the benefits of low-VOC paint.

What Are VOCs?

If you’ve ever noticed a “fresh-paint smell” in a newly painted room, then you’ve encountered VOCs. These compounds get released into the air from common household products—like wood preservatives, crafting supplies, furnishings, air fresheners—and, of course, paint. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, any organic chemical compound that has the potential to evaporate in normal environments is classified as a VOC and must be assessed to determine the impact that chemical has on indoor air quality. 

The EPA also states that VOCs are a major source of indoor air pollution. This can cause health issues, especially for older adults, children, and those with asthma or severe allergies. And, though each VOC compound has different potential side effects, studies suggest that some compounds are carcinogenic.

What Chemicals are in VOCs?

When the paint you’ve meticulously applied to your walls dries, it can emit VOCs. VOCs don’t just mean one type of chemical, some of the most common VOCs include:

  • Formaldehyde

  • d-Limonene

  • Toluene

  • Acetone

  • Ethanol

What Is Low-VOC Paint?

The EPA limits the quantity of VOCs allowed in paint to 250 grams per liter (g/L) for latex paints. 

Low-VOC paints are typically water- instead of petroleum-based and contain little or no formaldehyde or heavy metals. Though they are not regulated, these paints generally carry a rating of 50 g/L or less

No paint is completely free of VOCs. Even zero-VOC paints contain small amounts of VOCs (typically less than 5 g/L). This is because no VOC chemicals are added to the paints, but some colorants and tints may have trace amounts.

Benefits of Low-VOC Paint

There are many benefits to choosing low-VOC paint for your next project. Here are four reasons why switching from traditional to eco-friendly paint could be the right choice for your household:

1. It’s Better for the Environment

VOCs increase air pollution and can enter groundwater, which affects plants and wildlife. In fact, the Government of Canada states that VOC emissions lead to smog and acid rain, both of which may decrease plants’ resilience against disease and pests while also leading to lower agricultural yields.

Choosing a brand of paint that has as few volatile chemicals as possible can help protect the environment by keeping the air, ground, and water free of harmful irritants.

2. It Releases Fewer Compounds than Paints Containing High VOC Levels

Since low-VOC paint emits fewer volatile compounds, the air in your home may be safer to breathe. As stated previously, VOC fumes can potentially contribute to long-term health issues, such as cancer, central nervous system issues, and irritation to the nose, eyes, mouth, and lungs. Reducing your exposure to these chemicals may also help reduce your chances of experiencing these health issues.

3. There’s Less Odor

If you’re sensitive to smells, you might be able to save yourself the headache from a fresh coat of paint by choosing low-VOC paint. These paints often have less odor than their traditional competitors.

4. It’s Affordable

While low-VOC paints were once on the pricier side compared to conventional paints, low- and zero-VOC paints have come down in cost and improved in quality over the years. As a result, they are now comparable in both price and performance to traditional paints. 

You’ll find that paint prices vary from $20 to $60 per gallon; most low-VOC paint costs $40 to $50 per gallon, while zero-VOC paint falls in the $50 to $60 price range on average.

How to Find Low-VOC Paint

By now, you might be completely sold on the idea of eco-friendly paint. With more companies going green, advancements in technology have led to high-quality and better performing low-VOC paints.

If you want high-quality paint, these tips on what to look for (and what to avoid) will help you find the right one for your home.

Eco-friendly Labels and Green Certifications

Manufacturers are required to list VOC levels on container labels, but knowing what to look for in quality paint can make a world of difference. With so many options for paint, it can feel overwhelming trying to find one that is sustainable and high-performing compared to more traditional options.

As a rule of thumb, sustainable paint uses:

  • Natural ingredients like plant dyes or milk protein 

  • Low biocides or zinc oxide as a preservative 

  • Acrylic, water, or latex bases

Aside from searching for low-VOC painters near you and asking for their expert advice, the EPA recommends adhering to these green product labels for identifying low-VOC paint on the shelves:

  • Cradle to Cradle Certified

  • Green Seal 11 Standard for Paints, Coatings, Stains, and Sealers

  • Master Painters Institute: Extreme Green Standard

  • UL GREENGUARD Certified

  • SCS Indoor Advantage Gold Certified

  • International Living Future Institute: Declare Label

What to Watch Out for in Choosing Low-VOC Paint

If you’re going to dabble with adding color pigment to basic colors, be careful. It’s common for tints to contain VOCs—2 to 5 g/L on average—so you may end up with more VOCs than you intended. 

For example, many painting companies tout low-VOC paints that are right at 50 g/L, but once the tint (or color) is added to it, the level of VOCs increases considerably. Unless you ask the company for a zero VOC tint, you may be pushing your final product over that 50 g/L threshold.

Knowing where to look for high-quality paint can be a little tricky. Thankfully, many companies offer low- and zero-VOC tint products, so talk about your options with your supplier before you start to mix it up. Additionally, you may also want to hire a professional painter to do the job once you’ve decided on the paint.

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