Like many stuck at home in the early days of the pandemic, Maya Crowne found herself with time to tackle home projects. However, when she considered painting her apartment, she hesitated. “I was worried I was going to piss off all of my neighbors with the paint fumes because it was the pandemic and nobody could breathe, which led me down this rabbit hole of why paint smells so bad,” says Crowne. “That’s when I really started to dig deeper into what is actually in paint.”
She discovered not only that the bad smell she associated with paint is the off-gassing of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which indeed have negative health impacts, but also that paint is a major source of plastic pollution. “Most of the time, when you tell somebody that paint is made out of plastic, people are like, ‘What?!’ It’s not even something that they’ve thought about,” she says. (This disconnect may stem from the fact that historically, paint was made with the natural latex from rubber trees. Today, it’s made from petroleum-derived materials but still labeled “latex.”)
All that plastic is getting into the environment: According to a 2021 report released by the Swiss research firm Earth Action, “Paint appears as the largest source of microplastic leakage into the oceans and waterways,” outweighing all other sources. This knowledge led Crowne and her business partner, Price Latimer, to develop their eco-friendly paint company, Alkemis Paint. For designers, it might lead them to reconsider how their firm specifies paint in its projects.
Whether your motivation is ecologically minded, health-oriented or both, seeking out more sustainable paints is good practice and good stewardship. Here’s what you need to know to paint more sustainably.
“No VOC” should be the bare minimum
Most designers are already specifying low- and no-VOC paints for their projects because they know it’s a healthier choice, but many are unclear of what exactly those labels mean. VOCs are the gasses that a product emits. Regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the term “zero VOC” actually means that a product contains up to 5 grams per liter, while “low” is up to 50 grams per liter—a significant difference that makes the former far more preferable.
Request the safety data info
Joel Hirshberg, the owner of Green Building Supply in Fairfield, Iowa, says avoiding VOCs is just the beginning. “There are lots of other hazardous chemicals in paint that are not classified as VOCs,” he explains. Acetone and ammonia, for example, which are technically volatile organic compounds, are not classified as such by the EPA because the agency only regulates VOCs as a means to “prevent the formation of ozone, a constituent of photochemical smog.” Although neither compound creates environmental damage, they can both pose risks to human health. If you want to know more about a paint, you can research its ingredients via the Safety Data Sheet (SDS), which you can find on the manufacturer’s site or by request, but even that can be tricky. “[An SDS] is about the only thing you have,” says Hirshberg. “But unless you’re really familiar with the ingredients, you won’t even know how to read one.” He also cautions that they are voluntary and self-reported and often lack complete information.
Cut through the noise
Crowne and Latimer have a shortcut for the often opaque data: Look for a “Prop 65” warning. (Proposition 65 is a California law that requires businesses to disclose significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.) “If they have a Prop 65 warning on their Safety Data Sheet, they’re basically saying, ‘We’re putting a product out there that contains ingredients that are known to cause cancer,’” says Latimer. Another shortcut to more sustainable products: Choose ones made in Europe, where a lot of innovation in paint products is happening. (Hirshberg cites Belgium-made Rubio Monocoat, the only zero-VOC, oil-based stain, as a prime example.)
Assess third-party certifications
Third-party certification is a mixed bag—a Greenguard label, for example, is much less stringent than a Greenguard Gold designation—but they can help steer you to less toxic and more sustainable options. According to Hirshberg, one of the best is a Declare label from the International Living Product Challenge, which Ecos Paints carries. “The [International Living Building] Red List has 3,000-plus chemicals on it, which were based on the European standards, and anybody that complies with them has a far better chance of [creating] a safer product than something that doesn’t have that transparency,” he says. Crowne and Latimer chose to pursue Cradle to Cradle certification for their product because it takes a holistic approach to scoring sustainable practices, including worker treatment. However, don’t dismiss a product just because it doesn’t have a certification—as Hirshberg points out, it can cost five figures to get a single product certified. “That’s for every SKU, every single year,” he says. “It gets really expensive. This is why many companies don’t do it, because it drives their prices up, making the products more expensive.”
Educate your contractors
“Green” paints have a bad reputation with some professional painters, but Hirshberg believes the skeptics can be converted by the new products available. “Contractors are often shocked when they use [today’s] zero-VOC paint,” he says. “In the early days, the paints were not well-formulated. They didn’t perform well, they didn’t cover well, they didn’t hide what was underneath it—and the contractors just gave up on it.” Another common pain point: Specifying the wrong paint product for your project—for example, Hirshberg says you wouldn’t want to use the Silacote Paint mineral paint from the Green Building Supply on drywall. No matter what brand you pursue, make sure you’re selecting a product as it is meant to be used.
Pay attention to dry times
If you’ve ever experienced a paint job that gave off an intense smell, that may be a sign of improper application. “Many times, painters don’t allow enough time in between coats,” explains Hirshberg. “The second coat dries faster than the first, [which] stays damp and starts to emulsify the paint that was on the surface previously—and then it smells even worse. It’s a painting problem, not a product problem.”
Explore alternative paints
There are many nontoxic and plastic-free paints on the market today, many of which are sold by Green Building Supply and available as samples. Hirshberg likes the clay-based BioShield paint for interior walls, while Alkemis’s interior paint uses clear quartz as its base and mineral-based pigments. Limewashes like those by Portola Paints are generally nontoxic and zero VOC, but are more challenging to apply.
Use gloss sparingly
In general, a simple rule holds true: The higher the sheen, the more plastic and resin is in the paint. Because Latimer’s brand does not use any plastic polymers, it only offers a matte wall paint—but she acknowledges that a gloss may be required in a high-traffic area. What she hopes designers might reconsider is using gloss purely for aesthetics. “I think when you present this different perspective to consumers, they might have the second thought: Maybe I don’t need that really glossy room,” she says. If you do need a gloss paint, try to source the most eco-friendly option; for example, Ecos Paints uses an acrylic polymer (a plastic) in its nontoxic and zero-VOC high-gloss offering.
Get credit for your choices
Eco-friendly paints like Alkemis count toward various building certification programs, as well as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. If you have any SDGs, or your project is going for LEED or WELL certification, these products can help you get there.
At the most basic level, designers can help their clients paint more sustainably by avoiding waste. Always test colors before painting to prevent ordering the wrong color. You can also ask your painting contractor not to over-order paint—if you only need three gallons, for example, don’t upgrade to the five-gallon bucket. If you do end up with a bunch of extra paint from a project, try to find a local charity that can use it: Habitat for Humanity and Global Paint for Charity are two organizations that accept leftover paint. An easier way is to give it directly to someone via websites like Facebook Marketplace or your local Buy Nothing group.
Laura Fenton is a writer with a special interest in the intersection between homes and sustainability, and is the author of the Living Small newsletter and two interior design books, The Little Book of Living Small and The Bunk Bed Book. She has written about home and design for nearly 20 years, and her work has appeared in many outlets, including Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful, Real Simple, and The Washington Post, as well as online publications and regional design magazines.